In years gone by, birthdays hardly registered a blip on the celebration radar in Vietnam. There is a generation of folk in this country who don't even know the exact day the stork arrived, having dodged all kinds of bombs, bullets and chemicals on its way. Birth certification got pushed to the bottom of the list of priorities, way below basic survival. My mate, the God, is a case in point. His father says he was born on December 29, 1976 while his mother says it was January 29, 1977!
So 'Happy Birthday' hasn't had much voice in this country until recently. The pervasiveness of western culture, albeit with a decidedly Vietnamese twist, has brought the birthday party to the fore among post-war babies.
I got an invitation to one such party a few weeks ago. In this season, gathering around a hot pot (lau) is a popular and inexpensive option. In Vietnam, the birthday boy or girl pays for everyone! Firing up the hot pot at home is an even better idea. My young friend, Thanh, recently married and already a father, was turning the grand old age of 24 and he and his wife, Trang, were in the midst of transforming their bedroom into some kind of dripzone when I arrived. Big black plastic garbage bags were being clinically scissored, cellar-taped and placed over the carpet, as if a ritual sacrifice was to occur and an easy clean-up was preferred.
When the collanders containing a half dozen varieties of Asian greens got placed down on the plastic I knew no blood would be shed. We are talking food ritual, here. A procession of vessels holding piles of raw goodies to be cast down into the soup got arranged on the floor as the guests manoeuvred for leg room and chopsticks.
The two centrepieces - the actual bubbling cauldrons around which the ritual occurs - were set down next and, while reverence would be too strong a word to describe the reaction of the assembled company, excitement was definitely in the air. Though some were itching to start on the big communal cook up, formalities had to be observed.
We had to drink.
Gin, rum and vodka got mixed with tonic and coke to both toast Thanh on his birthday and signal the beginning of the meal. Frenetic activity ensued as ingredients took the dive. Clams, tofu, chicken, pig intestines and beef all went in together along with a sizeable spoonful of Thai chili sate, flaps of bean curd skin and greenery. The broth already contained the aromatics of lemongrass and ginger plus other powerful flavour enhancers like pinapple, tomato and rehydrated Chinese mushrooms.
We fished for an hour or more. Any delicacy running low was replenished. Drinks were downed and topped up. Then the point came when the noodles were called for - another signal in this ritual, meaning that the meal was nearing its end. Packets of instant noodle bricks are torn open and tipped into the soup before being slurped up into stomachs fully sated.
There was no 'Happy Birthday' sung, nor a candle, nor a cake. Spirited talk of karaoke commenced...
...and I politely took my leave.