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Tuesday, December 8, 2009

Dec 5-8: A Weekend with Miss Hang

Miss Hang, one of my Vietnamese friends in Bien Hoa is from Hanoi, & was in town visiting her family while I was in the area, so she invited me to her family's house for the weekend.

We drove a couple of hours from Hanoi out to the countryside where I was greeted by several people that I had met before at the wedding in October & at the death anniversary celebration in November. They warmly welcomed me, offering me bitter tea & making room for me on the sofa. No one spoke English, & of course I speak very little Vietnamese, so our conversation was full of silly gestures & facial expressions. We were all happy to see each other again.

It was getting late, so I was shown into a large room where there were five huge wooden beds draped with mosquito nets. The whole family (about 15 adults & children) slept in the same room, two or three people to each bed - Miss Hang shared hers with me.

The next morning I woke up at 6:00am. I had just enough time to take the above photo before the house came to life. Everyone started bustling around, sweeping the courtyard, making tea, killing chickens. It was a beehive of activity. I didn't suspect anything unusual until people started arriving on motorbikes heaped with folding tables & plastic chairs. Something big was about to happen.

Soon, some people I had never seen before (presumably neighbors) showed up, & we all sat around the folding tables in the courtyard drinking bitter tea together. These were traditional country folk. Many of the older women were chewing betel, their teeth dyed black, their lips bright red from the betel juice. The men smoked strong tobacco from a traditional ceramic bowl.

Then the food started coming - plates & plates of it. People came & went all day long, eating mass amounts of food that was constantly being prepared. More chickens were killed, & a few ducks too. Mounds of vegetables were washed, cut & boiled.

I still didn't know what the fuss was all about, but the family members had tied white scarves around their heads, leading me to believe this was some sort of death celebration. "Celebration" is definitely the correct word here. Everyone was laughing & boisterous; it was a joyous occasion.

In the afternoon I got a better idea of what was going on. Miss Hang took me out to the fields behind the house where there were four or five tombs. To the right were several curious mounds of dirt grown over with vegetation. A couple of the brothers were there with shovels in their hands. It turned out that the patriarch of the family, whose death we celebrated in November, was buried under one of the mounds, & they were going to dig him up & put him in his final resting place, one of the tombs to the left.

The women burned incense & paper offerings over the mound, & at exactly 2:07pm, the men started digging. The women wailed as if they were themselves dying, as the dirt was removed clump by clump. I stayed off to the side watching for about 20 minutes before Miss Hang said it was time to go back to the house. I was disappointed not to be able to see the whole thing happen.

Back at the house, more food, more bitter tea... & soon the rice wine started flowing. "Một, hai, ba, YO!" We spent all evening drinking & eating, celebrating Grandpa. When I finally went to bed, the party was still going strong, & continued at a low rumble throughout the night. I awoke at 2:00am to strange chopping sounds & groggily went to investigate. Turns out they had killed a pig & were dismembering it. I went back to bed.

The next morning it was time for me to leave. A couple of friends of the family were going back to Hanoi & offered to take me with them. This was the last time I'll see Miss Hang. Our goodbye was hurried & without ceremony, as is her character.

(NOTE: Because of the language barrier, I can only make guesses based on observations. I have searched online for an explanation of this tradition, but haven't been able to find anything. If you know more about it, please post a comment!)

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