Monday, January 11, 2010

Christmas, in Vietnam, part II (with Freakes)

      The big plan for Christmas Eve in Hanoi is to spend it with our friends the Freakes.  Hedley Freake (sorry folks, that’s his real name—and yes, he’s English) is another of the Fulbright scholars, just like me, with the difference that he’s smart, mature, and doesn’t make stuff up on the job just to see if people will believe him.  He, his Minnesotan wife, and his twin teenaged sons are also in Vietnam, convinced by our thoughtful arguments that there’s no better place to spend the holidays than in an emerging communist country with few if any pollution controls. 

Right around the corner from our hotel is a restaurant called the The Green Mango.  Lonely Planet describes the Mango as “probably Hanoi’s hippest hang-out” with “a real vibe as well as great cooking.  The stunning dining rooms, compete with rick silk drapes, evoke the feel of an opium den while the huge rear courtyard comes into its own on summer nights.”   The food, the guide continues, is “mod-Asian fusion.”  I’m tempted to make a joke about that, but really it’s kind of been done for me, so I won’t bother.   

Anyhow, hip, vibe-seeking opium hound that she is, Ellen has suggested we all go to the Green Mango for a nice but quiet Christmas dinner. 

The Freakes, foolishly, agree. 

Standing outside the restaurant, we scope out the menu.  It seems safe:  there’s pizza for Lucy and Jamie, something that used to go “baah” for Daddy, and Asian-type greeny stuff for everybody else.  Stepping inside, we ask the woman behind the bar if there’s a table available.  She smiles and asks if we have a reservation.  We look at one another.  It’s maybe six o’clock on a Thursday evening. 

“No,” one of us says. 

The woman frowns.  Reaching under the bar, she pulls out a large black book, the kind of thing kings used to use to write down the names of everyone in the fiefdom who should have their head lopped off.  Opening it, she flips through a page or two.  “How many?” she says, after a moment.


She stares at us.  In New York, of course, this is the point where the maitre d’ makes that funny sort of sheep-gutting noise through his nose and says, “Nine?  With no reservation?  On Christmas Eve?  What are you—?” ending the sentence with one of those colorful descriptions that makes movies about New York prison life so much fun to watch with young children. 

She doesn’t say any of this, of course, because it’s Asia, and because we clearly are such a pathetic bunch of losers that there’d be no real fun in her mocking us.  Instead what she does is consult with one or two of the other restaurant staff, and then suggest that they might have a private room upstairs that should suit our purposes. 

I take this to mean that they’re too embarrassed to have us be seen the by the other customers, but the rest of the gang thinks we should check it out, so we proceed up the stairs to a large room at the front of the restaurant.  On the face of it, it’s nice:  a long table stretches down the middle, covered with a white cloth and surrounded by tall, black, leather chairs.  The room is large and nicely lit:  atmosphere, but not too much, just enough to smoke your Christmas opium in relative privacy. 

Overall, though, it feels a bit like a padded cell.  The walls and floor and ceiling are all the same shade of trendy blue-black gray, and whoever designed the acoustics must have been a worked in radio, because you could shout at the top of your lungs in there and the sound wouldn’t travel much more than an inch beyond the tip of your nose. 

“No,” Elizabeth and I say almost immediately.  Standing in there feels like being in a—well, I’ve already used padded cell, so let me move up—or down?— to mausoleum. 

The hostess looks at us.  She’s known us all of 3.1 minutes, and already it’s clear she’s got us sussed out as the biggest pains in the asses imaginable.  I feel bad about this, of course, but, well, I’m sort of used to it, and when it comes to Christmas Eve and being with friends, I’d rather not spend dinner wondering if I’m about to be an extra in Vietnam’s hidden-camera, real-life version of Twilight. 

“Well,” she says.  “Perhaps I could put you in back.  It would take a few minutes, though, as we’d need to re-arrange some tables.”  She places emphasis on these last words, as though to hint that, perhaps, even stupid people without reservations have manners enough not to ask busy restaurant staff to go through a lot of trouble on one of the biggest business nights of the year.

But we don’t.  Elizabeth and I check out the “back.”  It’s gorgeous, like an Aladdin fairy-tale:  plush purple cushions, elegant chairs, and huge swooshes of brightly colored silk strung across the two-story ceiling.  “Oh my,” we both gush.  “This is great.  This is what we want.  This is just lovely.” 

So we’re escorted back to the foyer and asked to take a seat while a crew of fourteen comes in with cranes and loading derricks and re-arranges the entire restaurant to suit the whimsies of one pathetic group of people too stupid to—have I mentioned this?—make reservations. 

Fortunately for us, there’s a real-live Santa near the front door, a twenty-something Vietnamese boy with a round face, round eyes, and a rather thin strap-on beard.  He’s obviously the fattest man they could find and still only a quarter my girth in his red suit with white cotton-wool across his belly.  Over one shoulder he grips a red felt bag in his brown hand. 

“Well hello!” I say to him.  “How are you?   Ho!  Ho!  Ho!” 

He looks at me out of the corner of one eye, smiling a little nervously from behind his beard. 

“HO! HO!” I say again, giving him my biggest grin and patting my belly—something that, in public, I’ve never done before ever in my life, nor ever intend to do again.

“Dad,” says Will, standing beside me, “I think you’re going to make him cry.”

And indeed, Santa does seem a little fearful of the shiny white-faced man making dying seal noises at him. 

We wait for maybe fifteen minutes before being led out to the table, where we’re each presented with narrow sheets of cardboard festively trimmed and listing a half-dozen items.  It takes us a minute to figure out what’s going on. 

“It’s a set menu,” Hedley says.

“For tonight,” says Elizabeth.

Sure enough:  gone is the variety of pasta and Asian dishes listed on the street menu outside.  In their place are a number of distinctly Christmasy dishes:  mould wine, chicken with cranberry sauce, mashed potatoes.  All nicely priced at—

“Thirty-five dollars!” says Ellen.

Now to be fair, thirty-five bucks isn’t much to pay for a five- or six-course dinner on a holiday evening.  Bear in mind, though, that the items listed on the regular menu all ran from 60,000-180,000 Vietnam dong, roughly three to nine US dollars.  The whole time we’d been in the People’s Republic, Ellen and I had never spent more than twenty-five dollars—to feed the whole family. 

All of us look at each other.  Any other time, our next action would be clear:   we’d hand the menus back, apologize profusely, and move on to another restaurant, one that didn’t charge the equivalent of a Vietnamese schoolteacher’s annual salary for a slice of chicken. 

Tonight, though, we’ve already pushed the limit:  no reservations, a large group, rejecting the first table offered, causing the relocating of various pieces of furniture.  We’ve all but asked them to rename the restaurant to accommodate us, and frankly, Hedley’s sons and I spent most of the time in the lobby waiting for the tables chatting about what we’d call the place if it were up to us. 

After all that, we can hardly just get up and walk out.  That would be rude, even for Americans, even Americans accompanied by a lone, Gen Ed savvy Englishman. 

So we settle in and prepare to part with most of the money we have on hand.  Fortunately, Ellen and Elizabeth are quick-witted enough to point out to the hostess that it’d hardly be fair to charge us full-price for the three kids, particularly as the regular menu was still on display on the street.  The hostess kindly agrees, and the kids are served with very Christmasy pizzas and chicken nuggets at regular price. 

The rest of us receive the dinkiest damn pieces of chicken and cranberry sauce you’ve ever seen in your life.  Seriously, you could have taken all of the bits and chunks of fowl from the plates of the five paying adults (one of Hedley’s boys went—wisely— with vegetarian) and still not be able to assemble a single chicken wing from KFC.  Between each course, each of us is given with a thimbleful of lime gelato to cleanse our palate.  From what, I’m not sure since the only thing that’s touched my tongue most of the evening are softly whispered curse words, but you better believe all of us suck that gelato down like it’s the last pea-sized frozen dairy product we’ll ever have in our lives.   

I know how this works, of course:  I’ve eaten fusion before, and—before, as now—have found myself wondering if they didn’t really mean “fission.”  I get the whole idea, that the servings are small but flavorful so that when we eat we’re less interested in filling our guts than experiencing in a concentrated manner the tumbling and swirling of flavors across our palates.  I get this.  And I like it.  Really, I do. 

Just not when I know that my family’s bill for the evening will total somewhere over two million. 

That two million in Vietnamese money is just barely over a hundred in US dollars helps, of course.  But still, geez, at least let me leave the restaurant not feeling the urge to keep an eye out for the nearest 7-Eleven and any old bag of stale Cheetos. 

The dinner isn’t a complete bust.  Around 7:30, the back door opens and in strolls Santa, felt sack on his shoulder.  Seeing us, he comes over and hands out small brown sacks wrapped in gold ribbon.  The kids are delighted and laugh and shout and grab for theirs.  Santa stands back a little, watching, that same wide-eyed, not sure what the hell is going on look in his eyes; later that evening, I’ll see him, beard gone, stripped down to his t-shirt, delivering a hookah to a nearby table. 

But never mind:  we’ve got presents!  Eagerly, we pull off the ribbons and tear through the wrapping paper. 

Inside, each of us finds, still in their original plastic wrappers, a snow-white pair of sweat socks. 


By the time we get back to the hotel, I’m pretty sick of Christmas and third-world countries, and Christmas in third-world countries, and just being away from home and not really even having a Christmas at all.  I’ve got “Happy Xmas (War is Over)” by John Lennon stuck in my head, and if there’s a way to make that droll, melancholy, sarcastically dark holiday tune even more droll, melancholic, and darkly sarcastic, you better believe the little one-armed choir director in my head is doing just that. 

It doesn’t help that when we step into our rooms we discover that there’s a major-league disco going on at the restaurant right outside our back window.  And I do mean right outside.  The music is so loud that you can hear the fingers of the guitar crease the frets, the inhale of the drummer as he reaches for the top of the high hat.  It’s so loud, it rattles the spoon in the glass on the bedside table.

We get the kids down to bed—notice, I don’t say “to sleep”—and then Ellen and I tuck in for a bit of light reading.  My mood only gets better when I discover that Ho Chi Minh’s army once slaughtered 2,500 people in twenty-one days after taking over Hue—and by slaughtered, I mean gunned down, beaten to death, and buried alive.  So much for my hero-worship of the last ten hours.  I put my book on the table, and watch it vibrate across the surface until it hits a lamp, reverses direction, and rattles to the floor.

Finally it’s eleven o’clock and I’m flossing my teeth, wondering if there are any gun laws in Vietnam, and if so, if they explicitly prohibit violence against steroidal sound systems, when something weird happens.

The music stops. 


Ellen and I stand there, frozen in the middle of the bathroom, Johnson & Johnson mint-flavored hanging from our teeth.  We can’t believe it.  We’re afraid to believe it.  We’re afraid to move, actually, for fear that we’ll somehow jinx it, that one twitch of a finger or one hint of a whisper and the next Vietnamese Kylie Minogue wanna-be will kick in with her version of “The Loco-Motion.”

But it doesn’t.  So finally we move, throwing away our floss, picking up our toothbrushes, scrubbing our teeth, spitting into the sink, drinking from our bottles of water.  We use the toilet one last time, kiss each kid again, flick out the lights, and crawl into bed.  The pads are hard, but the sheets are clean and the pillows are just firm enough to keep you comfortable.  I close my eyes and stretch out my legs, and think, “Well, that really wasn’t too bad after all.”

And then, just as I’m falling asleep, I hear it, way off in the distance, coming all the way from St. Joseph’s cathedral, the huge pile of carbon-black rock just outside Hanoi’s old-town:

The sound of church bells.  Christmas bells.  Ringing.  Peeling.  Tumbling one over another in a waterfall of sound.  The highs, the lows, the highs again, all in a rush of discordant, resonant, jumbled, jubilant brilliant beautiful sound. 

So this is Christmas.  

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