A blog of my time spent in Vietnam working for Bao Nhan Dan.

Monday, February 21, 2005

So what was that all about?

Qumquat trees and peach blossom

Now that I’ve lived through Tet in Vietnam (which I earlier described as being like Christmas, New Year and your birthday all rolled into one) I suppose I ought to give some idea as to what the whole shebang was all about. Thankfully, Mai Huong writing for Pathfinder magazine has given a good summation of the event. All that follows is none of my own research – thankfully!

Preparations for Tet begin on December 23rd (lunar calendar), a time when people send the Ong Cong (land genie) and Ong Tao (kitchen god) off to heaven. As legend has it, the kitchen god and the land genie go to heaven to report to the Jade Emporer (Ngoc Hoang) on the household. Both gods then return to earth to welcome in the New Year and continue their duty to look after the kitchen. When the kitchen god has gone some families set up a Tet tree outside of the house on the day before New Year’s Eve. It is called Cay Neu, and is a bamboo pole stripped of its leaves except for a tuft on top. Tradition has it that this wards off evil spirits.
The most sacred place in the house is the altar, where the five-fruit tray (Mam ngu qua) is placed. It symbolises the admiration and gratitude of the Vietnamese to heaven and earth and their ancestors. It also demonstrates their aspirations for a plentiful life. The five fruits are symbols of the five basic elements of classical oriental philosophy: metal, wood, water, fire and earth.
It is also very important for the house to be clean, yet on the Lunar New Year’s Eve, all brooms, brushes, dusters, dust pans and cleaning equipment are hidden away. Sweeping or dusting should not be done on New Year’s Day and the following two days for fear that good fortune will be swept away with the rubbish. After the first three days, the floors may be swept in a special routine. Beginning at the door, the dust and rubbish are swept to the middle of the parlour, then collected in the corners and not taken or thrown out until the fifth day.
Flowers are also prominent in the home. Visiting flower shops, contemplating the buds and the blooms, and purchasing blossoms represents one of the distinct Vietnamese cultural characteristics. The peach and the apricot blossoms are the most popular symbols of the Vietnamese Tet, yet choosing one or the other depends on where you are in the country. The warm pink of the peach is said to resemble the dry cold of northern Vietnam, while the yellow of the apricot represents the south.

Tet cuisine
The food that we eat at Tet is varied and diverse, yet all Vietnamese want to have the best and most beautiful looking food in order to please their ancestors and treat their friends. Usually what is on the menu depends on the tradition of each region, but Banh chung (sticky rice cake) is essential and is readily available from shops and markets. Besides sticky rice cake, meat fat and pickled onions are indispensable for all the Vietnamese family. The greenness of the sticky rice, the fatness of the pork and the sourness of onions are all distinct Tet tastes.

Charitable Tet
While Tet might only last three days, the ripple effect of the Tet celebrations, from the close and intimate family gatherings to the sense of giving in the neighbourhood community, lasts throughout the year.
This year, my mother and I have cut costs in our Tet preparations, to support the Quy Vi Nguoi Ngheo (a charity fund to help the poor) which helps eradicate hunger and alleviates poverty in Vietnam. This is the spirit of Tet.
It’s importance in our social calendar is shown by the vast numbers of Viet Kieu (Vietnamese overseas) who make the long pilgrimage back to Vietnam every year. It is a time when, wherever the Vietnamese community is, people feel a kindred spirit and togetherness. It is a time when our people knit.
Handbag and sandals

The Foggy Dew

Now I thought I’d seen it all, in terms of weather in Hanoi, but this was something else. Our sleeper train had taken 14 hours to complete its journey from Da Nang and after we fought off taxi drivers wanting to charge us $5 (eventually paying 15,000 VND – $1) for our short ride home, we eventually stumbled into bed at 5am. I had to be in work later that morning so I got up at10am and started padding around the house. Firstly, the floor felt slightly clammy, which is not that rare an event considering the high levels of humidity. Then I peered into the bathroom, only to find that there was water dripping from the mirror – again not that surprising, but by the time I got downstairs I began to realise that something really odd was happening. The houses appeared to be sweating from the inside…condensation beaded the windows, puddles had formed on the floor and the walls seemed to ooze moisture. Books had warped on their shelves, the bedclothes were damp and our clothes in the wardrobe had felt like they’d been lightly sprayed with water. I can only assume that this was caused by a combination of factors, the air being hotter outside of the building than in, the lack of air circulation due to our absence for a week, and finally the extremely high humidity all had combined to create bizarre microclimate in our house. Thankfully the fug has lifted and a fresh breeze can be felt throughout the city. Not sure what I’m going to do about the warped books though…might have to invest in a dehumidifier.

Wednesday, February 16, 2005

Hoi An - Da Nang - Hue too far

Early morning wakeup call on the train from two boys standing on the footplate

Despite our best intentions we failed to muster enough energy to head north to Hue – so the former imperial capital will have to wait for our visit. Da Nang however, we briefly saw from the windows of our taxis as we headed down to Hoi An.
Da Nang is a slightly dull looking city, with well ordered streets, wide boulevards, and considering it’s in a part of the country which is pretty much pleasantly warm for all the year, a surprisingly small amount of street cover or trees. Mark’s boss is intending to establish an English language school in Da Nang, but I fear that he’ll struggle because, despite it’s well ordered nature – a definite contrast to Hanoi – it strikes you as a little bit dull. Like most Vietnamese cities it is rapidly expanding. As we hit the outskirts of the city we could see a newly developed water park, and we travelled along huge dual carriageways – yet to be used to their full potential. Da Nang unlike Hanoi has room to grow into – and it seems ready for the future car revolution that will eventually hit its streets.
Da Nang also is as close to Hoi An we could get by train so after a relatively comfortable night in our first class sleeper we dismounted into the blazing sunshine – leaving behind the cold and drizzle of Hanoi behind. Just outside of the station stands a huge black steam locomotive, it’s curves highlighted with white piping and a huge red star on the front of it – nice!

Our pick up driver did the obligatory commission stop on the way to Hoi An at the Marble Mountain. The area around Da Nang is well known for it’s many hued marbles and so we visited a statue garden. Unsubtle Greek gods and nymphs peered glumly down on us as though disappointed by their lack of musculature or curves. In contrast cherubic, rotund Buddhas beamed out, chuckling at how they had indeed eaten all the pies. I searched in vain for a life size statue of Uncle Ho – I suppose at $75+ they don’t really expect tourists to want to ship them home. Inside the showroom there were some nice pieces, some in cream, others streaked with greens and browns and a whole selection in jade marble – a rather sickly olive.

Hoi An

Hoi An harbour

French style house. While Hoi An is well known for it's Chinese/Japanese/Vietnamese housing, there are some wonderful examples of French turn of the 20th century housing

Palm trees and fishing boats

Shop in the old town

Evening over Hoi An bridge

Hoi An crept up on us. As with all towns the shacks constructed of wood and matting gave way to breeze blocks and finally concrete and brick. Hoi An grew up from the 16th century as an important port before the river silted up. It was settled predominately by Vietnamese, Chinese and Japanese merchants and this heady brew has created a wonderfully humane town. The buildings in the old town are predominately a maximum of two stories with slopping orange tiled roofs. The houses are mainly constructed from dark wood – either teak or jackfruit wood (these woods are resistant to termites and have probably ensured that so much of the original architecture has survived).

Hoi An houses

The front rooms of a Chinese style townhouse. The rooms nearest to the street would have been a shop with the middle rooms serving as a livingroom. The photo is taken from the outside courtyard

Town houses have very high ceilings with huge planks used to shut the front of the street off. Ingenious joints hold the buildings together with Chinese characters and carvings of dragons combining in the dark wood with the beautiful simplicity of Japanese forms. After you leave the front of the building, which would have served as a workshop or shop, you enter a small courtyard with either a well or a rainwater container, beyond that lies the private quarters of the house. A balcony runs along the inside of the courtyard, with a small entrance to the rear of the building leading out onto the dockside, where commodities would be brought in from the river. We later visited a house which had been inhabited by a Chinese/Vietnamese family for eight generations. Photos of a severe matriarch dominated the house, with the names of the older generations inscribed onto plaques and hung from the walls.

A typical Hoi An house

Chinese clan halls

One of the five Chinese clan halls in Hoi An

Hoi An has had a settled Chinese community for hundreds of years. Not only did they leave behind their houses, but also their community centres. Five communal halls exist, dating from different periods. These centres were established by groups of Chinese from four different provinces, with a final one for them all. The halls serve many functions and act as a focal point for their communities. After entering an often gaudy front gate, you find yourself in a surprisingly large courtyard leading to the main building – I guess the yard may have been used as a market or ceremonial space. The building beyond is a large hall, capable of holding several hundred people, with chairs and tables laid out in a path towards the altar at the far end of the room. When we visited people were sitting at the tables tugging on their cigarettes, as their relations visited the altar further down the hall.

Surf's up dude!

The walls are decorated with paintings dedicated to the patron goddess of the hall. Apparently, Thien Hau was famous for helping save sailors in storms and there’s a fantastic painting of a surfing goddess with helper rescuing a storm ridden junk.
The alter of the shrine consists of a two hundred year old papier mache model of the goddess, which many people could be seen worshipping in front of them. Beyond the main shrine queues of people brought sheets of paper, on which according to tradition they had to outline their proposal – be it business or personal. In return for their paper, which they handed to an attendant they were given a slip of paper with a number on it. This is the first time that I’ve seen Chinese numerology in operation. It seems that depending on the proposal that they’ve outlined, the number that they’ve been given back will offer some type of guidance for their future actions…all very interesting, and alien.

The Japanese covered bridge

Japanese covered bridge

The Japanese were the other main community that settled in Hoi An. Unlike the Chinese, there are no longer any settled Japanese/Vietnamese, they have however left behind Hoi An’s most famous landmark, the covered bridge. The bridge spans a very small canal and apparently was built after the lone survivor of a ship wreck believed that the gods were unhappy and needed appeasing. A small shelter exists on the bridge for travellers caught out by the weather. At either end of the bridge stand two pairs of animals. At one end are monkeys and at the other dogs. The dogs are supposed to bring good luck to those that visit them.

On the waterfront

Vietnamese fishing boats

The river front adds to the already attractive character of the town, blue painted wooden fishing boats bob on the water, bedecked for Tet with Vietnamese national flags. Just like the rest of the world and Greece in particular, the boats all have painted elongated eyes.

Hoi An food and drink

Hoi An has several food specialities, and it was our first opportunity to try food different from the north. Hoi An is famous for it’s sea food and fish and it features highly on the menus. White Roses are small cakes of minced shrimp and crab served in little cups of rice paper and are eaten with a dipping sauce. Waxy fish with a slight curried sauce wrapped in banana leaf is another favourite. However my favourite is Cau Lau – a soupy noodle dish which is slightly similar to it’s northern cousin Pho. Cau Lau consists of long wheat noodles – square across the diameter, with a mix of herbs such as coriander or parsley, bean sprouts, a dash of Soy sauce, topped with slices of roast pork and crispy deep fried pork crackling.

As I’m sure I’ve mentioned before, Vietnam doesn’t have a ‘national’ beer, different regions are served by what in the west would be termed micro breweries – and all the better are they for it. It was next to impossible to find any of the well known brands that are familiar in Hanoi – no Hanoi beer or Tiger – our staple. Yes there’s Heineken and Fosters (and even San Miguel though we never seemed to find it), but everyone drinks either La Rue, Saigon or Larger (Larger lager? Yes indeed). We unfortunately failed to find any Larger, which seems to be the local tipple – it’s branded with the Japanese covered bridge which is the symbol of Hoi An – I think it’s confined to the bars or canteens the locals frequent.

Cool kids

Hoi An pre-teens playing up for the camera

Nature and all that sort of stuff

Early afternoon on the outskirts of Hoi An

Now I’m not really one for nature, it all looks pretty nice, but the idea of having to live in it strikes me as pretty dull. I agree entirely with Marx’s view that the peasantry are a ‘sack of potatoes on the back of the working class’, but I have to say it had it’s attraction as Mark hired a motor bike and we headed out into the countryside for a short jaunt. Just five minutes outside of Hoi An we found ourselves looking out onto a patch of land devoted to paddy fields. In the distance mountains could be seen rearing above the flood plain and river. Dragon flies hovered, while bright aquamarine birds swooped and circled above. Flocks of Herons peered at us from the distance. The silence was only broken (SHATTERED) by the sound of a karaoke machine with kids singing along with voices akin to Mickey Mouse on helium in the near distance. While on our bike ride, we stopped to take a few photos, we had been there for about a quarter of an hour when an wizened old woman wearing a pyjama suit and conical hat approached us from a group of houses nearby. Unfortunately my Vietnamese was nowhere near good enough to discern what she wanted or was offering. She seemed very insistent and tugged at my arm repeatedly. We decided to follow her after she started returning to her house. Mark and I wondered what she had been so excited about and our imagination began to flow. Would it be a downed US helicopter from the war? (Hoi An had been a famous US R&R resort), would it be old shrapnel? Perhaps all these years, she would at last give up her secret and open the room under the stairs with the trapped MIA US marine? No. We caught up with her, and with a beaming smile on her face, she raised her are quivering arm, index finger extended to point at….her new cow.
After the excitement of the new cow, we headed further down the road, only to stop a few yards further down as we came across a gaggle of Vietnamese villagers crouched in a circle, exclamations being excitedly hurled about. We dismounted and peered over the heads, to see that the mixed group of adolescents and elders were playing a type of game. The game (which is pretty well known in casinos throughout the world), consisted of putting money (in this case 1 and 2 thousand Dong notes on different pictures on a board – rice, wine, etc. An older man had a saucer with a lid containing three dice with the same pictures, and if the dice ended up with the picture you had put your money on then you won. Mark gambled and lost, and it became clear that perhaps there was a reason why all the locals had put their money on only two or three of the pictures – the dice weren’t exactly cubed and had a tendency to give the same results pretty much every roll! While Mark lost his fortune, I spoke to some of the younger children on the outside of the gambling circle. One young teenage girl was carrying her younger sister. She tried to get her little sister to wave and say hello to me. Eventually she overcame her shyness and said hello and waved and so I gave her a wave in response only for her to start crying obviously scared by this gigantic white hand and the foreign (and by this point rather pink and sweaty) face beyond!
Mark and I later had a chance to visit another part of Hoi An that lay over the other side of the river from the main town. Unlike Hoi An itself, this was a more relaxed domestic part of town, where Westerners were definitely a more rare sight. Having walked for ten minutes or so we decided to get something to drink. An outdoor canteen came into view, so we decided to stop off. Now, having been in Vietnam for a while you get used to the odd interested stare, but this was something else altogether. In unison the whole room turned to look and an excited chattering began as we weaved our way through the tables to our seats which overlooked a small creek feeding corn fields. After ordering a couple of cokes we relaxed and took in the air, it was a beautiful afternoon and we soon spotted a bird hovering above the water, then diving headfirst into the water to spear fish. After an hour we decided to return to the main town. We attempted to pay with Mark making a perfectly reasonable attempt to ask for the bill. The woman who had initially served us balked and rapidly called over her friend who then interpreted – I think maybe our rather coarse Vietnamese coupled with what probably is a bizarre Hanoi/Sydney accent had confused her. We paid up and left, going past two monkeys in a cage.

Mad dogs and English men, or in this case a rather old Vietnamese woman

Rice fields and mountains

Hoi An monkey business

Closest yet to a monkey

My Son

One of the more intact buildings with distinctive 'boat hull' roofs

The area around Hoi An was also home to another set of people before the Vietnamese, Chinese and Japanese ever arrived. This part of southern central Vietnam consisted of part of the kingdom of Champa, home of the Cham people. Large parts of the south of Vietnam have evidence of this culture, often represented by their ceremonial towers.

Landscape around My Son

From within a building

My Son ceremonial tower

Hindu goddess at My Son

The Cham were an ‘Indianised’ people, who practiced a form of religion similar to Hinduism. They later converted to Islam. I seem to be talking about the Cham people as though they no longer exist, but their descendants can be found throughout Cambodia and southern Vietnam. However their distinct culture was destroyed in the late middle ages, and they later became a vassal state under the leadership of the Vietnamese. My Son itself was a royal burial ground/ceremonial centre and there are striking similarities with architecture that can be found in India. The tombs and chambers that exist are all in deep red stone, moulded into blockish shapes with what has been described as an overturned boat hull as the roof.

Indiana Jones style temple carvings at My Son

Many of the buildings have carvings of dancers, gods and goddesses on them, but interestingly many of the faces seem to have been destroyed – I wonder whether this coincided with their conversion to Islam? My Son is also famous for more recent historical reasons. During the American war, the Vietnamese Cong San guerrillas used My Son as a base for attacks on the Americans. In response the Americans bombed the site, in the process of which they destroyed the gigantic ‘A1’ tower, which up until 1968 had been the best preserved of them all – doh!

Beach time

Yes I know it's a terrible photo, but I thought it was worth taking so that you can see what the Vietnamese wear on the beach. See the woman on the left covered from head to foot. She's wearing woollen gloves by the way!

In addition to all the wonderful attractions that Hoi An has to offer, there’s also a beach four kilometres from the town centre. The last time I was on a beach was in Cuba in 2003, so I was thrilled at the prospect of visiting it. Of course like everything else, the beach has it’s own unique Vietnamese character. After getting Xe Oms from our hotel we were deposited at a beach side café – which we later ate delicious sea food at. The café had a decked space looking directly onto the coast lined with deck chairs and parasols. Unlike our Australian friends who thought it was rather sedate we were delighted by the crashing surf. However none of this really explains the rather different approach that the Vietnamese have to the seaside. Westerners could be seen stretched out in the sun, some women even going topless (and attracting the interest of gaggles of 14 year-old Vietnamese boys!), but the Vietnamese treat the beach in a very different way. Local women shuffled up and down the beach dressed in denim jackets and jeans, wearing socks, woollen gloves (!), face masks, and hats, their eyes being their only visible features. The beach hawkers in Hoi An are also amazingly talented in sales. As we rested at the café, a young woman approached selling trinkets, she quickly ramped up her sales patter which included classics like ‘there’s no flies on me!’ and ‘lovely jubbly’, I have expected her to break into ‘Cor Blimey, guv’nor’ and talk about having to go up the apple and pears to see ‘er indoors at any moment!

Suits you sir!

If Hoi An is famous for one thing – it’s tailoring. You wouldn’t have thought it was possible to cram into one small town so many seamstresses, tailors, outfitters, shoe shops, material shops, handbag shops and linen markets into one town and for it still to be profitable but for some reason Hoi An has managed it. The town also possesses one of the funniest and campest tailors you would ever hope to meet. As the Rough Guide told us Hoi An is home to the ‘irrepressible’ Mr Xe. As we arrived the night before Tet most of the shops appeared to be shut, so by chance we paid Mr Xe a visit. Mr Xe is a short man, perhaps in his late 30s who have been tailoring for about 8 years, and once he realised that we weren’t time wasters, he agreed to take on our work, which consisted of two tops for me, two t-shirts for Mark, three shirts for Felicity and three pairs of trousers and two shirts for Kate. It became apparent that Mr Xe had taken a bit of a shine to Mark during the measuring up, and this attraction only grew and grew! By the time we collected our clothing, Mr Xe had his hands under Mark’s t-shirt and was attempting to tune in to radio stations by twiddling his nipples! Kate offered a year’s worth of clothing in return for Mark (with some Vietnamese women in the street roaring with laughter shouting ‘Sell him! Sell him!’), and so the three of us left him there.

Monday, February 07, 2005

Hanoi prepares for Tet (Lunar New Year)

Hanoi prepares for Tet. Quamquat trees, along with peach blossoms are on sale everywhere.