Sunday, March 8, 2015

Tet Holiday in Vietnam

Chúc mừng năm mới! That means “Happy New Year” in Vietnamese! In February 2015, I visited Vietnam to see my girlfriend during the Lunar New Year holiday, known as Tet in Vietnam. I would be there for the first day of the Year of the Goat, also known as the Year of the Sheep in Korea and northern China, apparently due to the lack of goats naturally in those places.

Going from Seoul (avg. temp. in February: roughly 0C) to Ho Chi Minh City (avg. temp. in February: about 28C) was a welcome change! Going through immigration was a chore as usual — you never know how long those Visa on Arrival people will take — but at least there were people issuing visas during the Tet holiday! (my girlfriend had been worried about this) Vietnam takes its Lunar New Year very seriously, more so than South Korea even. Most major companies were shut down for the entire week on which the holiday fell, and most good restaurants as well. In fact, I had read an expat in Vietnam joking that Tet actually was a 3-week holiday…1 week to prepare, 1 week to celebrate, and 1 week to recover!

My girlfriend had me set up in a good 3-star hotel near her house … from there we headed to a water puppet show near the center of Ho Chi Minh City. A triplet of musicians sat on each side of a small pool in which the puppets appeared. The skits told old Vietnamese fables, dictated and sung by the musicians on the edge of the stage. About what these fables were about I have no idea, as the whole show was in Vietnamese with no translation available, which I found a little odd as my girlfriend was the only Vietnamese person in the audience. She tells me that only foreigners attend these shows! The artistic quality was good… lots of people and farm animals and the Four Holy Beasts of Vietnam: the dragon, the unicorn, the tortoise, and the phoenix. At the end of the show, the puppeteers emerged from behind a curtain shaped like a Vietnamese pagoda, and everyone applauded.

Water puppet show in Ho Chi Minh City

The show got me in the mood for the inevitable awkward, nervous moments upon first meeting my girlfriend’s parents. They lived in a modest, comfortable house, built vertically like most of the houses that I have seen in Ho Chi Minh City, and had a feast prepared for my arrival. My girlfriend’s parents spoke little English, and I only speak the little Vietnamese that I learned in the first 5 sessions of a Pimsleur course, so I just tried to smile, eat all of the food placed in front of me, and wait for my girlfriend to translate what they were asking! Her father had learned some English over 40 years ago from a US military soldier, but was of course very rusty. Her mother, like most mothers was very concerned that I had eaten enough. My girlfriend kept thrusting food — a lot of pork, I remember — into my bowl, and even though I felt stuffed like a pig my girlfriend’s mother was still asking me to eat more!

After dinner older people handed younger people red envelopes filled with small amounts of money. I received the envelopes — one contained a US $2 bill! — and also distributed some that my girlfriend prepared. My girlfriend then let me lay down for a nap and when I woke up the time was almost midnight. On the top floor of my girlfriend’s house her family had built a small shrine for ancestor worship. Some fruits, sodas, and Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups (imported from the USA!) had been left for the ancestors. Vietnamese people believe on the Lunar New Day that their ancestors will return to enjoy some of these foods and bring good fortune to the lives of the living. Just before midnight, my girlfriend’s family members, 1-by-1, lit incense sticks and prayed before an image of Buddha atop the food.

Then, at midnight, lots of fireworks erupted all over Ho Chi Minh City. After watching fireworks I followed the family to a neighborhood pagoda. The pagoda was packed with worshipers. Monks handed out red envelopes and people were bowing their heads several times in front of every deity they saw.

Ho Chi Minh flower festival

The next day, my girlfriend picked me up from my hotel and we rode on her motorbike to her grandmother’s house outside of Ho Chi Minh City. Her grandmother is no longer living; her uncle maintains the house and the family returns every Lunar New Year to pray to a shrine with her photograph on top. How quickly the city changes from gritty urban buildings into short houses with small yards filled with chickens. More food, more ancestor worship, more time with my girlfriend’s family. A little rain shower popped up in the afternoon, which my girlfriend claimed was lucky on New Year’s Day!

We escaped my girlfriend’s family to into central Ho Chi Minh city, where a large pedestrian flower festival had been set up on a main street of the city. The festival was mobbed and it was hard to get the good pictures that everyone else wanted.

On the 2nd day of the new lunar year, my girlfriend picked me up before sunrise for a flight to Phu Quoc, Vietnam’s island beach destination. The rickety 72-seat propeller plane barely held our carry-on luggage, and as it always seems with these planes we had a rough landing. Fortunately the island town is close to the small island airport and we were able to catch a pre-arranged 9am tour from a local tour agent. We hopped on a bus for a loop around the southern part of the island. A pearl farm, an old Vietnam War prison, a pungent fish sauce factory, then Sao Beach for lunch and relaxation time. The beach was a pleasant walk and there seemed to be some good resorts in that area. In the afternoon a black pepper garden, a fishing village, then back to town, where we caught a ride up to our own resort on the northwestern corner of the island.

Sao Beach, Phu Quoc

That evening we rented a motorbike for a seafood dinner at Dinh Cau night market in town, which I had read was the best place to dine on the island. The market was certainly lively and full of markets and diners, though disappointingly the majority of the seafood on display was no longer swimming. Though we ate well — prawns and shellfish and squid — my girlfriend was not happy with the freshness of the food we were eating.

The next morning I fell ill from exhaustion (not tainted fish, thankfully), and we skipped our pre-arranged morning boat tour to rest. In the afternoon, we ate a late lunch at a popular seafood restaurant for locals — well recommended by our hotel, but one of those places you can only visit with a Vietnamese girlfriend. In the late afternoon, we hung around a fishing pier where we caught a sunset squid fishing cruise out in the sea. We were given rudimentary fishing equipment: a line with no pole and a little rubber lure. No one seemed to be catching any squid, but at least we saw a nice sunset and ate a good meal prepared onboard.

The third and final day in Phu Quoc started with the boat tour that we had skipped the previous day. The snorkel boat picked us up directly from the beach near our resort hotel — a cheap little river cruiser ferried us to the same sightseeing boat from the night before. It took about an hour of traveling northward until we reached the snorkel area: an island surrounded by coral reefs. To avoid the intense sun, my girlfriend opted to stay in the shade of the boat. She watched me plop into the water, when almost immediately I heard “watch out for the jellyfish next to you, mate!” I couldn’t see a jellyfish anywhere. “Just swim for the island!” I paddled my arms and kicked my fins as fast as I could. My girlfriend says that I avoided a big jellyfish. I got lucky.

Thankfully no jellyfish were in sight around the reef and the views were quite nice. The coral was very big … deep but almost touching the water’s surface. Plenty of colorful fish swam below, and large spiny sea urchins sat menacingly on top of the coral. A good snorkel spot.

Ong Lang Beach, Phu Quoc

The snorkel boat fought against the current for an hour and a half to get us back to our beach, where my girlfriend and I enjoyed snipping drinks and snapping pictures. Our time on Phu Quoc was too short — it’s a nice island.

Back in Ho Chi Minh City, my sixth and final day in Vietnam was an easy one. We met my girlfriend’s best friend for a Chinese-style dim sum lunch, then headed to the “Victory Palace”, formerly the presidential palace for the president of South Vietnam. The palace is offers a nice snapshot of presidential life under the old regime and teaches some history lessons from the final years of divided Vietnam. More lazy coffee time followed. I could not believe how many Vietnamese students owned an iPhone 6, which costs roughly $1000 in Vietnam, according to my girlfriend. She tells me that the average take-home paycheck for a new university graduate is about $150/month, meaning that these students are saving for a long time to buy these iPhones!

The final stop was dinner with Ms. Lam Huong, my old Samsung friend who directed my first trip to Vietnam and introduced me to my girlfriend. This was my first trip to see her since, and I did not feel as welcome in her house as I had imagined. Probably Ms. Lam Huong was tired from Tet holiday. She seemed happier to see me once she saw the lingzhi mushrooms that I had brought for her from Korea.

Tet holiday would probably be a difficult time to visit Vietnam as a tourist without a local guide, given the number of businesses and restaurants which are closed and the number of local people traveling around the country. But if you are invited to experience Tet from a local, the holiday is not to be missed!

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