Wednesday, February 22, 2006

Celebrating Tet Vietnamese Style

There are at least several large amusement parks in Ho Chi Min City. They include Dam Sen Park Though they charged extra for opening during Tet, the parks were overflowing with visitors. Many families came to picnic or climb into rides or just have a day out together. Some couldn't help but take posed pictures beside strange figurines.

Dogs were the creature of the day. They appeared everywhere - sculpted out of flowers or of strange tools. There were also dragons and lions, it looked like the animal residents of our own lion city.

A small bridge crossing a temporary pond (actually sited between two major road junctions) becomes so popular, a queue forms. But so do a crowd of policemen and somewhere in the shadows, the pickpockets. We saw a few chases throught he evening and the hotel (where we dropped off Kevin and Elaine) warned us about the dangers of the evening.

Flower shows sprout in nearby parks in the city centre including near Ben Thanh market and in the central Hguyen street.

Plants are shaped into creatures including this elaborate dragon (check out the red ball floating between its jaws)

Monday, February 20, 2006

Our Journey up to Dalat

Dalat (Stream of the Lat People - a tribal group in the Central Highlands) is a cool escape for the hot and bothered Saigon urbanite. Its the Vietnamese Cameron Highlands complete with rolling hills of tea and coffee plantations and Swiss cottages dotting the greenery (with the air-con turned up a little more). This Valley of Love has been a romantic getaway for the locals ever since Swiss immunologist, Dr Alexandre Yersin, chanced upon it in 1893. Reminded of his Swiss home, he encouraged the government to build a resort town, particularly in Dankia with a focus on health spas. The elegant hotel that was soon built, and the lakes and waterfalls added to the element of romance although today, the 'romantic' elements may appear to some as cheesy. (Read upcoming updates for evidence)

You can fly up to Dalat but at only about 300 km from Ho Chi Min City, the journey takes only 5 hours by car. So we hired one and had the most adventurous ride in our lives. Can we survive the harrowing ride? Its an incessant beeping of car horns and zooming-ahead-before-the-oncoming-traffic hits you! Its like the N-S Malaysian highway, with narrower roads. But we did survive...

Besides little towns and rice plantations, the journey out of Ho Chi Min City surprised us with a string of beautiful churches seen every other kilometre or so on the highway up to Dalat. Some were designed like temples while others were of a modern design but all were large. Who enters these hallowed gates we wondered, besides the school children milling on their grounds?

Some sources claim that Vietnam comes second, after the Philippines, in having the highest number of Catholic followers in Southeast Asia. Read more about the history of Catholicism in Vietnam.

Strange sights greet us further on our journey - huge granite boulders bulge out onto the road. Houses were built around these ancient rocks, almost hugging them.

More about Dalat and its scenery can be found in these sites but somehow i couldn't find these scenic views on site. Hmmmm....

Huy Thien & Trung Viet. (2004) Dalat - City of Eternal Spring. Viet Bach

Dalat. WikiTravel.

(Note: The trip up to Dalat was taken in October 2005 when we were on official leave. The story is only being published now as the pix were stuck in another computer. Enjoy the next few retrospective entries)

Thursday, February 16, 2006

Celebrating Tet

Tet is short for "Tet Nguyen Dan" or "first day" of the lunar new year. It marks the start of the Vietnamese new year and colourful festivities often associated with family,food, flowers and fireworks! "Chuc Mung Nam Moi" is the standard greeting for the day.

Ben made friends with Phuong at a Karaoke bar and since October, Phuong had insisted that Ben visit him on the first day of Tet. It is a privilege to be the first to visit a family during Tet - the first guest is specially picked to bring auspicious blessings to the family for the coming year. We wondered why we were chosen but felt truly honoured to usher in blessings for the family. Phuong did make several calls when we were a little late (lost) because he worried we would not come or maybe someone else would beat us to it and accidentally become the first guest...

The Vietnamese flag, in stark red, became an inevitable part of the Tet decorations - not only to convey a sense of nationalism but also because its colour is so appropriate for the season.

Phuong's girlfriend is having her fortune read by an important visitor. This lady (on the right), although a Vietnamese, had been residing in Cambodia for some years. She was specially asked to make the trip to visit this family for the new year to make a forcast of their fortune. A pack of cards, shuffled and sorted, display the year's fortune. But the fortune-teller somehow knew we weren't into this sort of thing.

Phuong and his father with the new year spread which we consumed in his humble one-room home. The meal included dried melon seeds, roasted cuttlefish, garlic preserved in vinegar, pork porridge, pig's ears cut into strips (a great delicacy - but er... none for me) and sweets. In between each bite, Phuong pours out glasses of liqour and gets us to down it with much requests for blessings. Ben is not in the picture by now as he has passed out! ;-) Phuong is handing out the toothpicks to mark the end of the meal. Beside him is the family altar repainted and decorated with food and sweets of the season. Behind them is the other traditional family altar - the television set.

Phuong's father had been sheltered in Malaysia at Sungei Besi amongst the Vietnamese boat people for some years. However, he had come via Cambodia where he had been living. He continues to appeal to become a recognised resident of Vietnam. Unfortunately, because of an injury to his leg, his handicap makes this difficult (although the government is accepting more and more returning Vietnamese - Viet Kieus- as part of the country). Meanwhile, Phuong's parents run a hairdressing salon nearby.


What is Chinese New Year without family!? We were grateful that Elaine and Kevin dropped by Ho Chi Min City for the new year (making them the first family to visit our home). Little did they realise that nothing would be open except our home for the season but i guess they were duly compensated. Here they are in their traditional Singapore dress, having consumed traditional Hue food (cooked by our helper), singing traditional American Karaoke (is there such a thing?)

Huge flower shows were set up in the various parks throughout Saigon. The display we went to filled the main stretch of Nguyen Hue - the main boulevard facing the People's Committe Building. For days, traffic was blocked from entering this area. Months before, a competition for the best design for a flower show resulted in this winning entry - its a display with little islands of different cultures of Vietnam scattered down the road.

Some of us think we look cool in our Oakleys

And they do recognise it is the Year of the Dog.

Tet festival step-by-step

Sunday, February 05, 2006

Our neighbours & the neighbourhood

In the mornings, the family who live just across us, gets ready for business. They live quite comfortably in a simple wooden house. The mother operates a foodstall and every morning she gets her pushcart ready. At the front of the home (just behind the pushcart) is a nice big sofa. Its the family living room. They lounge there in the cool of the evening, chatting and dining.

All the neighbourhood streets are marked with white lines. These are badminton courts. Every morning a team of men and women string their nets across the streets and start a feisty game of badminton (Note the flashy backhand smash by the player on the lower left)

Sometimes when vehicles come by, the game takes a short pause, the net is gently hoisted to make way for cars. But the game is never interrupted for long.

Just behind the badminton players you can see a troupe of ladies. They perform a daily ritual of communistic tai-chi, danced to a rousing socialist melody. Sometimes they wave flags, sometimes they have small sticks but most of the times they are staring at Blue when he goes for his walk (making sure he doesn't poo infront of their homes)

The sun is barely up and already melodic chants of passing goods of garden greens and ripe sun-kissed fruits fill the streets. A shopfront in Saigon can be opened anywhere. Just park your cart under a shady tree and layout the goods. This vegetable stall set up shop just infront of our home (use our neighbour's humble home as a marker)

Even though by the afternoon, the sun beats painfully bright, the boys returning home from school can't resist a game of football. Two slippers mark the goal post and large shouts, a score!

(NB: All these pictures were taken merely a few metres from our home)

Saturday, February 04, 2006

Finally - our home

We stay in the Binh Thanh district to the East of Ho Chi Min City, about a 20 minute busride, or a 10 minute taxi ride (estimate 10 km from the city centre). It's more popularly known as Thanh Dah. Here is the major road and our lane is marked out with a blue board. You can barely see it but somehow the taxi drivers know (as long as you tell them when to turn).

The lane leads into a middle-class area well-regarded by many Saigonese who consider this "a good place to stay." Every morning this dusty lane becomes a muddy path before it dries out in the midday sun(We wonder where the water comes from).

Huong, our helper walking down the lane. Yes, she's the tall, long-haired beauty carrying the marketing home. The neighbour's busy sprucing up his home for Tet while cyclists whizz by regularly.

Huong at our front gate, walking Blue, our Husky who has become a star attraction in our neighbourhood (ok, both the dog and our tall, lanky helper!)

The bedroom where Ben can finally rest in peace (and for all the internet world to see!)We have a total of 5 bedrooms and we're on the 5th floor (Huong's taken the 6th floor bedroom). Every bedroom has its own attached bathroom,fridge, airconditioner and TV set. We welcome you to our wonderful B&B (Ben and Bon's B&B) Some bedrooms even have a jacuzzi (and if you pay us the right price you get the room with the jacuzzi)


This is actually at the entrance to the home fronting the kitchen - otherwise known as the GARAGE. The dogs are playing just beside their new beds (actually they are the large cages they came in with). They are standing infront of our moat. Don't worry its dry. So if you fall in, you won't drown.

On the third floor is our Living Room. Here Ben catches up with work as well as what's on in StarSports/ESPN, the latest movies on 'cheap' DVDs and Kara-oke bouts. Sometimes Huong and I watch Vietnamese VCDs here too - mainly cooking shows lah.

In the basement is the kitchen fully equipped with gas cooker, microwave and refrigerator. Huong whips up fantastic meals here. The dining table has a pond on one side and a moat on the other and yes, where the bar stools are, is a bar with bottles of we-don't-know-how-old liquor. Hey, who's that long-haired dame having dinner with my husband?!

WHAT YOU DO NOT SEE... the fantastic pond where you can lounge about. Its full of large koi in a spot designed like a typical Vietnamese cavern. And hanging in the centre of it is a delightful pufferfish that looks like a bloated durian. ... that's why you've gotta come and visit us!