Every few weeks, there’s a special occasion among my entourage in Da Lat. Birthdays, anniversaries of departed loved ones, and even large lottery wins all call for a team evening.
Recently we had one such get-together, which for the most part followed the same rhythm as them all: nearly everyone arrives fashionably late, there’s enough delicious food and beer to sink a ship, and, once all are present the party starts in two seconds flat.
It’s as if there is a starter’s pistol fired off in the background: we sit around chatting, then all at once there is a flurry of activity as glasses, beers, and ice are doled out to the gang.
Once the gathering is underway, it’s customary for guests to shuffle around tables until they get the right chemistry at each table. Tables are focused on friendships, some on relatives, and others are heavily focused on the celebration at hand.
Our table was focused on the cases of beer piled up by the entrance. I should have known what the underlying theme was, but I was caught up in the camaraderie of the festivities and the jostling for positions.
One mouth-watering course was grilled whole chicken with sticky rice. Marinated to perfection, then cooked just right. It was the first time whole grilled chicken had been served at one of these events. I would have remembered had we eaten it before because as it turned out the chicken shaped the course of the evening.
Usually, the gang tries to get me to drink more beer by goading me into guzzling battles with the objective of sucking back your entire glass in one go, not an easy feat for me, so that tactic never goes far.
The Chief Perpetrator (we’ll refer to him as “Perp” here the same way police label suspects) is a scrawny young guy who must weigh all of 65 kilos soaking wet. Appears to be a real lightweight but, ohhhh how looks can be deceiving! He can really knock back the beer - I haven’t got a hope of keeping up with him.
Perp and I know each other well - he’s one of the first people I met upon dropping anchor here nearly a couple of years ago.
His real name - get a load of this - is “Elvis." He maybe the only person in Da Lat, Lam Dong Province named Elvis. He has a Vietnamese given name as well as a few nicknames which I can never recall, pronounce correctly, nor even come close, so I always use Elvis.
Oddly, my name is very similar when it comes out in Vietnamese: forget “Rick," almost nobody gets that right - it’s that darned “R” at the beginning that just doesn’t fit the Vietnamese mouth. Most local people just skip Rick altogether and start battling with my surname “Ellis."
Unfortunately, there is the same pronunciation problem with the letter “L." So my name comes out somewhere in between “Erris,” “Ervis," “Eric," and “Elvis," depending on how well the speaker can pronounce English language letters “L” and “R."
So the story of our very similar given names is one reason that made us instant friends when I first came to Da Lat.
The other twist in all this is he helped me lose my lottery virginity soon after my arrival in the city. I never played lottery, the odds seemed dramatically in favour of the house, but in our favourite coffee shop the vendors are always hovering over us customers trying to get us to buy, so I confess I was mildly curious.
Perp offered me my first-ever lottery ticket in Vietnam, and naturally I won VND100,000! I was ecstatic, thinking it was going to be a breeze going forward. Put down 10k and win 100k with some degree of regularity. Piece of cake.
Since that day I’ve blown millions on those bloody tickets and have won humble amounts exactly twice. Later I concluded that winning tickets could be a joke - a day-old ticket that Perp knew was a winner? That theory goes well with his twisted sense of humour, but the truth will never be revealed.
Perp admitted upon arrival at this event that he had already consumed five cans of beer elsewhere. That’s a warm-up for him, so I should have avoided him right away, but he parked himself right next to me, chicken plot already etched on his mind, no doubt.
So we polished off that grilled chicken, which was absolutely delightful and moved on to other courses of food.
Suddenly, Perp produced the skull of the chicken we had just devoured, which he must have discretely snapped off when nobody was looking. Perhaps his wing man, Mr. Long, decapitated the poor chicken - well possible since he was certainly part of the conspiracy.
The chicken’s beak was pried open as if ready to squawk, and the head was perfectly browned, having been grilled to perfection. Perp impaled the head with a chopstick upward through its neck, then planted the chopstick with the mounted skull in an almost empty can of beer. Not to worry, the beer was not wasted, we just needed to provide temporary ballast so the can wouldn’t topple over.
He held the can out toward the middle of the table, which was originally set for 10 guests but of course in true Vietnamese fashion there were at least 15 people around the table. (Vietnamese people like to get close to each other but they still holler as if they were far apart. Don’t ask why.)
Then Perp took the chicken head delicately and spun it around like a top, quickly enough to generate several revolutions.
Then the head stopped with that open beak pointing straight at me!
To my surprise, that meant I had won - or lost - depending on how you look at it, and was obliged to guzzle my entire glass in one go. It didn’t dawn on me that the chances of me winning (losing?) in the very first round were fairly slim given all the people at the table - I was too busy keeping an eye on Perp to notice.
Anyway, I guzzled away, facing some criticism for having ice in my glass, which displaces beer, but I can’t help that because the mere thought of warm beer nauseates me.
Then he spun that head again, even faster, and damned if it didn’t stop with that chicken staring right at me again! I obliged again but it was a struggle to gulp all that beer down.
Away he went for a third spin but I watched closely, sensing something sinister. After a couple of legitimate revolutions, I noticed Perp tilted the can ever so slightly in my direction so when it started to slow down it would point at me each time!
I should have known all along he was up to something. He’s the type that his parents could never let escape from their sight as a child or he would quickly be up to no good. Mischievous is an understatement.
The chicken head game was promptly abandoned as soon as I discovered it was rigged, with me three beers ahead (behind?) the rest of the table.
I should have known better than to take my eyes off Perp Elvis for even a second, and vowed to be on my guard for the next celebration.
My advice is next time you’re invited to a local party, put your radar up if grilled chickens start appearing and there is a potential trickster at your table!