In Search of a Thanksgiving Turkey

March 14, 2019 by Joe Toback

My travels have taken me to many places, but I was used to being home for Thanksgiving. The year 2001 was different. It was to be the first time in fifteen years when I wouldn’t be home with my family; instead I would be out on a boat in Vietnam, leading a kayak trip for MTS in spectacular Halong Bay, where limestone rocks rise from the gray-shrouded sea. Thanksgiving has always been one of my favorite holidays. It’s simply a time to be thankful for life, for the joys, the mysteries, the love, the friendships. Then, of course, there’s the great meal that goes with it.

A few months before the trip I sent a message to my friend, Huy, who was organizing the entire trip: “We will be there for Thanksgiving. Do you know about this holiday?” I asked him. The reply was succint,”No”. I explained it to him, as best I could. “Huy, we need to find a turkey for the dinner on this Thursday night. You know what I’m talking about, right; it’s the funny bird that says, “gobble gobble.” You have them in Vietnam, right?” “Sure, sure, Joe, no problem” , he replied.

I arrived in Hanoi;  Huy’s smiling face greeted me at the airport. “We are all set, Joe. It will be a great trip.”. We reviewed our trip plans over a dinner of ginger duck, and we agreed to go shopping the next day for the trimmings of our Thanksgiving feast. At a shop frequented by foreigners, I picked up a couple of cans of jellied cranberry sauce, cans of pumpkin pie mix, and some bread for the stuffing. We then went out to the open market to buy some yams. Huy assured me that the turkey would meet us at the boat.

Our group arrived; we held our welcome dinner, toured Hanoi, and headed out in the morning for Halong Bay, one of the natural wonders of the world. Its limestone islands form towering shapes that overwhelm the senses. With our guests entranced by the mystic scenery, Huy took me to meet our cook. He stood in a galley about the size of a clothes closet. I pulled out the ingredients for the trimmings; the turkey had not yet arrived. We went through the preparation of stuffing, pumpkin pie, and yams. I told him this was to be a surprise and to hide all the packages. We paddled that afternoon and the next day through limestone arches and caves, into lagoons, and the magic of the Bay engulfed us. On Thanksgiving Day I took the group to a special cave and pulled out some turkey jerky. “This is the closest you will get to Thanksgiving turkey, “ I said, to ward off any hint of what was to come.

We paddled back ot our mother boat, showered and put on our silk clothing that we got in Hanoi. We sat down at our table with a white tablecloth and candles, and I signaled our cook that we were ready. He brought out  the turkey, roasted to a golden brown, replete with wings and head. The bird’s mouth was open in what appeared to be a scream of anguish.  We laughed and cried. What a sight! It was then that I learned that it was the custom to leave heads on fish or fowl served at the table in Asia. Our group was happy and surprised at our completely unexpected Thanksgiving feast.

The meal proceeded in proper order with the joy of surprise as we went through the stages of a traditional Thanksgiving dinner. The pumpkin pie was uniquely different, but quickly devoured.  As soon as the pie was done, our cook reappeared. He started to bring out the usual dinner in Halong Bay: squid, shrimp, crab, fish, and rice. I looked at him and shook my head. Somehow, he thought that the turkey and trimmings were part of some strange western ritual and surely we would now want a real meal. Our group was already satiated and ready for bed.

As soon as they retired Huy and I moved to the back of the boat where the crew ate their dinner. There they smoked, played cards, and made fun of each other. Huy explained to me that the cook had a hard time with the turkey. He had deep-fried it in a wok by first cutting it in pieces. When it was cooked he reassembled it with tooth picks to bring the whole bird back to screaming glory. We laughed when I told him it was not our custom to leave the heads on our cooked birds. Huy then asked me if I wanted to see the alternate turkey he had procured.

Huy then relayed to me the saga of finding a turkey in Vietnam. In fact he had never heard of a turkey when we first talked and he had searched high and low for one in Hanoi. He eventually discovered that he could order a frozen turkey from a French hotel in Hanoi and he made the arrangement to have it sent frozen from France. Being the cautious man that Huy is, he needed to have a backup plan, in case the turkey did not arrive. “You want to see him, Joes? The other turkey?” “Yes, Huy”. He opened a canvas bag, and a live chicken popped up its head. We laughed until it hurt, and the boat shook. It was by far the most memorable Thanksgiving I ever had.

Joe Toback, MT Sobek Guide

MT Sobek Trip: Vietnam, 2001

About the Author Joe Toback

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