14. The Sacred and the Profane

A celebration of the Tet holiday, in a Mekong Delta village, is a magical mystery tour of Buddhist spirituality, drinking games, unthinkable foods and cockfights.

Kurt Bennett at the Quoi An pagoda on the eve of Tet (JGA photo)

Years ago, when I was a student of world religions, required reading was a book called The Sacred and the Profane. In his work, author Mircea Eliade compared and contrasted the serenity and devotion of a spiritual practice with the chaos of non-religious activities.

I couldn’t help but reflect on that volume during my few days in Quới Ân. In this tiny Mekong Delta fishing village, in a very real sense, I experienced extremes of both.

The acrid smell of burning incense drew Kurt, Thi and I into the village pagoda early on the eve of the Tet new year, which in 2020 fell on January 25. Within the shrine, we were captured by the seductive scent of two Đầu lân (“cannonball”) trees, their riotous, crimson-and-yellow blossoms dangling between the beige pods that give the plant its English name.

Đầu lân (“cannonball”) tree at Quoi An pagoda (JGA photo)

A padded gong gently announced our arrival to a young priest, whose face lit into a broad smile as Kurt and Thi approached. Kurt embraced his wife’s Buddhist faith when they were married. His annual returns to his wife’s hometown are met with anticipation not only by the immediate family, but by the greater Quới Ân community, as well. (I had already grown accustomed to him wishing “Chúc Mừng Năm Mới,” “Happy New Year,” to everyone we passed as we walked.)

A young monk accepts envelope offerings at Quoi An pagoda (JGA photo)

The monk was grateful for temple-goers’ offerings, each gift discreetly hidden in a holiday-red envelope. The pagoda’s upkeep and maintenance, as well as the holy man’s own spartan quarters, are reliant upon community support.

I followed Kurt and Thi as they visited each room of the sanctuary, occasionally pausing to pray at colorful altars and austere memorials, some of them framed in Chinese characters. “If my wife says it will assure me a better after-life, I’m all for it,” said Kurt, a large man raised in a blue-collar family in Oregon.

Kurt and Thi offer prayers at the pagoda (JGA photo)

Offerings of fruit, flowers and incense adorned altars to the Sakyamuni Buddha, often protected by icons of fierce warriors. The many-armed goddess of mercy, Quan Yin, had a central place of respect. Against one wall stood an antique bronze bell, its bench and hammer confirming that it was often in use.

Outside were whimsical animal images, including an Easter Bunny look-alike cavorting with fat, laughing Buddha sculptures in the garden. In a kitchen at the rear of the pagoda, local women volunteers prepared vegan food to share with worshippers.

An image of the Buddha crowns this Quoi An altar (JGA photo)

I could quite happily have stayed all afternoon and evening in the little pagoda. I might even have been inspired to revisit the meditation practice that I learned long ago, in a far-away Zen forest retreat, but now too often forget.

The Tet feast

But the next day was the Tet holiday itself, and we had a big day planned. I borrowed a motorbike and followed my new “clan” to another sister’s house — Thi has seven, after all.

I would never find the house again, not without a guide. There are no roads here in the remote Delta, at least not as Westerners define roads. Narrow, lightly black-topped byways, wide enough only for motorbikes, meander through forests of palms and mangroves. Riders who venture onto these lanes are serenaded by an abundance of birds that are mostly unseen, but whose melodious songs leave no doubt of their presence.

The road to the party (JGA photo)

Some of the bike trails cross narrow bridges over muddy canals where fishing boats lie in tilted repose, destined to sleep at 45-degree angles until the start of the next rainy season. Chickens scamper helter-skelter through fallen fronds, raising no notice among sleepy cats and dogs that slumber through the tropical late-morning heat.

The country house was already bustling by the time we arrived. Sisters and children scurried in and out of the doors, past their grandparents’ granite graves in a part of the adjacent jungle that was cut back for burial purposes. The moment we arrived, Thi made a beeline for her mother’s cremains, boxed beside a shrine in the living area.

Kurt and I relaxed with beers in folding chairs on the covered patio. We were soon joined by other menfolk. In almost no time, raised glasses and chants of “Môt, hai, ba, yo!” had begun.

Drinking games took a back seat to eating as soon as the repast began in earnest. Women, men and children, all of whom seemed to prefer gender- or age-appropriate conversation to communal dining, sat at three large, round tables.

Quite the feast: a Tet new year dinner (JGA photo)

And what a feast it was! Whole baked bullfrog. Crispy duck, complete with head. Grilled snakehead fish. Baby octopus with mushrooms and river vegetables. Homemade sausage. Gỏi cuốn spring rolls. Barbecued eel, straight from the rice paddies. Marinated field mice.

I tried to eat everything. I really did. The eel, fish and octopus were delicious, as were the sausage and spring rolls. I love duck, but not with Daffy’s beak on the plate. I even nibbled gently at the frog, pulling bones away from rubbery skin, though I found its white meat unremarkable in flavor. But the mice, still with tails attached? Somehow, I just couldn’t go there.

Down the rabbit hole

No, hand me another beer. Please! “Môt, hai, ba, yo!” A popular drinking challenge among men is to see who can empty their glass the fastest. Watered down by large cubes of ice, the ale disappears quickly.

At some time during the drinking games, as the afternoon shadows grew longer, one of the party goers began crowing about his prize-winning fighting cocks.

The losing entry (JGA photo)

Cockfighting is a traditional if brutal sport that has been banned by the Vietnamese government. Its illegal status, however, doesn’t dissuade devotees from pursuing their passion. A lot of money is gambled when the roosters are wrestling, and many men have lost a small fortune in the chicken ring.

When I confessed that I had never witnessed a cockfight, my new acquaintance leapt to his feet. Less than a half-hour later, he returned to the party not only with his own frenzied fowl, but with a willing opponent and his bird. And before long, a dozen would-be local gamblers straggled in.

Roosters do not like each other very much. There isn’t much love lost between males when a harem of hens is involved. The hatred is intensified when their owners ruffle the birds’ feathers — literally — after bandaging claw-like spikes to their feet. By the time the cocks are released to do battle, their only thought is to kill or be killed.

The pair that I observed matched a brown-crested black rooster against another with a flowing blond crest, Dennis Rodman versus Hulk Hogan. The fight went two rounds, after which the blond was mortally wounded. I’m sure he made a fine dinner for someone the following night.

If this wasn’t sacred — and it was not — it was most certainly profane.

Drinking with new friends: “Mot, hai, ba, yo!” (JGA photo)

Next: Kindergarten pop

Published by John Gottberg Anderson

Writer-photographer specializing in travel and food subjects ... member of the Society of American Travel Writers for more than 20 years ... former editor for the Los Angeles Times and France's Michelin Guides, among others

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