Trinh and I went to visit her dad’s family in northern Vietnam for my first time. During the long weekend, I learned that on her father’s side Trinh is part of a big extended family. She is the 17th generation of the Nguyen Canh clan. I learned what that means for the 200,000 Nguyen Canhs during a weekend spent visiting temples, grave sites, and chicken pens.
Saturday began with Trinh and I looking at the banquet room at the Hotel Continental. An old colonial hotel where we will host our wedding lunch. The Continental is a landmark of Saigon and a dusty old place charmed with the fresh and eternal scent of cigarettes. It has a varied history with famous guest like Graham Green, who stayed there while writing the Quiet American. After drinking much-too expensive coffee at the Continental’s restaurant, Trinh and I practiced what married couples do best – griped about money in public while walking through Uniqlo – a Japanese fast fashion outlet.
Trinh, myself, her parents, an aunt, an uncle and four of Trinh’s cousins ended up on a plane to the city of Vinh, in Nghe An province. Oddly, her aunt and uncle brought cut fruits on to the plane which was a delightful reminder of elementary school soccer practice. Freudian Deren enjoyed the on-board fruit platter, because I could masochistically re-live all the emasculating defeats of elementary school soccer with each bite.
The plane landed in a brand-new white elephant airport at about 7PM. Since the airport had no other planes, we walked down the runway stairs and onto the tarmac and into the musky night air. Trinh and I debated if the visible particles in the night air were smoke or fog and we settled on smog. How grand! If all the compromises of marriage give birth to endless and resentful portmanteaus.
We took a hired car to a seafood joint that had horseshoe crabs on the menu. I was relieved to see my Jersey shore home boys in Vietnam – “Sup youse guys”. Like most Americans, strung out on Netflix and flavored water, I can easily ignore an acquaintances’ pending doom.
We drove down long dark country roads through the type of rice fields that Forest Gump saw when Bubba was still alive and Lt. Dan still had his legs. It surprised me to drive along at 60mph – we never get over 30mph in the mucus congested roads of Saigonita. The empty countryside roads don’t have traffic – they have goats, buffalos, and naive cows – again let us ignore their doomed predestination.
The car left us off at a cement town made of tight cement buildings weaving like a north Vietnamese Barri Gotic, but replace the bespoke tapas with a cacophony of horny and scared dogs barking at us as we samushed our luggage through the pitch black narrow lanes towards a three-building complex built around a central garden and duck pond.
We were greeted by Trinh’s eldest uncle who showed us to our room and around the family’s home temple. I learned that Trinh’s clan makes up about 200,000 people and has 69 temples in Nghe An. It was interesting to see the family’s shrine to their ancestors. I had often heard of ancestor worship in Asia. Living outside the Great Firewall of China, I didn’t notice that too much. Japan, Thailand, Nepal and India were Buddhist or Hindu and in southern Vietnam I see more Buddhists, Catholics, and YouTubers than family temples. In northern Vietnam, people are much more closely linked to their ancestry. In US terms, North Vietnam is the rust belt of upstate New York and southern Vietnam is the Land of the Lost – southern Florida.
Trinh and I slept in the same room with Trinh’s parents. Thank The All Merciful Trinh farted first giving me a scapegoat for my own releases. The solid room we slept in opened to an outdoor kitchen and an unattached, but comfortable bathroom and a big ass chicken pen. We spent the night farting in our mosquito nets.
In the morning, we woke up at 6:30 AM to the ejaculations of many roosters. Those chickens were loud! We stumbled out of bed in sweaters and jackets. In the morning light, I could see the whole compound we were staying on was a Land of Babies. By the end of the weekend, we would meet 17 adults and 10 babies. I snarked to Trinh and her mom that if they lived here, Trinh would certainly have a bunch of babies by now.
The extended family had a lot of gendered norms with all the women doing chores. Trinh didn’t have to any chores because she is useless and urbane. Her cousins instinctively did all sorts of chores. I felt bad for one of her cousins because during a meal I started to clean up my dishes and that triggered the cousin to stop eating and start cleaning up everything. She looked at me in disbelief, “but I’m not done eating yet”. I stupidly didn’t realize I was making her have to cut her meal short. I felt guilty while she crouched down in the garden and washed the dishes in a large tin water basin with water drawn from an outdoor well.
Our first stop of on Saturday morning was a sunflower festival. After we waded through the crowd, we got to see some horny hornets pollinating the sunflowers.
We went to a restaurant full of druncles (other people’s drunk uncles) that we had to sit on floor mats to eat. The rural men love to drink a cheap vodka ironically called “Men”. The friendly druncles offered me their vodka but Trinh’s dad told me not to drink it because, “da country hooch is too strong for a pussy college boy like you”. Trinh’s mom was visibly unhappy with the crummy place we ended up for lunch, but when in Romania.
After lunch, we headed to one of Trinh’s clan’s temples and made brief prayers for God knows what. Then we drove to a public graveyard to visit Trinh’s grandpa’s grave site. We gathered around the grassy mound covering his casket and lit incense for him. His body will stay here for six years, before his soul can rest at the family’s grave site on a beautiful hillside.
Leaving the graveyard, I came across a cow being bullied by flies. The cow looked hellya uncomfortable swatting those flies with its tail and twitching its muscles to startle the flies away. I looked in the cow’s sad eyes and it telepathically spoke to me for 45 minutes about the trials and tribulations of being bovine, the chariot of the gods, and living with flies. Then I ignored his suffering, as if changing a mental channel, and went happily on my way. My ethical mind quickly detracted and then destroyed.
The view from the hillside graveside was beautiful. It looked out at a mountainous hill and a peaceful lake. These are the kind as of natural beauties Ilong forliving in the Ho.
We arrived at the family ‘s hillside graves site arranged like a family tree. The view from the hillside graveside was beautiful. It looked out at a mountainous hill and a peaceful lake. These are the kind as of natural beauties I long for living in the Ho.
Trinh’s uncles walked around and pointed out exactly where they would be buried. Since it is a family tree they can know exactly where they’ll rest. How can one leave a place if they know where they will be buried? I realized that Trinh is a part of a more important family tradition then I knew. There is already a place for her grave there. It begs the ineffable question, in an international marriage where will we be buried? Will are graves be separated by visas too?
The next morning, we had chili noodles and Eel soup in a local hovel and then video-called Trinh’s brother Thien in Texas. At the family compound we celebrated Trinh’s grandma’s death anniversary. Which hosted a quick prayer and then a big meal in the compound courtyard. I sat with Trinh’s tough looking cousins, who run an electronics store in the center of town. Even though I’m a soft hands pansy the dudes were friendly! Not like those other boys at elementary school soccer.
The meal ended with Trinh and I talking to Trinh’s other cousin Huy, who studied in Paris. Huy hated Paris because it was full of grumpy yellow jacket protesters. How unnerving for an 18-year-old unfamiliar with freedom of speech. This year, Huy headed back to Vietnam to finish architecture school. Ironically, he is interning at a historic restoration project for a colonial French Villa. So in Paris or not he still gets to learn a bit about French architecture.
Then Trinh and I lightly participated in picking lettuce and burning hell money
After the mourning meal, Trinh’s cousin took us on a motorbike ride into the countryside. The north is foggy, smoky, gray, ugly, depressing and beautiful! Sunshine can totally make or break this place. The hard-faced people, endless cement buildings, and rubble don’t have the same energy or optimism of Saigon. Nghe An would be a magical place to explore mountains, various grades of cement, and Vietnam’s older traditions.
It was very nice to see Trinh’s dad enjoying himself at home. The guy almost never talks, but now I got to hear him talk quite a bit while he was catching up with his brothers and hugging all dem’ babies. It was fun to hang out with Trinh’s mom, who was always disconnected from the group floating from one corner of the compound to another, a distant in-law just like me.
Trinh? I’m thrilled to already know where she’ll be buried. We are checking off life’s to-do list from the bottom up.