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The Thy Tracker (continued)


May 15–23  Peranakan  24–25  27–29  Sireh  30a  30b  30c–31
Malaysia: Melaka June 1–2, Kuala Lumpur 3–4, Penang 6
Vietnam: Saigon 13–16  19-20  22  26  27 30
Nha Trang July 7a 7b, Hue 14a 14b, Hanoi 19–20
India: Pondicherry 31, Bangalore August 2–4, Kerala


June 13, Wednesday

I'm relaxing with my family beneath my great-aunt's tamarind tree. It's high, lacy canopy provides shade without blocking the breezes. Two of my cousins are hanging a new hammock from one of its lowest branch. The younger boys shoot marbles on the smooth ground beneath the tree, while next to me, the girls trim leaves from handfuls of rau cua, "crab greens" named for its long, claw-shaped flowers. Sprouting only after heavy rains, the slightly sour leaves cannot be cultivated. One of my cousins, visiting from the US and craving their flavor, had gathered the greens herself this morning. Throughout the afternoon, we snack on jackfruit, rambutan, green mango, and a cold, thin, slightly sweet black bean soup. A new treat for me are lightly dried, very chewy rice paper strips sprinkled with a pink dust of ground shrimp, chiles, and salt. Conversation meanders from the restoration of my great-grandmother's home to how the caterer will deliver the food for the wedding.

In the heat of the afternoon, we gather under Ba Thu’s (“great-aunt number 4”) tamarind tree for lunch. During the early 1970’s, the Americans claimed my great-grandmother’s home as a command center and then completely razed all our family’s fruit trees. This one, still considered small for a tamarind tree, was one of the first that was allowed to grow after the soldiers left.

My aunts prepare two dishes for hands-on eating: Fried whole fish and “crab greens” garnished with hard-boiled eggs wait to be wrapped in rice paper with fresh herbs.

Later, in the shed of a kitchen, an aunt fries small "sweet water" fish to wrap in rice paper with herbs. Another aunt slices baby green starfruit to toss in a salad with the rau cua. I watch and diligently take notes, even though I'm impatient to start eating. The food is simple—nothing but salt on the fish; only hard-boiled egg slices and fried shallots adorn the salad. I'm in heaven, though, when we finally sit down and I taste the flavors of home.



June 14, Thursday

Seeing my flip-flops, those black ones with the beaded straps that were such the rage last year, one of my cousins asked me where I bought them and how much I paid. In the US, I answered, for ten dollars. She ran to her room and returned with a box full of colorful beads and a square of pink fabric on which she had almost completed a diamond-shell pattern. After she hands it off to the stitcher, the beaded fabric will become a purse. To my horror, she bent over, took one of my flip-flops to inspect, and then explained that she used to make slipper straps exactly like these. The work was all for export though, and the girls had always wondered where they were sold. Target, I said uselessly. For 2 meters of the beadwork—a full day's work and enough for at least 6 pairs of flip-flops—she received 10,000 VN dong. That's less than 70 cents. From now on, I'll never admire a beaded evening bag in the same way again.

Later in the day, my family drove me past the sport shoe factory. It's a Korean subcontractor, but everyone in my family pointed and shouted "Nike!" to me when we passed the buildings. It's a large compound with high walls, spiked fences, guard towers, and gold lettering that spells out Samyang Ltd. The workers make just over a dollar a day and are fired after three months; there's always someone else to fill the space. My uncle told me stories of the beatings, at least one fatal, that have occurred at the plant. One of my cousins worked there but didn't last very long.


June 16, Saturday

Seeing how defeated I looked after my run-in with a faulty drive, ruined diskette in hand and quite a few hours of writing down the drain, my uncles treated me to a special dinner. Evidently, the best way to cheer someone up in Vietnam is to feed her.

Lau, or hotpot, with seafood, rice noodles, and chrysanthemum greens started the meal. Plates piled with crab claws were next. Coated with a sweet-sour-sticky tamarind glaze, the crab had all of us licking every last piece of shell.

The highlight of our feast, though, was the rang—or snake. A young cobra was drained into a blood cocktail and then cooked into a thin curry stew. The owner of the restaurant held the headless snake over a glass of brandy, then sugar, ginger juice, and lime juice were all stirred in to flavor the opaque, red-brown cocktail. It tasted more like candy or spiked limeade than anything else, the blood masked by a generous hand with the flavorings. It would make me healthy and strong, promised my uncles.

My aunts showed me how to tear the snake's flesh along its ribs, shredding the chewy meat into thin strips to dip into the turmeric-bright sauce. I agreed with them that the snake's dark, crunchy-chewy skin was the best part.

I was, however, the only woman at the table allowed to drink the cocktail, having been assigned long ago a curious limbo status of not-female. At many dinners, I'm offered beer, considered taboo for any uncorrupted girl or woman. Never sure whether to decline my uncle's toasts or scandalize my aunts, I've found the secret to maintaining cultural harmony: drink two sips and then leave the rest.

More Saigon >

June 2001