This New Year of the Horse started in a very auspicious way— we celebrated Tet on the Mekong Delta in Southern Vietnam with our friend Jen and her incredibly welcoming family.
Thanks to the wonders of Instagram, Natalie has kept in touch with her high school friend, Jen. They hadn’t seen each other in the flesh for a decade (#youknowyouaregettingancientwhen…), but when Jen saw that we’d landed in South East Asia, she thought we might be around during her upcoming trip to Tokyo and Vietnam. Being the awesome individual that she is, she asked if we wanted to meet up in Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon) and even join her family in her mother’s hometown for Tet on the Mekong Delta. Being the not dummies that we are, we said, yes. Yes please.
Tet on the Mekong Delta
Flash forward a few weeks and we—Jen, her wonderful mother, her boyfriend Stevie (or as the family called him, TV), Cliff and I—were on a bus from Saigon sitting in traffic reminiscent of I-95 congestion Thanksgiving weekend. Tet is Vietnam’s largest holiday, and a lot of Saigon residents go home to their villages to celebrate Tet on the Mekong Delta. Luckily we’d brought a stack of sammies from the best banh mi shop in Saigon and happily settled in for the ride.
The first few days in Mrs. Fowler’s hometown Can Tho (which we had imagined a sleepy Delta town, but is actually Vietnam’s fourth largest city with a million+ population) was a happy blur of family reunion. Aunts, uncles, and cousins of every persuasion dropped by the family house to visit with Jen and her mom.
Despite the massive language barrier, everyone—especially Jen’s uncle and his wife, cậu bảy and mợ bảy—made us feel at home. But Jen’s 94-year-old grandfather, Ông ngoại, stole the show and our hearts with his massive smile, uncanny blue eyes, and fascinating pre-war stories that he shared with us in French. You know that question about filling a dinner party with any ten people dead or alive? Ông ngoại would be one of the ten.
Just like the build up to Christmas, the ramp up to Tet is as exciting as the day itself. Every day Can Tho got more and more festive, and we got to sample more and more delicious south Vietnamese foods. After being so well fed and cared for, we wanted to contribute something to Tet celebrations. So we offered up the best currency we have: Cliff’s culinary chops.
Produce Shopping at the Cai Rang Floating Market
Can Tho is the capital of the Mekong Delta, the “rice basket” of Vietnam. Huge percentages of the nation’s food—rice, fruit and shrimp headed to markets across the country and across seas—are grown in dense farmland spanning the delta flood plain.
One of the most photogenic ways to see this regional bounty is at the Cai Rang floating market. From everything we read, Cai Rang is usually packed with vendors, shoppers, and tourists to the point of resembling a longboat tailgate. But when cậu bảy took us to the market Tet eve, we had the water and the vendors all but to ourselves.
Shopping at a floating market has the mechanics of pirating. Your vendor’s boat pulls alongside yours and you hop aboard to pick your goods. Each boat specializes in one or two things (shallots, pineapples, turnips, you name it). Vendors hang what they’re selling on a pole at the helm of their boats to be seen from a distance. On the Mekong, boats selling fresh banh mi and Vietnamese coffee add to the farmers market fun.
How to Ride a Scooter with a Live Pig
After cruising the Mekong and picking up some local produce, the menu started to come together. The pig, however,remained a figment of our imagination. Back on dry land the girls went off to rest and the boys, being boys, went off to find a pig.
We could have done the floating market as tourists, but cậu bảy really came through with where to go for a whole animal. This was a popular joint: pigs of all shapes and sizes happily oinked away in moderate sized, surprisingly clean pens. Anyone who knows me knows that I know pigs. Given how close we were to the city center (a 20-minute scooter ride) these pigs looked way better than expected. Looking back, buying live animals to kill and cook at home is a large part of Vietnamese culture, so it made sense that there was a thriving animal market close by.
We knew we wanted a small suckling pig for the roast. There were about 10 to choose from in the 10–15 kg range. After inspecting each animal closely, we had a winner. Like clockwork, one of the pig pen boys gave me large white sack to hold, then quickly grabbed our golden boy by the hind legs and dropped him in head first. He then placed the bag on the ground, stabilized the squealing future feast with his knee, and sewed the bag up tight with a thick piece of nylon string. He cut a hole into one of the corners of the bag so the pig could breathe. It all happened in the blink of an eye, and the other pigs in the pen didn’t seem bothered by the process.
After we paid, it was time to transport the pig to the slaughterhouse. This happened on a scooter. With the pig in my lap. The steps to successful pig transport are thus:
1. Place pig on lap.
2. Hold on tight.
3. Make sure the pig remains on its back, with its snout pointing away from you so that it does not panic and a) release bodily fluids that would leak on to your lap, or b) eat through your thigh.
Of course this technique was an afterthought. We were on our scooters hurtling toward the slaughterhouse quicker than you san say cracklins.
Five minutes later we were at the slaughterhouse. The standards where nowhere near what I’m used to, but that was neither here nor there as we were here. The whole process—killing and cleaning—took about 20 minutes, just enough time to have a quick beer down the road.
Back at the house, the plan was simple. I made an overnight brine with local salt, local cane sugar, and garlic and shallots from the floating market. I found an old grill, some iron rods and a grill plate, and got creative.
It’s not Tet on the Mekong Delta till You Roast a Pig on the Street
The morning of Tet, Jen’s family gathered to pay respect to their ancestors. We soon joined them for a day of feasting.
After lunch we pulled our pig out of the brine and started the process of strapping it down to the grill plate. Mợ bảy lit the coals we and got piggy going.Everyone pitched in prepping sides and sauces, and Cliff stood guard over the pig.
Bia flowed freely and high stakes cờ tướng (Chinese chess) games were not for the faint of heart.
If you’ve ever roasted a whole animal, you know the first few hours are the most critical. It’s a constant dance of coal management and flipping, rotating, and at times just pulling the pig directly off the heat. A burnt pig would be a most inauspicious way to start the New Year. But after 3-4 hours in the back kitchen everything was cooking properly and at the right heat, and it was time to move this party to the street.
On one of the main arteries in Can Tho, the show was officially on. An entire animal grilling will catch anyone’s eye, but we’re pretty sure passersby really stopped to gawk at the white boys at the grill. A few people even thought we were open for business and tried to buy a piece for the road.
After the spectacle, it was time to get down to the serious business of eating (also on the street). We served the pig with grilled pineapple, a homemade pickle of shallots, garlic, and chiles, Cliff’s cilantro chimichurri (spiked with a little fish sauce for good measure), and of course fresh-baked Vietnamese french bread. It was tasty, it was filling, and it was family.
If love is the universal language, food is a close second.
While we couldn’t understand everything being said around the table, smiles and heaping plates speak volumes. And with so much to celebrate and toast to, we did master one very important Vietnamese word—dô!
Special thanks to Jen and Mrs. Fowler for sharing your vacation, your family, your stories, and your culture (and your translation skills and photos to boot). We couldn’t ask for a more love and luck filled start to the new year. Chuc Mung Nam Moi!