Posted by: sharemore1 | January 13, 2011

A Child’s Birthday in Hanoi

New Phở Restaurant

WHEN I returned to Hanoi after a few weeks in the United States, my husband Moshe couldn’t wait to show me his discovery, a restaurant that serves Phở all day.  Moshe loves this steaming noodle soup with beef or chicken, a traditional Vietnamese breakfast.  But he prefers eggs, or even salad, for breakfast, while most restaurants serve Phở only until midmorning.

Moshe had become a regular customer.  The soup was good, had no MSG, and the price was right, 75c a bowl.  Other specialties of the house were stir-fried rice or noodles with vegetables and beef.  As the only regular foreign diner, his visits did not go unnoticed.  Soon he was being greeted with high fives by the young cooks, who worked in the simple kitchen at the entrance to the restaurant.

The Young Cooks

One day he brought in prints of photographs he had taken at the restaurant.  From then on, the owner treated him like a VIP.  The two of them communicated through the few words they knew in each other’s language.  One day when Moshe was in downtown Hanoi, the restaurant owner saw him on the street and offered him a ride home on his motorbike.

Moshe had promised I would take photographs of the owner’s wife and their two-month old son when I returned.  As in many Hanoi establishments, the owners lived upstairs over the restaurant in a tall, narrow building.  Carrying my heavy camera bag, I climbed the steep stairs to the upper floors, trying not to rely on the rickety banister for support.  Entering the room, I saw that the furniture was sparse, just mattresses on the floor, a chest of drawers by the wall and a small desk with a computer.

Mother and Child

I shot several images of the pretty young mother and her plump baby boy.  On our next visit I bought them some prints, two in simple frames.  The parents were delighted and invited us to their three-year-old daughter’s birthday party the following week.  We had gone from being treated like interesting foreigners to being included in family celebrations.


The party was held at night in the restaurant after the patrons left.  As the last customers trickled out, the dishwasher worked in a small open room next to the dining tables.  Crouched on a tiny blue stool, wearing rubber gloves and blue rubber boots, she washed and rinsed the last of dishes in three pans on the floor.  When her job was done, she joined the rest of the guests.

While the table was being set, the birthday girl played with two of her presents, a Santa Claus and a blonde doll in a bright yellow jacket.  She found a comb and began to make her Santa Claus presentable, combing his tangled beard. Then she began fussing with the doll’s hair.  Like many three-year-olds at their birthday party, she had a meltdown moment and burst into tears.

Combing Santa Claus

Meltdown Moment

Caring for Her Doll

The little girl must have eaten dinner earlier because she only had eyes for the yellow layer cake, decorated with white frosting, maraschino cherries and a little white pig with a purple umbrella.  It was displayed in a round box with Happy Birthday in English on the side.  The little girl sat on the table for the longest time with the cake between her legs, only occasionally testing the frosting with one finger.   When she could stand it no longer, her dad helped her cut it and she got her own piece, which she ate contentedly while the rest of us had dinner.

Birthday Girl with Cake

Grandparents, aunts, uncles and cousins sat on both sides of tables pulled together in an L-shape.  We were the only foreigners in the group, distinguished by our pale faces, grey hair and somewhat clumsy use of chopsticks.  They didn’t know our names and we didn’t know theirs.  Our ability to communicate was restricted to smiles, gestures and the few words we had in common.  Yet at that moment we were all family, joined in a universal ritual of eating, drinking and helping a little girl celebrate her birthday.

Joining the Family


  1. Love seeing the photos that go along with the story. The little girl is a gem–so adorable!

  2. Great story. Love the photos. THe dishwasher brings back memories of the Daipaidong where we ate in Hong Kong.

  3. You and Moshe are wonderful ambassadors for global friendship! How touching to read your description of the birthday and the birthday girl. Beautiful pictures, Sharon. Thanks

  4. What an honor…invited to a child’s birthday celebration. Thank you for taking me to new worlds…virtually at least.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s


%d bloggers like this: