You first havc to know that Vietnamese don’t traditionally celebrate birthdays. According to their Buddhist tradition, being born means you have not yet achieved nirvana and escaped worldly pain and suffering. By contrast, a death is a celebratory moment and the dead are to be regularly memorialized for they have moved onto a higher plane or the next step of their journey.
However, one of our most charming experiences in Vietnam, was celebrating the birthday of a Dutch man in a family-owned restaurant located on a byway of Hoi An.
We had luckily found this place on our first night in town, just one of a few dozen nearly identical places on the same strip. We happened to pass it while another couple was eating and said the food was great. As every other restaurant was empty in this low season, their instant review drew us back to try it. And then the very upbeat owner appeared, and affirmed to us in passable English that she could prepare for us the large grilled tiger prawns we love
That first night at the restaurant proved that our reviewers were right. The perfectly grilled prawns piled high on the plate were delicious, as were the crunchy spring rolls with a flaky crust (the style our hostess and cook insisted we try). During the meal, a man from Holland showed up and took what he called “his” table across the way. He was clearly a regular, who told us he was managing one of the many beach resort construction projects nearby, though he actually lived in Bali with his wife. He said he ate at no other place in Hoi An.
So we were hooked and became regulars ourselves, at least for the full three nights we were in town. And, since the prawns were expensive (in local terms, but just $10), our hostess eagerly booked us in for an equally expensive crab dinner the next night, “with tamarind sauce” she insisted.
That second night, as we walked to the restaurant, we feared for the crab dinner, since lights were out on the street, a regular event here apparently. Happily, the restaurant was open, but dark. The Hollander was already seated at his table in the glow of a battery powered neon light.
Soon another regular, Ross, a retired expat from Atlanta, arrived to celebrate the Dutch man’s birthday that evening with their own plate of prawns. They split some champagne and wine, folding us into the conversation. When the neon light gave out, the hostess and her family rousted out candles for the four of us.
You have to know something about these family restaurants. The family typically lives out back or above, or close enough nearby that the children, the elders, siblings and who-knows-who-they-are wander through regularly. Nor is this ever the only business. Our hostess cut hair down the street, rented bicycles for her brother and arranged for our laundry cleaning as well. Plus she had a fashion and custom tailor shop two doors down.
But a cook is fundamentally a cook. So there we were at the birthday dinner, enjoying crab, prawns and wine by candlelight, and basking in a very warm glow despite the weather. Suddenly behind us appeared a very large birthday cake with innumerable birthday candles on it. Everybody started to sing the Happy Birthday song, including two of the children now in the room, in a strangely inflected Vietnamese version.
Once the Dutch man blew out the candles, it was cake for all us regulars and the family. It was incredibly fresh, delicate and light, with a sweet but not overly sugary frosting, and according to our cook her first ever cake! Her children clearly loved it too for they hoovered up the remainder after the adults had done with it. Perhaps in sugar shock, one then wandered about singing a variation of Jingle Bells to anyone who cared to listen. The host also gave the Hollander a leather belt from her clothing store, though in his somewhat tipsy state, he took quite a while to figure out how to loop his two mobile phones on it (one here, one Bali) and jam the excess length into his pant loops.
The much quieter third night was a farewell, with just the two of us there – no Dutch man, no Ross – for a light, modest meal instead of the grander ones of the first two nights. Our hostess at first was away, and we were taken care of by two family members with unclear relationships to her. She did appear, when she was called by phone to tend to her whining young son, and then mothered us a bit. We said our farewells, memorialized the experience with a photo and sadly said good-bye to our short-term regular friends.
As with many traditions, the younger generations in Vietnam have started following western culture and celebrate birthdays. Certainly in Hoi An, on that candle-lit night, a motley quartet of westerners found that Vietnamese know very well how to celebrate a birthday.
(For more pictures from Vietnam, CLICK HERE to see the slideshow at the end of the Vietnam itinerary page.)