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Photograph by Eric Carlson

Notes From the Underbelly

Tiec Cuoi in San Jose

By Eric A. Carlson

"I'm loving you because you have a heart as wide and blue as the ocean."
"City at Night," Vietnamese love song

GRAND CENTURY SHOPPING MALL is an Asian reincarnation of the old Costco on Story Road near McLaughin Avenue. In place of Brobdingnagian boxes of cereal and unwieldy bags of frozen tacos, one is confronted with miniature exotic shrunken trees--bonsai, otherworldly orchids and exotica of various stripe in shimmering colors. I recommend the garden shops. The Ballerina orchid amazes, with petals like a dancer. This glory was revealed to me by Heidi Pham as we idled away some minutes prior to attending the wedding of Vu Tran (the groom) and Nothi Vo (the bride). Explanation of gender provided for those, self-included, unfamiliar with Vietnamese names.

Nuptials took place at Dynasty Chinese Seafood Restaurant (1001 Story Road, Second Floor, San Jose). Large aquariums filled with Nemo's friends lined one side of the chandelier-lit, people-filled room, and tables festive with ornament and appetizers--for 400 or so guests--stretched out to a dance floor in the gloaming. Throw in a beautiful bride, a handsome groom and myriad revelers (with perhaps a hint of vino) and, voilà, good times on Story Road.

Many songs were sung, and I did not understand a word. That is not to say I didn't enjoy it. The music, entertainment and lyrics were downright beatific--at times. At other times, not so beatific, and I sensed some very bad jokes were being spun, replete with all the same silly shtick I have experienced at non-Asian weddings. Which is good. Anyway, the exact meaning of the words of the songs was unimportant. Heidi translated a few tidbits for me. One lyric of one song (a real tearjerker) was "Don't love me; love is not very stable." How true, how true.

Vietnamese weddings commence at 6 or 7 in the evening. Bai, the owner of Sun Liquors in Sunnyvale, advised me to snack before arriving, as dinner is not served until late in the evening. I did not snack, however, and just as well: the quantity of food proved to be inspirational. The suckling pig combination platter led off, followed by braised shark's fin (I won't do it again, promise) and crab meat soup. So far so good, but then, thick and fast, deep-fried stuffed crab claw, sautéed seafood and sliced abalone with black mushrooms. Oh, my! I persevered up to the seafood fried rice before screeching to a halt. I could only nibble wanly on the quail in preserved bean curd sauce, braised lobster with supreme sauce and smoked sea bass. "Vietnamese people seem to have good appetites," I offered to Heidi, who looked up from her plate and responded, "And we're still in good shape!" Indeed, I looked around, and everyone seemed to be thin and healthy, while consuming mass quantities with aplomb.

The bride and groom graciously visited each and every table for photographs and videotaping. Tens of thousands of photographs. Never have I witnessed an event so carefully recorded. And why not? This was a special night for a lot of people. And for me, too. It's not every evening one hears La Bamba rendered in Vietnamese. Incidentally, the Vietnamese word for "La Bamba" is "La Bamba."

Grand Century Shopping Mall is worthy of more investigation--many intriguing shops filled with ephemera not found in Costco. And I am through grumping about no signs being in English. What the hell, folks pay thousands of dollars to visit mysterious and beautiful countries. Why not save a few grand and go to Grand Century Shopping Mall instead. I prefer it indecipherable and strange, like the music, and if I want to buy something bad enough, I reckon I can work out the details with the shop owners.

Final Note: Oddly enough, the written form of Vietnamese used today was invented by a French Jesuit missionary in 1651 and was promoted by French authorities with the objective of eliminating the Chinese-type characters to simplify problems of publication. This information retrieved from Tony's Vietnamese Culture Journey! at www.vietspring.org.

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From the June 12-18, 2003 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

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