Monday, July 19, 2010

Paradise Lost and Found

The month of June marked my one year anniversary in Vietnam. Daphne's absence had left a void in my life, my schedule and my heart. Writing about personal stuff is a challenge for me and doing so in a public forum is all but impossible. So I'll be quite brief with it.

As I had mentioned at the end of the last blog, Daphne and I parted not for a lack of love but for other reasons. I won't go into what those reasons are, but let's just say that those 'other reasons' worked themselves out and exactly one month after I said goodbye to her at the airport she was back there with twice the load of luggage than when she left. I could probably write a book about everything that happened in between, but I'm afraid that all I can manage for the sake of a blog are two vague paragraphs. I hope the reader will understand and accept my censorship and read on.

Naturally, we had to give ourselves a short holiday, so we went to Phu Quoc again[this time by plane, not motorbike] to spend the week on the quiet beach, away from the world outside. We also chose it because during the time we were there, our good friend Sylven was getting married on the mainland just a short ferry ride away.

It's difficult to write about a beach holiday, anyone who's been on one will know. With all the lounging, sunning, swimming and eating it doesn't fit itself into a narrative structure very well. Because we were at the beginning of the rainy season, the weather wasn't as good as our first visit. Rainy, cloudy but also cooler in the nights and a bit less bitey in the evenings. It was the off season, so our room was only $10 and at first we were the only people at the hotel. Off season, however meant that the beaches weren't cleaned as regularly as they usually are, so what was a clean beautiful beach on our first visit was now littered. I'm told that if you were to get stranded on an uninhabited island, the beaches would be filthy there, too. Its all one ocean, after all. Worse than the general litter however, was the tar. Gooey black globs of tar lined the beach and the only way to clean it from the bottoms of our feet was to use the turpentine bottle we kept next to our bungalow. Why was there tar on the beach anyways?

Still we found ourselves having a good time despite these issues. We spent our time in hammocks, in the sea and reading a lot. I finnished Gulliver's Travels and Murakami's Norwegian Wood[on loan from a friend]. At nights we ate good seafood and played pool at Le Bistro while drink rhum lemons.

[Stop, Hammock Time]

We rented a bike and went cruising through the island, trying to find more things to do. At one point, we got into an accident when somebody who wasn't paying attention hit us from the rear. We felt a small bump behind us and then heard a crash. I stopped and looked behind to see a man falling off his bike, and some glass thing that he was carrying shattering on the ground into thousands of shards. In Vietnam, it's actually legal to drive away from an accident, so long as you go report it to a police station later[not likely to happen]. This is because Vietnamese onlookers can't help but get themselves involved and violence is not uncommon. I didn't drive away immediately and instead waited to see if he got up and was alright. When he got up and walked to his bike, he admitted wrong doing by not yelling at me and avoiding eye contact. Although I was ready to drive away from the situation, I held it together knowing I had to give both myself and him face. So I asked Daphne to get off, look at the damage on our bike and confirm that it wasn't a big deal. We then drove away without a word. Of course, it'd be nice to have seen to him and made sure that he was alright, take him to get a bandaid, etc. But without language, he would've assumed one of two things by our approach. Either we were going to ask him for money for damages, or that our polite tone meant that we were apologetic and claiming fault, to which he would've started demanding damages paid. So, under the circumstances, seeing that he was able to get up and lift his bike off the ground, I had to leave it at that.

One day, we took a trip to the far side of the island. We stopped by a pearl farm, where I played with a guard monkey, and went to small beach that had finer white sand then ours, but sadly was just as dirty. On our way back we got caught in some really bad cold rain and had to drive through it for one hour without raincoats. A hot bowl of Bun Rieu, helped warm our bones when we got back to town, and luckily we didn't get sick.

[He found my keys and tried to eat them]

Halfway through our stay, we went to Rach Gia for two nights to see our friend Sylven get married. Sylven's an American who did the CELTA with us and he was marrying a Vietnamese girl, Lan, in her family's house in Kien Giang in the Mekong Delta. Sylven really wanted to do the wedding local and do it right, but it proved to be harder than he had expected[ok, I don't know what he was expecting, but it was hard]. For the wedding, the dinner came first the night before. No pictures, sorry, we forgot our cameras. In order to get there we had to take a car from Rach Gia, where our hotel was, cross a slow ferry, drive some more, and then take a boat to the house itself[two hours in all]. The boat ride was at night, so while one guy drove Sylven had to shine a flashlight ahead to make sure we didn't run into any debris. I'm not sure how they're able to find their houses like this, but finding Lan's wasn't too hard. All we had to do was find the carnival tent with the loud electric keyboard tunes and screechy karaoke vocals emanating from it. The food was pretty good, large shrimp, crab, innards soup and other tasty things were served. Easy to come by for Lan's parents, who were shrimp and crab farmers. One problem, however, was the massive amounts of little insects that kept flying around and falling into the food. Each bite had to be closely scrutinized for unwanted guests before being invited into our mouths. Sylven made a big error with the mother-in-law that night, he didn't bring her an offering of roast pork. One of the many traditions of a Vietnamese wedding. Bringing it the next day wasn't an option either, it had to be then or never. Ironically, we had passed a lot of stands on the way there that sold roast pork[heo quay], Sylven and Lan just didn't know that he needed to bring it.

The next day, the responsibility for gathering all the necessary offerings had been allocated to some of Lan's cousins. That way Sylven could avoid making anymore mistakes. Lan had to spend the night at the house so that she can stay up all night and wash vegetables with her female family members[really] while we made the long trip back to Rach Gia, only to make it again early the next morning. This time, I had my camera.

Aside from Daphne and myself, the only others able to attend Sylven's side were his friend Thorin and his eight year old son[Thorin's not Sylven's].

The little boat we had to take was hard to balance your way onto, and it had no chairs. After that first night of squatting for thirty minutes in the boat, Sylven decided to buy some short plastic chairs for us this time around.

[Land ho]

[All offerings are in order, will Sylven be forgiven for the pig?]

Sylven is now in Lan's house. Offerings are all set. The tradition here is that the man comes to take the woman away from her home. She will now be a part of his family and no longer her own.

[The Bride waits for her cue]

So, as confusing as it was for us to understand what was going on at the wedding, we came to realize that we weren't the only ones confused. The man pictured above[some kind of uncle?] was leading the proceedings. However, in the living room were seated family members who kept interrupting him. Apparently, there was a lack of consensus for how a 'Vietnamese' wedding should be performed, each family member had his or her own opinion on what came next. And on a personal note, I begrudged the uncle with the mic for constantly standing in front of the bride and groom, making good photo-ops near impossible.

Meanwhile, while Uncle rants, family members burn incense and make offerings to their ancestors, or Buddha, or both[?].

Sylven also has to pay up. Aside from a dowry that includes giving the mother gold, he has to give her gifts during the ceremony, as well as to all her sisters[and any other family member that wants to paid off]. In addition to the wedding ring, he also has to dress Lan with other bits of jewelery: necklace, earings, etc.

The ceremony ends with a bow to the audience and a bow to the ancestors/Buddha shrine. No kiss like in the West. Then, a meal, with much fewer guests in attendance than the night before, and we were off[after waiting for a short storm to subside]. Wedding finished. Instead of wedding presents, its customary, as in Chinese weddings as well, to give red envelopes with money instead. Daphne says, that its customary for Chinese to pay for their own wedding, but then make a profit[for some] off of the envelopes in the end[in the West, the parents pay and you get pillow cases and blenders]. However, for whatever reason, it was Lan's mom who got to keep the red envelopes. Payback for no roast pork, maybe?

Sylven and Lan had to leave for Saigon the same day, while Daphne and I stayed one more night in Rach Gia before going back to Phu Quoc to enjoy our last days of holiday.

It took some time before I could post this blog, I had some computer issues that had to be resolved first. Since then, Daphne is on the way to refilling her yoga schedule, I'm back at work, with less then two months before my contract ends. And after that, we shall see...