My sister in Can Tho is an integral part of my life in Vietnam. Were it not for the love and and care that her entire family has shown me over the last three years, I would not have returned to this relatively small Mekong Delta city.
She’s an English teacher, my sister, which means that since returning to Can Tho I have spent my fair share of nights at her home both entertaining and conversing with her students. And while the majority of my classroom chats have seemed more like lectures than actual discussions, some of chi Huyen’s students and I have become friends.
This was never more apparent than on Thursday, when a so-proclaimed secret event was organized by chi Huyen’s entire class for me. What I thought would be a simple night of coffee and laughter turned out to be a surprise birthday party for yours truly.
To say that I was shocked is an understatement. My birthday is not for another three weeks, but because I will be in Ho Chi Minh City and Nha Trang for the better part of two weeks during July, Huyen’s class decided to treat me to my first official birthday gathering in Vietnam.
I was at the same time overjoyed and somewhat confused by the lengths to which my new-found friends went to treat me this week. There was cake, a massive tray of banh xeo, Vietnamese egg rolls, spring rolls, Vietnamese tea, and the obligatory fruit offerings to polish off our feast. The joy was of course for the true southern hospitality that Vietnamese in the Mekong Delta display to foreigners. The confusion, however, was that I didn’t know what was considered normal for a host of a birthday party in Vietnam to do.
Food and party culture in Vietnam is something that I have not yet grown used to. As the “owner” of my home and host of the party, I was expected to begin eating before everyone else, eat quickly and furiously, and spend little time tending to the organization of the party and maintenance of the house. Of course I did the exact opposite, inviting my friends to begin eating before me, cleaning up after them, and talking and observing more than actually eating.
“Why aren’t you eating?” I was asked countless numbers of times. “I can’t eat quickly” was the most honest and simple answer that I gave, but this only made my Vietnamese friends worry that the food was not delicious or that I was not enjoying my time at the party.
Not a soul wanted to touch his or her food before me, and even upon imploring my guests that it is perfectly normal, and sane, for guests to be invited to eat before a house owner in America, I was told that while I am American, I live in Vietnam and should do as they do. The poetic justice was that it wasn’t a week ago that I taught the class about the saying “When in Rome…”
We talked, we laughed, and we ate more than we could stomach. No chairs were used, no knife was presented with which to cut the cake, and the entire birthday party seemed as though it was little more than a gathering of family members. This is, I believe, the heart of social gatherings in Vietnam. Party formality as we see it in America does not exist, and the food, not the conversation, was in our case the driving force behind the night.
I am truly a lucky man. I would have rather been nowhere else last Thursday than in Vietnam with a large group of my sister’s English students and my sister’s family. The majority of locals in this city treat me like an alien, but those who see me as Philip, or “Phi-Lip”, constantly reaffirm the decision that I made to return.
After my birthday party ended, a good friend helped me clean my entire kitchen, and she even mopped the floor to boot. As she scrubbed and I rinsed my dishes, I told her that the party was the nicest thing anyone in Vietnam had done for me in a very long time. Her response was direct, but so simple: “This is the Vietnamese way, Philip.”