Wednesday, January 25, 2012

Tet Fiesta

Subtitle: Then There Were Two

For our next home stay we traveled to Mr. Bao's house.  His house is in the middle of a Red Zhao community sitting on the side of a mountain.  Unlike the prior home stay, the houses were much more spread out.  They formed a zig-zag line down the hill, lining the path of the small mountain streams that provide water.  

The house sits on a concrete slab and is made out of wood and bamboo with a thatched palm roof and is open to the air on top and on bottom. All of the beams inside are fitted together without fasteners.  Even the wooden shutters are cut to pivot without metal hinges. The houses are long rectangles, made mostly of shared space.  From the outside you can tell which end of the house holds the kitchen because the roof is stained black from the smoke of the wood fire used for cooking.  

Immediately as you walk in the front door there is a small shrine.  Because of the lunar new year, the shrine was completely decked out with food, lights, money, stalks of sugar cane, and brightly colored paper decorations.  We learned that the sugar cane is important so that the elderly ancestors can walk easily when they return for Tet. A large hutch containing a small, very old television identifies the living space.  There are a few partitions, but no real walls.  Elevated platforms line the edges of the house where bedding is laid at night. Thin curtains provide a small amount of privacy.  It wasn't quite clear to us how procreation would be possible with so little privacy, but there was no shortage of small children.   

Upon our arrival, our stellar guide instructed us to "enjoy the culture" and went to sleep off his hangover from the night before.  So much for having a translator.  After a little while the teenage children started preparing the food for dinner, which was a lot of fun to watch.  We shot some great video of the food prep. 

During the time that they were cooking, one of the men of the house started the prayers.  He prayed in front of the shrine for two hours, a special ritual for the new year celebration (a.k.a. Tet).  Tet is the most important holiday in Vietnam.  After the lunar new year, people take 7-10 full days off from work.  Many services are shut down as people return home to their villages. 

Before dinner started, many people from the village began to arrive.  We later learned that it is good luck to have visitors stay and that Mr. Bao invited many people to his house for dinner.  There were several tables set and lined with people.  When the prayers were finished, dinner was started.

Drinking locally made rice and/or corn liquor (basically moonshine seen above) is very important in the culture of the red Zhao people.  For every meal during Tet there are tiny shot glasses lining the large metal plate that holds dishes  Throughout the meal, people propose toasts and it is impossible not to participate without offending.  We developed a few strategies to try to keep from getting completely wasted - including filling our glasses with beer or coke before rice wine could be added.  At one point our attempts were thwarted and the liquor was mixed with coke and we taught our hosts a new word - cocktail.  The amount of alcohol consumed also leads to one of the main teen pastimes - driving scooters like maniacs, usually with at least three and sometimes four people per scooter.  

Our guide Dan had been bragging constantly throughout the trip about how much he could drink.  He would tell stories about drinking 7 liters between he and a friend, and boast "I'm a tank, they don't know, but I'm a tank". Throughout the meal Dan's gregarious boasting was becoming uncomfortable.  He would shout toasts to the entire room, something that Mr. Bao didn't even do.  Eventually, Dan proclaimed to us that he was drunk.  Ryan lightly teased him a bit saying that he was embellishing and more of a scooter tank than a big water tank.  Dan seemed offended that he was called-out, even in a joking manner.

Dinner went on for a bit more before the next proclamation from Dan.  He stated that we offended him and that we were disrespecting his culture.  He then proceeded to stand up and state that he was leaving.  He went outside and called Ahn Tuan, the company owner and informed him of his intention.  Tuan talked with Ryan and assured us that he would leave his own family's Tet celebration and join us for the remainder of the trip.  

Despite protests from us and assurances that we were joking; Dan put on his helmet and drunkenly rode off into the night.  When we returned to the house the tables had been cleared and Mr. Bao handed me a cell phone.  They had called one of their daughters, who told us in English that we should not worry and that we could stay in their house for the night.  The entire family was very understanding and gracious, especially because we don't think that they understood why Dan decided to leave.

From then on, we communicated mostly through pantomime and gestures.  It really wasn't much different from when Dan was there.

Ryan stayed up for awhile playing infinity blade on the iPad with some of the boys.  I crashed, sleeping under a massive pile of blankets to protect from the cold.


Heather said...

You kinda left us hanging on this one. Are you with a guide, or have you started a new life in this village? I feel like this is an international incident and I should be making calls to get you evacuated.

Lisa said...

soooo... still planning to see you on Friday, yes?

Marc Kohli said...

We are fine and will be returning as expected. Dan was the root of all of our problems, losing him was the best thing of the trip.