This is a true story of Marty Hoares’ first TET in Vietnam. It is entertaining and informative. It will give you an understanding of the culture and how Vietnamese celebrate TET holiday. I hope you enjoy it.
I have his approval to post to my website.
Author: Marty Hoare
My first couple of days before the TET holiday I was sitting alone in a bistro/bar in Hanoi after a busy workday having a cold beer. Having recently arrived in Vietnam, all those years ago, and not knowing anything about the national holiday, I was wondering how I would spend the break.
I happened to notice a young woman sitting alone a few tables over so I decided to invite her to my table for a drink and some chit-chat.
One thing led to another and before I knew it I was being invited to her hometown of Viet Tri for the holidays. Of course, I immediately accepted.
That night at home I was busily packing for the trip and looking at a map trying to work out where the devil this place Viet Tri was. Miss Thuy and I met the following morning back at the bar to share a cab to head off to a place I had never heard of or could find on a map.
We had a lovely chat on the way where I learned quite a bit about my new home Vietnam. Keeping the conversation convivial I asked a lot of questions. One was, hey Miss Thuy, what are those strange words on the back of that delivery van in front of us. Miss Thuy let out a polite little giggle and explained that “bao cao su ” was the Vietnamese word for condom.
We shared a pregnant pause (no pun intended) before moving our conversation on to the brick factories that lined the highway. I learned that Viet Tri was famous for the mythical Hung King, was home to the longest Main Street in Vietnam, housed international tennis, ping pong, and swimming stadiums, and was notable for a special type of very expensive fish delicacy due to the 3 rivers that intersected in this booming agricultural regional city to the North of Hanoi.
Arriving at Miss Thuy’s home I was greeted by fighting cocks, a special needs brother, and elderly mum and dad, all standing in the yard overflowing with bonsai, awaiting our arrival. Having exchanged pleasantries with the family I was ushered into the “good room” where dad motioned for me to sit on what looked like a chair fit for a king.
An excruciatingly uncomfortable place to sit, made obviously by hand from deep redwood, adorned with carvings of dragons. Dad pumped a hot water thermos, dribbled a little water into a tiny porcelain cup, swished it about, then tossed the remains onto the floor then filled it to the brim with the most tepid horribly tasting tea I had ever tasted.
I smiled graciously. Dad was very engaging, very chatty. I was to find out later that I was the first Ong Tay (Mr. Foreigner) to visit their moldy abode. Even before I had sat down mum and Miss Thuy had hurried off, somewhere, leaving me with dad.
He couldn’t speak a word of English and the only words of Vietnamese I could speak (poorly) were Karm On (thank you) and bao cao su (condom). Looking around the room at the array of photo-shopped gregariously framed pictures I quickly realized that with all the gold stars on dad’s army uniform he must have been someone pretty important.
In the good room, there was a wooden framed double bed with a bamboo mat in one corner, more redwood furniture in the center with another double bed with a matching bamboo mat in the far corner. Pride of place in the center of the room was a 50-inch flat-screen TV sitting above what looked like a karaoke machine with the biggest pair of speakers I’d ever seen in my life.
I wondered which bed was mine. All of a sudden dad jumped up, launched into a dictionary of Vietnamese chatter before bowing down and handing me an envelope. I accepted the envelope with a poorly spoken Karm On. He continued excitedly shouting at me whilst pointing at the envelope. I again said Karm On. Not really sure what to do next so I carefully opened the envelope to find a brand new crisp 100,000 Vietnam dong note.
I stood up, bowed, thanked him for his kind generosity, and slipped the envelope into my pocket.I didn’t really understand his change of facial expression from that of glee to ashen gray. Miss Thuy and her mum bounded into the room screaming An Com (eat-eat) ushering us out of the good room and into a not-so-good room where I was greeted with a veritable buffet of traditional Vietnamese delicacies.
Dad made his way in, still with an ashen gray look about him. The food was amazing. Desperately trying not to look like a starving kid from Africa I scoffed down all but 3 of the 12 deep-fried spring rolls on the table. Miss Thuy politely explained what the array of dishes were while in between mouthfuls all I could say was Karm On Karm On (thank you thank you).
Dad was still, confusingly, not very convivial. After lunch, we returned to the good room for more atrocious tea. Just as mum disappeared to tidy up the lunch plates Miss Thuy said, so my dad told you about his Senior Ping-Pong tournament he won this morning! You know, he’s the best senior Ping-Pong player in Viet Tri! Wow, I said. That’s fantastic.
Miss Thuy then said, please give him back the 100,000 Vietnamese dong you have in your pocket as it was his prize money for winning the tournament.
Oh shit. I handed the envelope back to dad as his look of ashen gray became slightly rosier. Once the smile had come back on dad’s face after having returned his Ping-Pong winnings, Miss Thuy informed me that we were going for a spin around town.
Pointing out all the hot spots in Viet Tri didn’t take very long at all. Next thing I knew we were at the tennis club. It was really quite amazing. International standard and it was busy. I had no idea tennis was so popular in these parts.
All the brand names were represented. Adidas, Nike, Saucony, and of course Gucci. Miss Thuy plonked me down with a few of her buddies who immediately ordered a crate of warm Heineken and some beef jerky snacks while regaling me with tennis stories.
I even got to meet the local champ, Mr. Cuong. (More about him later).Once we’d finished the crate of warm beer I was again being whisked off to a cafe for some traditional coffee and more chit-chat. During a lull in the conversation, I quietly mentioned to Miss Thuy about the sleeping arrangements.
I was by now somewhat concerned about the two beds in the good room, both clad with a bamboo mat. Wondering which one we would be sleeping on and if mum and dad would be in the other.
But I was actually slightly more concerned with the toilet facilities. I found it during lunch. It was down a little path off the kitchen (if you could call it a kitchen) towards the back of the moldy house where you stood on the bank of a small rivulet and did your number ones. God only knew what you’d do for number twos!
Miss Thuy assured me that sleeping arrangements were all taken care of and I wasn’t to worry about a thing. I worried, especially about the toilet, as number twos would ultimately catch up with me. Apparently, we had to hurry off to get ready for a big night out in the metropolis of Viet Tri.
Back on the scooter we went. We pulled up at the best hotel in town where she ushered me to reception. Next, I knew I was in their best room, told to freshen up and be in the lobby in an hour or 7pm whichever came first. Miss Thuy hurried off.
I was collected at 8pm (Vietnamese 7pm) to be scooted to the only nightclub in town. It was going off. Very shortly after our arrival another crate of warm Heineken was dropped at our feet. Illicit substances were freely available and embraced by the scores of underage teens wearing all but, well very little really, while the loudest V-pop music rattled every bone in my body.
After a few hours of deafening V-Pop, and endless repeats of ABBA, and me smiling at the incomprehensible conversation, by midnight there weren’t too many revelers left standing. Bouncers were busy sweeping bodies out the door. Young boys were busily arguing over which one of the scantily clad teen females they were going to leave with while my new friends were arranging tomorrow’s tennis tournament and whose team I would be joining.
We left the club. It was a lovely night to be on the back of the scooter, somewhat romantic. I remember Miss Thuy looking rather ravishing in her little black number while we scooted at a terrifying pace, and quite drunk, around the back blocks of Viet Tri under the moonlit sky with warmish wind blowing through our hair.
After I had removed a mouthful of her black locks from my mouth I went in for the mandatory hug around her waist from my uncomfortable and precarious position on the back of the scooter. All of a sudden we were back at the best hotel in town where my now firmly clasped hands were unceremoniously slapped away from my thought-to-be-dates midriff and dumped in front of a locked hotel.
As Miss Thuy sped off she yelled, pick you up at 8. Having woken up quite early in the best room in the best hotel in town, I wandered around the corner to Viet Tri’s central market to buy a suitable outfit for the tennis tournament.
New outfit, a couple of heart starter Cafe Sua das’ (iced milk coffee) later, and a watery bowl of Pho I returned to the best hotel in town to change.
Miss Thuy collected me at Vietnamese 7am, which was actually 8am, and off we went to the stadium. Mr. Cuong (the local tennis champ) was warming up and Mr. Duy welcomed me to his doubles team. I did look rather fetching in my firm-fitting sky blue polyester fake Adidas branded t-shirt and even firmer fitting sun yellow fake Nike shorts finished off with a firm fitting pair of real genuine copy fake Dunlop tennis shoes.
After a few minutes of end-to-end warm-ups Mr. Duy tossed the ball to me and said, you serve. Not having played for quite some time I lined my left foot up towards the center of the baseline (as they do on TV), gripped my racquet like my life depended on it (as they do on TV), and lightly tossed the ball skyward (as they do on TV) and prepared myself for a first point winning ACE (as they do on TV).
By now a decent size crowd had gathered to watch Mr. Cuong (the local champ), Miss Thuy, Mr. Duy, and the slightly uncomfortable-looking Mr. Foreigner play a doubles tournament. My right arm moved skyward in perfect unison with the falling ball and WHACK. I belted that ball like a real pro (as they do on TV).
Within a split-second of smashing the ball the crowd of onlookers went wild (similar to as they do on TV). On hearing the wails of Oh My Gods I felt a rush of adrenalin surge through my body. Although there was no ice offered with the crate of warm beer on the previous day, copious amounts of ice mysteriously appeared and was busily applied to Mr. Duy’s left eye, which in an amazingly short amount of time, had blown up to the size of a golf ball.
My perfectly executed ACE struck the edge of my racquet and went straight into my teammates eye (not as it does on TV). The doubles tournament was over. Another crate of warm beer was plonked at our feet where Mr. Duy, nursing his now very swollen eye, and I sat to watch Mr. Cuong (the local champ) and Miss Thuy play a game of singles.
Having lived abroad for most of my adult life I find this time of year in Vietnam or wherever I happened to be at this time of year, a time of reflection. Nearly 15 years after my First TET in Vietnam I’m once again using this downtime to reflect on some of the many memories Vietnam has afforded me.
Miss Thuy is still in my life as is her Cuban Italian husband and their child. Mr. Cuong (the local tennis champ) has done very well in business and is still married to the mother of his two children, and still lives in Viet Tri, and is still the local tennis champ.
I was to find out some time after meeting him all those years ago that he and Miss Thuy were having a clandestine relationship. This may explain why I was housed in (the best hotel in town) and not on one of the two bamboo mat-clad beds in Miss Thuy’s parent’s good room.
Their relationship was kept very secretive until his wife turned up unexpectedly at tennis one afternoon and found the pair of them sharing more than some end-to-end warm-ups. The wife made a terrible scene at Miss Thuy’s mum and dad’s house where the look of ashen gray returned once again to her Ping-Pong champion fathers face.
Mum and dad are still with us and Miss Thuy has put her tennis days behind her and has since taken up golf. I can only imagine why her Ping-Pong champion father hugged me so tightly at his daughter’s wedding reception a few years back where she married a Cuban Italian.
I guess her father’s overly long hug was either because she hadn’t married the Mr. Foreigner who stole his Ping-Pong winnings or that he had a son-in-law that wasn’t already married. Or maybe it was due to his daughter knowing about “bao cao su” (condoms) and hence, not totally embarrassing her family by birthing a child to a married man.
Mr. Duy is now also married with children. Although we keep in touch we’ve never had another tennis match but, even after all these years, his left eye still has a visible little scar from that now-infamous tennis tournament. We don’t mention the spot on his eye.
My tennis attire has long been donated to the homeless, although it did take some convincing for them to accept it. I guess sun yellow form-fitting shorts aren’t a popular look when you’re homeless. The real genuine fake copy Dunlop tennis shoes fell apart long ago.
The only nightclub in Viet Tri is now a popular cafe haunt for young teens. I guess from the thick smell of herbs billowing out onto the street the young scantily clad teens still manage to find their chosen substances.
I have returned to Viet Tri a number of times over the years. The 26 kilometer, and longest Main Street in Vietnam, leads you to the Temple of the Hung King, a lovely place to spend a summer’s day, except for the ridiculous amount of steps you have to climb to burn a bit of cheap smelling incense.
The tennis and swimming and Ping-Pong stadiums are still standing and I even got to try the local fish delicacy aptly named, 3 rivers.
The Best Hotel in Town is still there although at $17 a night one shouldn’t be too sarcastic. Over the years I have met and become friends with untold numbers of Vietnamese. Business owners, CEOs, bankers, lawyers, developers, millionaires, farmers, millionaire farmers, taxi drivers, teachers, students, and wait-staff.
Through to my 15-year relationship with the fellow behind the Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum in Hanoi who cleans and repairs my shoes. His two kids, who I’ve watched grow up while playing on the pavement while their dad works tirelessly to earn an income for his family, are now both at international-type schools preparing for their future.
I often look at them and wonder what their future holds. And to the lovely elderly lady, with the most welcoming smile imaginable, who sells me my morning cafe sua da (iced milk coffee), who once shared with me her very private love letters she received from a French soldier she had an intense romantic relationship with during colonization.
One challenging memory that always brings a tear to my eye is of the beautiful little Mai, a 6-year-old girl who I was helping learn to read who has since passed as a result of the dreaded AIDS virus she contracted from her drug-addicted parents.
She loved Dr. Seuss. God rest her little soul. Her parents are now both clean and are living in a sweet little house built with funds raised by the local community. They continue to live under the cloud of AIDS.
I can’t honestly remember how many weddings I’ve been to or how many of their kids now refer to me as uncle. I’ve lost some dear friends over the years and have gained many new ones.
My beautiful wife Thuy Duong and our 13-year-old princess are now central figures in my life and next week we will come together with immediate and extended family and friends to celebrate Vietnam’s national holiday.
But this year we will celebrate TET in Melbourne. I sincerely hope that as visitors to Vietnam you amass as many fond memories as I have over the years and that they become an important part of your life as they have mine
If you are looking to come to Vietnam these are the type of experiences you can still enjoy. The people on whole are friendly and welcoming. And if you make the effort to interact with them you will be enriched by the experience.
If you liked this, you may also like Martys take on the ESL industry in Vietnam
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