Several days before Christmas, my husband and I traveled to Vietnam to take part in a wedding. My husband’s cousin Jan (pronounced with a silent J), a lawyer from Berlin who’d been living in Ho Chi Minh City for a few years, was getting married to a Vietnamese woman named Diep (pronounced with a silent D). Their wedding took place on New Year’s Eve, and for the week and a half leading up to the event, we vacationed with the bride and groom, along with relatives and friends from Germany.
Traveling in Vietnam is a thrill in itself. Traveling with a family of ten presents its own brand of excitement, and challenges. Hours were spent deciding where to eat, when to call a taxi, when to see a water puppet show. Once all that was settled, someone went missing, someone was still lounging by the pool, someone was still doing her make-up, and three others had decided not to see the water puppets. Amazingly, Jan and Diep managed to coordinate the holiday for our motley clan, while also organizing their wedding, without freaking out in the process.
Highlights of our trip included six days in Mui Ne, a beach town popular with kite-surfers from around the world. As a Seattleite, I usually prefer places with cool climates, but Mui Ne made a sun seeker out of me. Walking on the beach and watching the sunrise became my morning ritual. In Mui Ne, the sky takes on a warm, golden hue and the sand looks and feels like brown sugar. Fishermen and women tug on long lines and dig for shellfish. Some use boats that are so small and basic that they look like they’re out of a fairy tale; it’s easy to imagine the boats holding a child and perhaps a dog sailing toward adventure.
Mui Ne, along with other parts of Southeast Asia, has become a popular travel destination in recent years. In 2011, six million people from around the world visited Vietnam. As a result, there’s an interesting mix of signs and billboards, written in multiple languages. Open-air restaurants and nightclubs offer dance music late into the night, and yoga lessons early in the morning.
If Seattle is a melting pot of cultures, Mui Ne feels like a heady cocktail. It’s possible to take kite-surfing lessons from an African expat, drink mojitos at a German bar, and eat tacos at a Mexican restaurant run by an Australian. On Christmas Eve, Jan’s sister Nini and I had the strange experience of crashing a Russian party, where a techno version of Jingle Bells blared through the loudspeakers while a very skinny Vietnamese Santa Claus handed out bottles of booze.
As in any family gathering, meals became a focal point. Each day at our hotel in Mui Ne began with a free breakfast buffet — and I don’t mean cereal or muffins wrapped in cellophane. A free breakfast in Vietnam means boatloads of pho, meat, fish, vegetables, omelets made to order, and fresh fruit, all washed down with coffee and syrupy condensed milk. The only thing stopping an all-out gluttony is the knowledge that the beach, and bikini, await. And of course, the bride still had to fit into her wedding gown, in this case, a red “ao dai.”
The wedding, which took place at Diep’s house back in Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon), was a traditional affair, followed by a big banquet and a New Year’s Eve blowout. While that day was momentous, it was during our stay in Mui Ne where I saw the bride at her finest. As the only Vietnamese in our group, Diep, a woman with large, pretty eyes, turned what could have been an awkward situation into a lively party. Aside from myself, a Korean American, the rest of our group was German, so conversations often switched from English to German and back. Diep did not know any German and had learned English mostly from working at restaurants and hotels. Yet, in spite of a few malapropisms, she kept everyone engaged with her cheerful and open manner. Bucking the Bridezilla trend, she remained as poised as Kate Middleton, even when a cold sore bloomed on her lip just days before her wedding. Watching this lovely woman was simply inspiring.
Spending time with her and my German in-laws in Vietnam was a fantastic experience that will stay with me for a lifetime. The trip showed that the world, while diverse, is becoming increasingly familiar, and that the gaps between all of our cultures might be shorter than we’d imagined.