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Ho Chi Minh City
Ho Chi Minh City, named after the first president of the Democratic Republic of Vietnam, though still largely known as Sai Gon, is the commercial capital of Viet Nam. It is a thriving, bustling town, which is fairly clean and orderly. It is said that there are 8 million people living in Ho Chi Minh, and 3 million motorcycles! (Okay, we also heard 5 million, but that seems completely unreasonable!)
Wait a minute, how does one celebrate Tet, the arrival of the lunar New Year (oh, alright, Chinese New Year)?
First, seven days before Tet, you must clean your house and all must be immaculate, so that when the Kitchen God takes off to make his report on your family for the year to the Jade Emperor he will have a good impression. On the night before Tet it is time to head off to a festival of flowers. This is the beginning of spring, so it makes sense that you should celebrate with flowers. There are flowers everywhere. Just two blocks from our hotel was one of the biggest flower festivals in Ho Chi Minh City. A major thoroughfare was blocked off for 6 blocks - Michigan Avenue major - and decked from one end to the other with more flowers than you can even imagine. And flowers alone are not too exciting, so let's add sculptures and pinwheels and fountains and lanterns and anything else we can think off. The theme is, of course, rats - as we are about to enter the Year of the Rat. Anika's creation!
Festival of Flowers
^ Click on this one! And it's not just flowers - these are cut fruits!
Next, let's have a huge fireworks display along the river front. At midnight. Which should go on and on and stop all traffic for miles!
Then on the first day of Tet, it's time to ask the gods for good fortune in the new year.
We were incredibly lucky, as we were in the lobby of our hotel when this activity began! It wasn't announced anywhere in the hotel, and really wasn't intended for the hotel guest, but rather for the hotel employees. It was late morning and a dedicated tourist would already be underway. We, on the other hand, were not dedicated; we were tired from watching fireworks at midnight; we slept in. (Always my idea of a good New Year's Day activity!) We decided on breakfast in the hotel, because of the holiday, we were a little worried about what might be open. The hotel serves a buffet, so we lingered for a long time. Dim Sum, yum yum! And Belgian waffles. And 15 different kinds of bread, not to mention the pastries. And eggs, any style, and bacon and sausage and hash browns. And miso soup and noodles and fried rice. And cereal and yogurt and muesli. And fruit – papaya and dragon fruit and three kinds whose names I don’t even know. So, breakfast kept us busy until 10. We left the restaurant just as the drumming started. Anika looked up and said, oh, there must be a fire in the lobby.
Sure enough, the lobby was filled with smoke. In the center a two-tiered table had been set up facing the big double glass doors of main entrance. On the bottom tier were offerings – a small roast piglet, with legs splayed, a large bowl of oranges, and lots of flowers. On the top tier were more flowers and a large upright vase filled with three big fat incense sticks which were smoking away furiously. There was a large Caucasian man in a suit standing behind this altar holding the bottoms of three skinny incense sticks to his forehead and bowing gently to the big glass doors. He then stepped aside and an Asian man in a suit took three more incense sticks and stood behind the altar and did the same. Then the manager invited each employee of rank to stand behind the altar with incense, always at least three sticks of incense, and pray for the good fortunes of the hotel in the coming year.
As all this praying is going on, it is downright loud in the lobby. There are 9 huge kettle drums set up outside on the circle drive, along with various other percussion instruments. There are also four to six sets of cymbals, which are banged together with gusto regularly.
Next a very long dragon begins to dance outside. The body of this dragon is made of hundreds of traditional Vietnamese cone-shaped woven straw peasant hats, the rims of which are all tied together so that it appears you could stack the entire dragon up being left with a tall pile of hats. The head is covered in miniatures of these same cone-shaped hats. Eight men carry this dragon on long poles. While this dragon is ornate in its construction, it is all a uniform off-white color. This dragon is joined by three colorful yellow gold dragons, each made up of two men – one controlling the head and front legs, the other the hind quarters and back. The drumming never ceases. After a long time, once all the praying has been completed, the dragons come right into the hotel. The yellow gold ones sit right down in front of the altar and eat oranges. Their huge mouths open and close, and their eyelids blink! Then they danced in the lobby, in each of the restaurants, in front of the check-in counter and the bell-hop station.
In the mean time it appears that something is going to happen out front, so the kids and I reposition. We are lucky – we get a seat on the stairs leading up to the hotel from the circular drive. It is very crowded here; all the employees are here with their families. Most tourists would already be out touring at this hour, perhaps the reason that this hour has been chosen. This is an important annual event for the employees of the hotel – the blessing of the hotel in this new year.
Next up, the acrobatic dragon. He is fabulous; controlled by two men, one working the head and front legs, the other being the back and hind legs. This dragon is purple with white fur trim and he dances not just in front of us, but also on top of 12 tall posts standing before us. The lowest post is 5 feet up. The dragon bounds up there as if there is no tomorrow. How does he do this? The guy in back has clearly lifted the guy in the front, but how has the guy in back gotten up? He has somehow pulled himself up holding on to the guy in front. They balance precariously on top of just one post and leap in the air landing on one and then another of the posts. The demonstration of strength and skill is amazing, and yet you need to keep remembering that they are actually two guys. The drumming is insistent.
Next up: the acrobatics and martial arts show – as the drums pound on insistently, it begins with a bunch of guys jumping over two hoops of fire. Then we have a series of different martial arts displays, sometimes the whole troop in unison, sometimes two or three, sometimes solo. Some guys have long flexible spears, others use just their hands. A guys lies on a bed of nails strong enough to impale a coconut. Then a heartless guy places sharp knives against his chest and lies on top of them. Then a third comes along and breaks three bricks with a hammer on this guy’s back. Yuck! We have men breaking coconuts with karate chops and others fending off spears with their bellies.
Then we have another long dragon on poles, this one is colorful and red, sewed out of silk. During the course of this dance, the dancers had to keep jumping over the dragon's long snaking body - it was a most sophisticated version of jump rope! And the dragon moved faster and faster and faster!
Now it is time for the big event. For some reason vegetables need to be retrieved from an upper floor of the building. A two story long pole is brought and to the accompaniment of drums and cymbals and other banging, clanging instruments a fellow climbs the pole carrying a dragon costume. Once at the top, the dragon works hard to get the vegetables, which are suspended from a long fishing pole. We know he has been successful when we see the assistant manager catching a couple of bunches of green lettuce. The climber is joined by a second, who brings the dragon costume down. While our pole climber is up there, he does a few amazing holds – you know legs pointing straight out kind of things. When he has finished, he comes sliding down the pole, upside down.
This marks the end of the hotel blessing ceremony. It has taken over an hour. The drumming has not ceased for the entire time. Now the drummers pack up, the audience dissipates and I assume the employees are all satisfied. Let’s hope the hotel has a good year.
Now that we knew about this hotel blessing thing, we observed that there were hundreds of these ceremonies happening all around us for the rest of the day. You can’t miss them – the drumming is very loud and goes on for a very long time.
The street is dominated by motorcycles, and no street scenes section would be complete without coverage of them.
Festival of Flowers (in daylight)
The Sai Gon River
These photos are from our hotel.
The Post Office
Left over from the French colonial period is this post office, designed by Gustav Eiffel!
The Vinh Nghiem Pagoda
We walked a long way in the blazing sun to see this pagoda!
holiday, the zoo was crowded and there were so many things going on!
People picnicking by the lake, a tightrope walker on stage, elephant rides, at
least for a while, and of course, more dragon dancing!
This elephant was taken out of service in a hurry! As she was carrying her last passenger, a young boy and his father, she started misbehaving. She was growling and shouting, to which her compatriots in the elephant pen were responding. It was all the mahouts could do to get the passengers safely to the ground. So the general state in the elephant enclosure was one of high tension! Glad we didn't get to this part of the zoo a little earlier, it might have been us on the elephant!
The Mekong Delta
Our lunch - a wrap and roll (Vietnamese specialty) with this fresh fish and some vegies. Anika decided to just eat the wrapper!
From Vietnam we journeyed to Japan.
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