4th FEBRUARY 2019
I wake up rested on New Year’s Eve and drift downstairs for a breakfast which is served on the Homestay’s small outdoors balcony. I’m the only diner this morning, so I have the full attention of the household cats and kittens as I eat, with all of them meowing round my ankles persistently and hoping to be fed. Candy makes me a lovely omelette with tomato, red pepper and onion through it, served up on a sizzling iron hot-plate to keep it warm. My hosts are putting on a New Year meal this evening for all the Homestay guests before we join the midnight crowds on the riverside to watch Đồng Hới’s fireworks display. Their remaining guests are all due to arrive later this afternoon. For now though, being the only patron seems to work in my favour, as Tung asks if I would like to join them at his mother’s house to celebrate New Year along with his family. Bloody Right I do ! I didn’t think I’d be invited into a Vietnamese household for New Year, so that’s an unexpected bonus and I do feel very priveleged to have been asked.
We all pile into Tung’s car and drive about ten minutes to his parent’s home, where I conform to the usual ‘Shoes Off at the Door’ requirement. The house is buzzing with family and neighbours who all welcome me with a polite ‘Hello’ and a warm handshake. I’m also introduced to Tung and Candy’s children, and I can’t help thinking that my hosts look far too young to be the parents of a ten and a seven year old. The ten year old boy is into football, and tells me he supports Spurs because Son Heung Min from South Korea plays for them. The girl is very smiley and cute, laughing infectiously each time I do a fist pump with her. I’m invited into the kitchen to ‘help’ unpack blocks of sticky rice from their banana leaf packaging, but I’m painfully slow and really not very good at it. Tung must notice this and saves me by saying I should go to his cousin’s house so I can meet all of them too.
Tung’s father drives me through a maze of narrow streets on the back of his motorbike, and we arrive just as all the cousins are about to begin their meal. More introductions, more smiles and more difficult to pronounce names for me to remember. A large square mat is laid in the middle of the lounge room, and we all sit on the floor around it so we can eat from bowls in the middle. There’s about eight of us tucking into chicken portions, whole fish, rice, noodles, beef, spring rolls, soups, vegetables, curry, salads, pickles. There are also a number of little dipping plates containing fish sauce, plum sauce, hot chilli sauce as well as salts, chillies, garlic and halved limes. I’m really not sure where to begin, especially with chopsticks and with all eyes in the room watching me. I needn’t have worried though as Tung’s father helps by picking pieces of food up and depositing them on my plate for me.
So far all the men have been drinking beer, until the head of the house gets out his home made rice wine and starts pouring shots. However, this concoction tastes more like a weak whisky, bearing no similarity whatsoever to wine. Or rice for that matter. I’m not a whisky fan, but I still chuck the shots back anyway as I don’t want to appear impolite or let the side down. This wiry, mid-forties bloke with a thin moustache keeps pouring shots for himself, Tung’s father and me in what feels like two minute intervals. I have a feeling he’s trying to pit himself against the Westerner and get me drunk. I keep downing the shots nonetheless, but also stuffing myself with food to try and soak up the alcohol. We’re onto our third bottle of rice wine when Tung’s father decides to take a back seat, which is just as well because he’ll be driving me back on his motorbike later. It’s about mid-day by this point and I’m already half pissed.
I manage to keep pace with the boss man, who by now is becoming increasingly animated and using his daughter as translator between us. When he asks how many bottles of rice wine I think I could drink, Tung’s father decides it’s time to make our excuses and depart. We return to their house and immediately head over the lane to their opposite neighbours, where the whole process starts again, only this time outdoors. More introductions, more sitting round a mat, more gorgeous food and yet more alcohol. Mercifully, the only beveridge on offer this time is beer. One of Tung’s mates keeps downing his small glass of beer in one go and urges me to do the same. We chink glasses and he shouts ‘One Hundred Percent !’ each time we drain the glass. I’m going to end up wrecked if I carry on like this, so I make sure to take on plenty of food as well as alcohol. In between beer, this drunk, bespectacled bloke gives me a fifteen minute tutorial on how to use chopsticks properly, which is a bit galling as I thought my technique had been improving lately.
The host lady at this house is continually offering me spring rolls as she thinks that’s the only Vietnamese food that Westerners like. As soon as the bowl of spring rolls is empty, she disappears inside and returns with more to offer me. It becomes a bit of a standing joke as the afternoon wears on, and she seems genuinely surprised that I’ll eat pretty much everything else that’s on offer. It’s been a real eye-opener for me to be invited into these homes to see how Vietnamese celebrate New Year. They’ve all been really welcoming, sharing their food and making a huge effort to communicate with me despite the language barriers. I’m also a bit surprised by just how much alcohol is being consumed. I somehow didn’t expect people to be quite so reckless with their drinking here, even if it is New Year.
After our whirlwind tour of friends and relatives we head back to the Homestay about 3.00pm. I go upstairs with the intention of napping before our evening meal, but I don’t get much rest as my head is spinning so much. By 6.00pm I’m back downstairs eating, drinking and having a chat with the new guests – three French guys who are teaching in Hanoi and a trio of older Canadians. This is a far more civilised gathering than this afternoon’s shenanigans, with Candy putting on a delicious spread of food and, thankfully, a lot less alcohol.
About 11.00pm myself and two of the Canadians walk down to the riverfront to nab a spot for watching the fireworks. After a while I become aware of a raging thirst, no doubt a result of my earlier alcohol consumption. I wander off to try and find a bottle of water, but my search looks to be in vain as everywhere appears to be closed now. A lap of the little settlement leads me to a shop that is just about to close it’s doors at 11.45pm. I buy a large, chilled bottle of water, drink about a third of it without pausing and then marvel at the fact that I’ll be their final customer of the year. By the time I walk back to the river, I find that Tung and Candy have brought all the remaining Homestay guests along with them for the festivities.
At midnight fireworks start shooting up from the main bridge over the river, with greens, reds and yellows being reflected in the dark waters and over traditional wooden fishing boats. At one point during the display I hear a deafening screech behind us, before a piercingly loud rocket screams past our heads and bounces on the river in front. Bloody Hell, that was close ! We all step back from the river and move across the street so we are safely covered by buildings for the rest of the display. Twenty minutes later the official fireworks are over, but the city’s residents are keen to carry on celebrating. There are bangs, flashes and explosions all around us, including a bunch of firecrackers thrown from a first floor balcony into the lane we are walking along. The place sounds like a war zone.
It’s only when we all return that Candy realises that their dog, Moon, hasn’t come back with us. The poor thing must have been traumatised by all the noise and has gone to lie low for a while. Tung gets his motorbike and goes out around 1.30am to look for her. I go upstairs to a soundtrack of popping fireworks and with the beginnings of a banging headache. It’s been a brilliant day though. I’ve loved taking part and being able to see how normal Vietnamese celebrate their Lunar New Year. Tomorrow is the first day of the Year of the Pig, which I’m taking to be a good omen for the rest of my trip as that is also the same year I was born under.