|For the previous fifteen years or so, we would spend Christmas in Texas and then head to the Far East. A year ago, the winter events included the Winter Sumo Tournament in Tokyo, travels throughout Vietnam and considerable time in Bangkok with lots of exposure to the Chinese side of New Year food delicacies. As you would expect this year, Christmas was spent in Texas and we remained home past February 12, 2021 which was the beginning of the Lunar New Year festivities representing the year of the Ox. On February 7, I saw a few minutes of The Super Bowl during primetime TV. It was the first time in forever that I can remember not seeing glimpses of it very early in the morning as we were always in Asia. Mind you, I prefer Sumo to football as it better fits my attention span.
The Lunar New Year is the beginning of a calendar year with the months being moon cycles which is celebrated in China, Korea, Vietnam, Tibet, Mongolia, Singapore and most any place that has a significant population of Chinese or Vietnamese. The Lunar New Year last year was January 25. It was the date we landed in Bangkok from Japan to find a massively packed Bangkok airport filled with Chinese tourists just as the Covid-19 pandemic had become officially recognized.
Our winter trips to the Far East are specifically timed to meet with Vietnamese government officials given our long corporate history there. The Vietnamese take this residual Lunar New Year influence from China very seriously and will always be around for courtesy visits prior to the holiday. Following the business side, the auspicious holiday will be celebrated for many days later as their main holiday/vacation period of the year. Prior to the holiday is the time to pay respect to government partners and share a toast with them. Most anywhere you can expect red Chinese lanterns such as those shown below. This particular image was taken in Phnom Penh, Cambodia but it would have been replicated all over the world.
In Vietnam, the Lunar New Year is referred to as “Tet.” Most Americans would never had heard the word “Tet” until the Vietnam War and the Tet Offensive of 1968. The North Vietnamese and Viet Cong armies took advantage of the holiday period beginning January 29, 1968 to launch a massive attack on South Vietnam, as shown below, invading from their strongholds in Cambodia and Laos. It foretold the end of the war which would take seven more years to play out. Despite the massive losses incurred by the northern forces, the will and diaphanous cloak of invincibility of U.S./Allied forces was destroyed.
Interestingly, I moved to that part of the world following the 1968 Tet Offensive and left after the fall of Saigon in 1975. It was one hell of a ride. You might wonder if there is any residual animosity toward Americans and the answer is absolutely not. Usually, the victors are most forgiving. In fact, years later I shared a bottle of cognac with a North Vietnamese general which was an interesting experience as we had been in similar lines of work-putting “tigers” (gas) in everyone’s gas tanks.
On another occasion, I had to forego a weekend with expatriate Vietnamese (Viet Kieu) friends who were meeting General Giap at his mountain retreat. In 1954, Giap defeated the French at Dien Bien Phu in the First Indochina War, as well as South Vietnam in 1975, to reunify the country. He is often referenced as one of the greatest military genius of all times. Most people do not know that Giap, shown below, in his younger days was trained by U.S. OSS officers to engage in guerilla warfare against the Japanese in WWII. Perhaps he was too well trained.
Despite not being at “ground zero” for our Tet and typical Chinese New Year celebrations, we have had numerous best wishes from all over that part of the world ranging from Tết nguyên Đán from Vietnamese friends, Chinese Spring Festival wishes from many communities, Tsagaan Sar from Mongolia and Losar from Tibet. Apart from visiting relatives and honoring family ancestors by visiting their tombs, it is all about eating and drinking.
Following the end of the Vietnam War or “The American War” as the Vietnamese refer to it, a large number of Vietnamese settled in Houston and along the Gulf of Mexico coast. Many became shrimpers and others became chefs which developed into Vietnamese food sections in Houston including a Little Saigon neighborhood with many excellent Vietnamese restaurants. Christine Ha, a master chef in Houston was featured with other Vietnamese chefs across the country in a New York Times article entitled Tet is Full of Traditions But You Can Have It Your Way. Christine Ha is all about doing it her way. She insists on personally preparing the basic traditional dish of banh chung, rich sticky rice cakes filled with pork, shallots and mung beans, wrapped in banana leaves and boiled until tender. Most everything else she can readily pick up in Little Saigon. Christine, pictured below, has two restaurants in Houston - the Blind Goat and Xin Chao. By the way, her accomplishments are particularly significant as she is totally blind.
Whenever it is possible, on most Lunar New Year period Bangkok trips we head over to China House. China House is part of the Mandarin Oriental complex specializing in peking duck and char suu bao, or pork buns. We have those dishes to bring in the year and China House makes the best in the world. We have been to the original Peking Duck restaurant in Beijing which was the least memorable duck we have encountered anywhere. China House is a dining Mecca and on the list for Joey’s last meal which includes mango and sticky rice for dessert. I must say that every time I should have thought about having a last meal, it never crossed my mind as staying alive seemed more important. Maybe it is time to start planning ahead though, for the record, I will have the same as Joey however I will have Dom Perignon to drink rather than her preferred beverage of regular Coke.
Shown below is an image of Peking duck being expertly carved at China House to be served in the Green Room. The Green Room has special significance as it once served as command central to plan a military coup during the Lunar New Year of 1991. My friend, Suphapong, and I had formed a company at the request of some long-standing Thai friends to obtain an oil exploration concession in the Gulf of Thailand. We had no money and no jobs so why not? Our Thai company, Thaitex, required that a minimum of 10% of the shares be held by Thai nationals. Someone suggested we should have a senior Thai military general be a shareholder and one agreed to join as it was perfectly legal with no downside as no cost. Shortly thereafter, Suphapong who was in Bangkok called me in Houston to say that a coup had been quietly hatched in the Green Room by Thai generals including our shareholder. China House was chosen for the clandestine gathering as it was far away from prying Thai eyes as it was so expensive only western tourists would go there. I asked whether that was good or bad and he responded “tremendous” as no bureaucrats would have their hands out as we could show the shareholder register which was in the public domain to dissuade them.
On the other hand, I must say that even being ice bound in the Hill Country of Texas we had Peking Duck on the first day of our celebration and kept going on the second day with both pork and vegetarian buns as well as a wonderful spicy fish. Our dear friend, Cai Ai Ping, widow of my spiritually adopted Thai brother and business partner, Suphapong, sent us two fantastic food shipments from Bamboo House in Houston. Any Chinese would be embarrassed by the meager amounts of food on the table on the second day of our feast but it was just the two of us.
To all of you, we will close with a wish from Mynak R Tulku, a special friend and Tibetan monk. May the year of The Ox be good to all of us.
Suan Lahu Organic Coffee Beans
(a fair-trade coffee)
Suan Lahu, meaning "Lahu Garden" is a beautiful stretch of sloped land that encompasses about 30 acres in the highlands of Chiang Rai Province in Northern Thailand.
As a producer of organic highland coffee, Suan Lahu strives to bring the intricate culture of the Lahu people into the growing, processing, and slow-roasting of one of the best Arabica coffees you can find in the region.
This lovely coffee product is offered right here at The Elephant Story.