I had only one living grandparent by the time I was born: my mother’s mother, a stooped and gregarious Italian woman I called Nonny.

She died when I was very young, just seven or eight, and my memories of her are sparse but deeply sewed: The smiling face in the second story window of the Brooklyn brownstone, waving as we walked in a circus troupe toward her door; the laugh and special trio of kisses that would always greet me once I climbed up her stairs, one-two-three, down my cheek in the line of a traffic light.

Her meatballs were famous. Her couch was coated in crunchy plastic. One night she had me sit around the kitchen table with my mom and my sisters and we played poker for pennies.

I can only guess what she may have thought about my travels in Vietnam. But I think she would’ve liked Hue.

It was a beautiful morning. The heat had settled just enough to breathe with a bit more conviction and the tropical sun was blessedly laced with clouds.

A climatic gift, if only a small one. Invigorated, I set out in the opposite direction of where I’d been.

Back pointed to the Perfume River, I traveled something like Southwest, away from the nerve center of town, down a straight shot of local market that gave way to a long row of local shops that eased into a quiet neighborhood straddling one of the tributaries that weave through the area.

I took a left. I took a right. I followed the path of the water down a shady lane. Lined with sleepy homes, it dead-ended in a small temple overrun with low-slung palms. No one was there. A few paces away, a man swung in a hammock tied up on the riverbank.

‘Hallo! Hallo!’ he said.

He motioned to the red plastic chair set nearby his perch. An invitation to join. Another man was there peeling tapioca root like string cheese and rolling the strips into small balls. A woman was there, too, and a soot-black shepherd named Li, all pink puppy smiles and curious eyes. Idling away an afternoon growing thick with lazy humidity.

I sat for a bit petting the dog and responding to their Vietnamese overtures with a handful of random English: ‘Yes, yes. My name is Bridget. U.S.A.? How are you? Nice day today. River! Beautiful! Yes!’

‘Num la?’ was the only response, repeated again and again as the reclining Buddha snug in his riverside hammock rubbed his sweaty big belly and gave out a great laugh. Everyone was ‘num la’ – the tapioca fiddler, the river, me, the houses, the woman, the dog. Bales of laughter erupted. It got funnier every time.

When finally there was no ‘num la’ left, I said my goodbyes to cheery waves and big smiles.

Another dusty road, baked red dirt cutting through luscious green palms and small farms and rows of weatherbeaten homes.

I turned another corner and saw them right away: a bustle of motion, a small dust storm in the distance, the busiest thing on this tropical afternoon.

They had commanded an entire front patio of a corner store, a gaggle of grandmothers crowded around a small plastic table. The thick wool blanket draped across it did nothing to dampen the sound of cards being slapped down with a fury. Even the oppressive air gave way to their glorious cackles.

There were six of them smiling and chatting, women of a certain age with bright laughing wrinkles and steamed-up glasses and thick greying buns tied at their napes.

They saw me. They pointed and whistled and waved. Once again I was invited to join.

A chair was pulled up for me around the table. We exchanged some pleasantries, lost in translation. They hugged me and patted my hair. ‘Pretty! Pretty! Sit! Sit!’

But even my entrance couldn’t distract them too long from the game.

Nimble hands shuffled and scooped up and sorted cards in a simultaneous flash. Each player wound up with 10 of them—strangely oblong to my Western eyes and painted with Egyptian-looking patterns and all the dirt of a thousand such afternoons.

Cards were thrown down in pairs, with a thwack and a monosyllabic cry: ‘Bo! Sui! Ba! Gat!’ The action danced around the table in no discernable pattern, and in just under a minute, the dancing was through.

The community pot was dipped into by the smiling victor. Folds of small bills were unearthed, added to and subtracted from. Flies disturbed by the quick action were swatted away. More shuffling, scooping, sorting, hooting happy cries, ‘Sui! Bo! Gat! Ba!’ thwak! thwak! thwak! and another round through.

So beat the rhythm of the afternoon. My companions would sometimes wrap arms around my shoulders, try a few more questions in Vietnamese, explain the game to a hopeless foreigner in a foreign tongue, let me hold their cards for a few rounds and laugh good-naturedly at my clumsiness with them. Mostly I sat contentedly, lulled by the happy percussion of the day. I felt safe, accepted, wrapped in maternal warmth.

Over the course of the day’s hottest hours, the porch got more crowded. At least a dozen women came to watch or take place in the action and play charades small talk with a stranger whose verbal language no one could speak and whose presence at the daily cardgame was running through the grapevine like wildfire.

One woman, far older than the others, came strolling up in a silk lilac shirt and matching pants. Her cigar smoke broke in waves against her wide-brimmed hat. I offered her my chair and she shared with me her tapioca root, making sure I got the bigger half of every piece she tore off.

The woman next to me, who let me hold her cards, called out to the store keeper, and soon I was holding a Nước Mía, the scrumptious sugarcane drink mixed with kumquat juice and a touch of salt. A small taste of cool heaven on a scorched afternoon. She made the ‘Drink up!’ motion and smiled at me.

A short while later, another townswoman came by with lunch for the whole crew: a huge plate of steamed noodles and shrimp and rice dumplings wrapped in banana leaves. I was handed a hot bowl and a fork before anyone else and before I could say no and instructed with gummy smiles to ‘Eat! Eat!’

Occasionally, a man would pass through on a motorbike and, spying either the stranger or the commotion of the game, park nearby and follow his curiosity onto the porch, only to be passively iced out or actively shooed away by the Sisterhood. Tongues clucked, smiles cracked and eyes rolled after each hasty retreat. The hooting and teasing and fast dealing wound up again.

I thought of my mom. And my sisters. And the grandmother I didn’t know well enough and the grandmother I never knew. That night long ago playing poker in the kitchen in Brooklyn. I wondered if I would play cards with my girlfriends on hot afternoons like this when we got older, gaggled together over the same type of giggling table. I thought: I have to learn how to play this game so I can bring it back with me. I watched and watched and still made no sense of it.

After enough rounds of insatiable play, the air finally broke with the shade of setting sun and it was time to go. Money was cashed out and collected and goodbyes were said.

On their way out, each woman took time to hug me and fuss over me one more time, pinch my cheeks, pat my hair, smile, share a bit of love with a grandmotherless granddaughter. One even gave me a kiss, one-two-three, down my cheek, in the line of a traffic light.

Maybe not so grandmotherless, after all.