We met Grace on the corner of Châu Văn Liêm and Nguyễn Trãi streets, on the edge of Saigon’s Chinatown. Grace’s family on both sides are of Chinese descent, and she regularly visits a pagoda to pay respects and pray. Given our affinity for this kind of stuff, we eagerly agreed to accompany her, and she leapt at the chance to show off part of her heritage and daily life.
We walked to the nearby Chinese Buddhist temple of Chùa Ôn Lăng, which I believe is dedicated to a female bodhisattva and goddess of the seas. Grace bought bottles of cooking oil from a vendor outside the pagoda, then showed us the ritual of praying at all the altars and pouring out a bit of oil in each of the lit lamps as an offering. Any leftover oil we had would be donated to the temple, who then give it to older devotees who can’t afford to pay for any offerings.
Afterwards we went to a chicken and rice eatery, appropriately named Cơm Gà Đông Nguyên (com = rice; ga = chicken). All the cooking is done outside, and the dining room is up a flight of stairs in a white tiled air conditioned room. As we sat eating plates of chicken with rice cooked in chicken broth, pork with crispy skin, a black chicken soup in medicinal herbs, and pork tripe, the highly entertaining conversation gravitated around food and Grace’s family.
“People here kill chicken by wringing neck. But my father, he do different”, she said. “He give them vodka”.
Me, suppressing a laugh. “Your Dad gets the chickens drunk?”
Grace nodded solemnly. “Yes! He feel bad for chicken. Everybody kills chicken by wringing neck and he don’t want chicken to be scared. He get chicken drunk, then he wring neck. Chicken die happy”.
Larry and I burst out laughing. “Well”, I said, drying away tears of laughter with the back of my hand, “I bet the meat tastes better since it’s tenderized”. Grace nodded. “Yeah, my father, he thinks so too”.
She then talked about her grandfather. “My grandfather, he eat the same thing every day. For 86 years! He eat white porridge for breakfast. White porridge for lunch. And dinner, he eat regular food, but also a bowl of white porridge”. She added, “He never sick”.
“White porridge? Like congee?”, I asked.
“Wow”, I said. “Bland white porridge is the key to good health! I best get on that”.
“Yes. And then one day he go to hospital and he die”.
“Wait, what? He’s dead? Your grandfather is dead?”
“Yes. They not have white porridge at hospital”.
Never a dull moment in Saigon.