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New Year’s Eve in an alley in Vietnam

Monday, December 31, 2018, 17:35 GMT+7
New Year’s Eve in an alley in Vietnam
Ready for New Year? Photo: Tuoi Tre

My buddies were huddled over coffee on the last day of 2018, then one emerged from the pack and told me about a party that night. He said he would pick me up at 5:00 pm on the dot, as is usually the case when they are taking me somewhere. 

Things are not arranged in advance as we customarily do in “developed” countries, even New Year’s Eve isn’t planned much in advance. There is no “By the way, are you free 3 weeks from Saturday?” Doesn’t work like that here where spontaneity is the flavor.

I never know where we’re going but that doesn’t stop me. I pulled out my musty old motorbike helmet – it gives off an aroma somewhere between a well-travelled pair of running shoes and stinky cheese, but it was a donation from one of the gang, so it’s very dear to me.

I jumped on the back of the bike and away we went. Negotiating the traffic was a harrowing experience as always, so by the time we arrived at our destination I was ready for a beer. Or three.

I learned later that we were going to a friend’s house where their gang had kindly agreed to host the event, and we all chipped in a few dong to share the load.

This epic event took place in an alleyway in the center of Da Lat. Does it sound a bit sleazy? Not at all, that celebration was fit for a king! Somewhere around 15 tables were strategically placed in the alleyway with food and place settings. That comes to 150 people but if you heard us you’d think we were at least 1,500.

Just about every second, guests arrived with a case of beer so there was enough for the entire city center, with others carrying cakes and fruit which were put to the side so they wouldn’t interfere with the beer proceedings.

Admittedly, there were some logistical hiccups because lots of people live further along the alley and the event started at prime time early evening when many people are out and about. Not to worry, the tables were placed so that neighbors could weave their way through the party on their motorbikes and get home without upsetting the rhythm of the festivities.

An alleyway is the ideal party venue
An alleyway is the ideal party venue

The motorbikes zigged and zagged through the tables with guests politely moving aside to make way. It did get a bit dicey as the festivities wore on because people kept wobbling in the way of the motorbikes, but the drivers were on the lookout and there were no incidents. 

We all sat down, changing tables a couple of times to get just the right chemistry at each one. Of course I was the only white guy within half a mile – or more. That’s the way it always is and it makes it even more fun.

I swear the party was in full swing in three minutes flat.

There was no going through the motions and slow ramp-up the way we do at such functions in Western countries. People grabbed beers, plopped in large cylindrical-shaped chunks of ice, and got straight down to business. That’s the Vietnamese way.

And it was spectacular as always. I’ve been to lots of these celebrations with different themes and they’re always a laugh.

A guest is a guest in Vietnam, and any foreigner included is treated like royalty – I am never sure why. I was served and pampered the whole time without a break. Dishes were explained to me, serving and eating techniques dispensed with patience, my bowl constantly replenished. 

Whatever I didn’t scarf down right away was quickly discarded and replaced with the next offering. It amuses everyone to no end that I love all the food and will eat just about anything offered.

Technically-speaking, I was not invited and thus a gate-crasher, but friends of friends are automatically friends, so the welcome mat was rolled out. 

Vietnamese people are not uppity about their food – they know it’s top shelf but don’t look down their noses at us naive barbarians. They’ve been at it for over a thousand years so they know the drill very well, no need to impress anybody.

Chief perpetrator in the food program was my best friend, husband of the owner of the coffee shop I frequent. He has no idea that he’s my best friend – in fact we can barely talk to each other, but, boy oh boy, are we ever connected! He asks his wife for the English translations of various terms then mispronounces them with gusto.

I do the same jig in Vietnamese, asking her what various things mean, and we carry on that way, him on one side yapping in one ear, me into the other ear, while she tries to sort the whole mess out. 

Sometimes we meet people and know instantly that we’ll be good friends – this was one such case from day one. My bestie passes the most important test: “Would you want to be stuck in a foxhole in the middle of a war with this person?” Could you really count on him in the clutch? No doubt about it, he’s a star.

If you ever go to one of these parties, don’t be fooled by what’s on the table when you arrive. That food is just to whet your whistle, get the wheels in motion, so to speak. This event featured chicken, sticky rice, and a unique coconut-based dish.

At first glance I thought the coconut was bamboo shoots due to the tough-looking texture and woody appearance, but it was thinly sliced coconut tree bark, neutral in flavor, smooth, not chewy. (I already reported that I eat nearly anything.) There were shrimp and squid tossed together to make a heavenly dish which I fell in love with and may never forget.

Coconut-shrimp-squid concoction
Coconut-shrimp-squid concoction

And that was just the warm-up. Then came the squid hotpot followed by a dish that was laced with dates and mushrooms, both heavenly.

The tempo of the event was somewhat upset by the omnipresent lottery ladies, who always pop up at one point or another trying to flog those darned tickets. The ladies know that alcohol ruins judgement plus we were all in a festive mood, so they tried to wiggle in, but they were politely and firmly shooed away this time.

Guess whose table this was?
Guess whose table this was?

As proceedings wore on I was forced to partake in a couple of “cent pour cent” rituals, which means “100%” in French. Each participant must guzzle his beer down in one go. I’m a proficient drinker and can hold up with the best of them but I’m not much of a guzzler. One of my buddies – a skinny little guy who barely looks old enough to drink easily – beat me, twice. 

After about three hours people started leaving. That may seem strange to many Westerners but there are good reasons. First, Vietnamese people are hard workers and like to get going early in the day. For a lot of people there is no fixed weekend because many work six or seven days per week, so every day is a work day.

Secondly, why sit around and get hammered out of our brains? It’s our Western New Year, not theirs. Western New Year is perceived as a practice run for the real Lunar New Year in February, so while the Vietnamese will avidly celebrate just about anything, we did keep it somewhat toned down.

The evening was capped off by a brusque ride the wrong way on a one-way street. Flaunting the law had little or nothing to do with the beer consumed – such driving is common practice in the city center, which has a network of one-way thoroughfares that most drivers respectfully ignore.

My best friend was driving so I didn’t have a worry in the world.

Rick Ellis / Tuoi Tre News Contributor

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