22 February 2007

Flower Street

Nguyen Hue Street, in central Ho Chi Minh City, runs from the Saigon River up to the People’s Committee building; about half a mile in length. Both the building and street date back to French occupation and construction. It is an immensely wide boulevard, three lanes in each direction. During the week of Tet, it is cordoned off and becomes a landscaped garden. Last year I didn’t go, hearing tales of millions of visitors making it impossible to enjoy the spectacle, or even be able to see it. My Vietnamese teacher told me that one has to arrive very early in the morning in order to stroll along in serenity.

So last Sunday, I grabbed a taxi at 6am, and was at the People’s Committee building by 6:15. I had seen them setting up the display, but it still didn’t prepare me for the grandeur of what lay before me.

The beginning of the garden street was full of pigs and flowers. Unfortunately, the pig is not an elegant animal. With a horse year you can really get artistic; and a ram isn’t too bad for creative exploration. But a pig? The worst was all the Porky Pig type caricatures on New Years decorations. However, they actually came up with elegant piggies, that looked cute, if not exactly chic.

Potted flowers were tightly grouped together giving the impression of giant flowerbeds. Some had sculptures or pottery in the middle of the beds. There were sections where art work hung above the gardens. Orchids were displayed beneath undulating canopies. There was even a rice paddy and a little lake.

The kite section was at the bottom of the street, right across from the river. Massive, geometric kites lined the sides, while giant birds flew overhead, suspended from a latticework of wires.

We spent well over an hour walking in the pleasant weather, with few people around. My teacher then asked if I wanted to visit a plant exhibition in a nearby park. This was the first I had heard about the event and of course was eager to go.

As we walked there, I asked my teacher about the history of Flower Street. It turns out that this was only about the forth year of its existence. Prior to that, the street was blocked off for a week, but as a flower market prior to Tet. The flower market has now been moved to another central location which I had passed coming back from Chinatown the week before. I couldn’t believe it as the taxi drove past blocks and blocks of trees and plants and flowers for sale, but was too tired of crowds to stop and wander around.

The plant exhibition was set in one of them many, large city parks, again of French construction and design, and after all these years, filled with very tall trees. Immediately upon entering, it smelled like we were in a rural area, not in the middle of Saigon. I have walked through these parks before, which are always pleasant, but what with the abundance of temporary plants, the entire venue was transformed into the countryside, complete with the sounds of birds and the aroma of plants and trees and flowers.

The first area we saw was that of the ornamental sculptures made entirely of fruit, vegetables and some plants. Dragons with teeth of garlic and scales of chili peppers. Fish with scales made from the bark of a coconut tree. A phoenix with flowers for his body and wings of pineapple leaves. I had once seen a fruit and vegetable dragon at a wedding, but it was much smaller. These were all about three feet high and some, as wide.

We walked through rows of ornamental, potted trees of varying shapes, mostly with the yellow Tet flowers, others with pick or red flowers. Orchids, as I have never seen, hung suspended in containers, or planted in pots. It was absolutely glorious.

My teacher, who does not live that far away, said that during the week of Tet, she often comes over at 6am every morning to walk through the places we had just visited. If I lived al little closer, I would be inclined to do the same.


14 February 2007

Chinatown, Saigon

Not being able to go to Malaysia for my vacation wasn’t really all that traumatic. I can go there in a few months. But then I remembered that I would miss one of the spots I had planned to visit in Kuala Lumpur: Chinatown. It is especially wonderful leading up to Chinese New Year.

Chinatown in KL is simple to get to and the business section is small enough to easily get around. I especially love all the shops that sell new years decorations. There are lots of gold plastic ornaments trimmed with red tassels, in popular symbols like pineapples and pots and, of course, the current year’s animal. The stalls are also stacked with greeting cards, lucky money envelopes, and every shape and size of red lanterns. Besides the shops, there are all the small and large temples filled with burning incense and beautiful alters. I was saddened that I wouldn’t see it this year.

But wait! Ho Chi Minh City has a huge Chinatown. I had gone there not long after arriving in Vietnam. It is so large, and so confusing, and so crowded, that I hadn’t been back since. If I wanted to get in on all the fun part of Chinese New Year, I needed to go back. I looked at it as a mini-vacation.

Being the most inept individual in the world when it comes to directions, (I need to look at both hands in front of me to remember which is left and which is right), last night I got out every map I owned. I had two tourist maps, a hand drawn one from my Vietnamese teacher, one cut out from Lonely Planet, and one from a tourist magazine. I then got out all the literature I had on Chinatown and plotted out my route. I knew it would be crowded, but the weather isn’t deplorably hot right now, so I reasoned that if I left home at 9:00 am, I would be ok.

Taxi drivers in HCMC are generally amazing. They seem to know where everything is. Knowing this, and practicing what I would say in Vietnamese to the driver, I foresaw no problems. My first stop was to be one of the many famous pagodas in Chinatown.

This morning, I jumped into one of the taxis that are always waiting in front of my building. I said, in what I believed to be pretty darn good Vietnamese, where I wanted to go. The driver, who had already driven half a block before I finished speaking, nodded in complete understanding. At the corner he stopped to ask a fellow driver where, exactly, was this pagoda I wanted to go to. Uh oh….. I pulled out my various maps and pointed to them. He recognized a main street and assured me he knew.

All was going well until we got into the heart of Chinatown. It is an old place. Those narrow streets were built for a donkey or two, not five million motorbikes. Even on the wide boulevards, it was pandemonium. What the hell was I thinking going down there three days before Tet? But I started to recognize a few streets I had been on before, and just tried to relax in air-conditioned comfort as we edged our way thorough streets made even narrower by parked motorbikes and customers visiting all the shops along the way.

I did start to get a bit antsy when I realized the driver really had no clue. It seems that unless you grew up in Chinatown, you do not know your way around. He stopped and asked directions several times. I found out later that the name of a temple or pagoda on a tourist map is not necessarily what the Chinese speakers call it. We finally arrived at a temple that was not the one I was aiming for, but it would do. I needed the tranquility that awaited me through its arches.

Walking out of the chaos and into total silence was wonderful. I adore the smell of the incense they use, another reason for going to the temples. For over a year, I have been trying to get that Chinese Temple Incense, but always buy the wrong one. Today I was told it is sandalwood, and I made sure I bought a lot of it.

I saw a couple of tourists inside, but mostly just a few locals, buying candles and incense, which they lit and prayed over then placed in giant urns, before getting down on their knees to pray. When I felt sufficiently serene, I sat on a side bench, pulled out the maps, and tried to plot my next move on the trip I had formulated the night before. Now, in what temple was I? I hadn’t a clue.

I looked out to the street and remembered places we passed in the taxi that I could easily find. I also knew that trying to use a map in all that commotion would be impossible. In fact, it would probably have been impossible had the streets been empty. So I tossed it all in my bag, took a deep breath, and wandered on out.

Squishing through crowded sidewalks, often having to walk in the street and dodge traffic, I felt the tension rising. I stopped by an elderly gentleman’s makeshift stand where he was painting Chinese calligraphy, New Year’s banners. I bought a pair to place on either side of my front door. I walked further and saw several more calligraphers. One man was exceptional. I watched as he whipped out gold characters on red paper. It was absolutely beautiful. I asked the price, but it was too high.

As with the last time I was in this area, I just didn’t feel comfortable. People weren’t rude or unkind, but they seemed rather dismissive. I would have liked to take pictures as I walked, but did not feel that pulling out my camera was a wise thing to do.

Finally giving up on that section of Chinatown, I decided to head over to the fabric markets that were close by. As I passed a group of shops selling New Year’s decoration, I heard my name called out. I turned to see my realtor friends, busy buying up trinkets. I explained my failed mission to find certain temples, and they directed me to one a block away. It was also there that I was able to take a few pictures, having a big, local guy watch my back.

The second temple was also lovely and calming. Recharged, I was determined to get the fabric I needed. But half way to the market, which was only a few blocks away, I hit burn-out. I needed a taxi out of there and fast. This was a little more difficult than I had hoped. Taxis down there are not as numerous, but I finally found one.

At that point, I really just wanted to head on back to the homestead, but needed to go by Vietnam Air to argue my case for not loosing my ticket to Malaysia. I talked to one of the sales agents, then had to come back an hour and a half later to see what a manager said. I still don’t have a final answer, but it looks like either I loose the ticket or fork over nearly the same amount as the ticket cost to turn it into an “open” ticket, which is something I will not do. I will get a final answer sometime next week.

I intend to spend the rest of my vacation sequestered in the burbs.
Happy Valentine’s Day!

13 February 2007

Kitchen Gods & Banh Chung

My Vietnamese language school organized a Tet cultural day field trip to partake in the making of traditional Tet “cakes”, visit a Tet tree farm, and go to a shoe factory. (I still haven’t figured out if there is any connection with shoes and Tet, but think not.)

Tet cakes, or Banh Chung, are not sweet; they are made of rice and meat. To see them being made in the traditional way, we drove about an hour out of HCMC, to a house where a woman in her 70’s has been making and selling them every Tet for years.

We crowded into the long, narrow, front part of her house where a banquet sized table was set up with various ingredients in large bowls. One contained a cooked, ground-up and sweetened, green bean mixture, although the color was yellow. Another bowl was filled with cooked, sticky rice, and a third was filled with fatty, grilled pieces of pork. On one end of the table was a pile of fresh banana leaves.

The woman dampened and piled up the leaves, then quickly went about piling on the rice, followed by the beans, and finally the pork. She then deftly wrapped and folded the leaves around the filling. After doing so, she tied string strips, made of fresh bamboo, around the cake, wrapping and knotting the ends together. It was quite an impressive demonstration.

She had several others making the cakes, but they needed to make theirs using square wooden forms. After they cakes are assembled, they are cooked in boiling water for ten hours. A cooked cake was opened and cut for us to try, which I didn’t.

Another type of Banh was being put together in one corner of the room. This one is sweet and ever so tasty. Balls of the green bean paste are incased in this grey looking gooey stuff, that is actually cooked sticky rice and something else that gives it color. The ball is then wrapped in a dried banana leaf, tied, and boiled.
The texture of the sticky rice when cooked is chewy; sort of like taffy and sort of like thick jelly.

Our next stop was at the tree farm. I had been expecting to see rows of beautiful, flowering yellow trees. What we saw were ornamental shaped trees with buds, but no blooms. Every time I have asked, I have been told that the trees bloom on the first day of Tet. I understand that one has to know when to plant and when to water, and at what time of the year, but just could not understand how anyone could possibly predict the exact day a plant would bloom. The only answer I ever got is that the horticulturist is very experienced.

Expressing my incomprehension at this magical phenomenon, a fellow student from Taiwan gave me the inside scoop. He told me that the blossoming is dependent upon sunlight, and that to delay it, you must use artificial light. If it looks like the blossoms will open the next day after a good nights sleep, you keep them under light all night. When he said this, I looked up and, sure enough, there were lights on tall poles extended over every tree. I still don’t understand exactly how it works, but at least I know it is more than just paranormal activity.

The trees are shaped much in the same way as Bonsai, tying and slowly bending the branches. Some are designed to give the impression of a dragon taking flight, or in some other auspicious forms.

The tree itself is an apricot tree, but not the one we know. It does not bear fruit. It is considered very important because of its special characteristics that “can be compared with the virtues of human beings. The apricot has a pure beauty and its flowering informs the coming of the spring. The yellow flower is the symbol of generosity, success, luxury, and also the color of royalty.” This is from the info sheet we were given, which goes on to say that “If the apricot blossoms on the eve of Tet, the first day of the lunar new year, good luck, prosperity, and happiness will come to the family for the whole year.”

The day of our trip, the 23rd of the 12th month of the lunar calendar, seven days before Tet, is also the day in which you honor the Kitchen Gods. On that day the gods are called to the heavens to report on the family’s activities of that year. The return again on the eve of the first day of the lunar year; Tet. We got a demonstration in the kitchen of the apricot farm’s house. The kitchen alter is set with fruit and incense and flowers. The lady of the house lit the incense, waved them in front of the alter, said something, then placed the burning sticks on the alter.

From there, we went to the shoe factory which was a lot of toxic varnish fumes, horrid working conditions, and instant headaches, so I will not elaborate. Maybe the most enjoyable part of the whole day was that I was outside of the big city, in completely different environments than I have ever experienced in Vietnam.

I await the blossoming of the Tet trees in just a few days.

11 February 2007

Tet Holidays

I am supposed to be in Kuala Lumpur meeting friends and shopping. That was to be the first week of the two week Tet break. Unfortunately, I screwed up with that passport renewal issue, so I am more or less trapped in Vietnam for the time being.

My passport expires March 2nd. I knew I was cutting things close, but my ticket was booked for February 11th -16th. I was planning on taking my passport in to the consulate upon my return. So when I arrived at the Vietnam Airlines ticket counter at 8:30am, for my 10:30 flight, I was surprised to learn that I cannot enter Malaysia with less than four months on my passport and, in fact, could not have returned to Vietnam with less than six months. So for all intents and purposes, other than traveling to the US, by passport has been null and void for the past five months.

I do take full responsibility, but one would think that the travel agent might have told me about the travel regulations. And what about the HR department at work who deals with my passport and visa situation and work permit on almost a monthly basis? They handed it back to me on Friday knowing that it would expire in a month and knowing that I was traveling to Malaysia in two days. Nevertheless, I am not at all upset except for the fact that I had two people in KL who had arranged their schedules around my visit. In my entire life, I have never let any ID or credential expire, and have never missed a flight, so one screw up is not too bad.

At least my house was clean even if there was no food. I had thrown out, or given away, anything that would spoil which means there was nothing to eat. I waited until the afternoon heat had died down a bit before going to the supermarket. There, I stocked up on fruits and veggies and bought a fresh piece of what I think is tuna.

Between checking my emails to make sure my KL friends had received the cancellation emails I had written, watching TV, and being lazy, I cooked up a pot of rice and this great tuna/vegetable thing. Right as I got to the last bite of my first bowlful, one of my lights blew out. I started to get up when the entire globe around the kitchen light exploded, sending shards of glass throughout the house, and flipping the breaker switch.

Although it was only 6:15pm, it was dark. I opened my front door to let the hallway light in, found my mini mag-light, and lit two candles. I got out the emergency electric company phone number and called in my problem, not that the man understood anything other than where I lived and that there was an electrical problem.

Mr. Bao arrived thirty minutes later. I had to warn him to keep his shoes on because of the glass all over the floor. He went to the main breaker switch outside my apartment and flipped it on. Just try explaining, “But can’t that cause an electrical fire if the wiring is faulty?”, in another language. And yes, this is the SAME damn light that keeps blowing out, although in the past, it has only been the bulb. And as with all the times in the past, Mr. Bao assured me that there was no problem in not turning of the electricity as he proceeded to cut and tape of the offending wires. He will come tomorrow to rewire it.

I really am glad that I was not in the kitchen when the explosion occurred. It might have been rather nasty. I did lose all the food I had cooked, which would have lasted for three more meals. I am not about to chance eating glass shards that may have flown into the uncovered pans on the stove. I have no idea how I will ever get up the micro particles of glass that are everywhere. No bare feet allowed in my house for awhile.

This day has already been way too long and it is only 7:30.
The pictures are from the field trip that I went on yesterday with my Vietnamese language school. I have not the slightest idea why we went to a shoe factory – it was a “Tet Culture” trip. Anyway, more on that later, but the shoes are awesome!


03 February 2007

My Hood

I took the bike out for a Sunday morning spin for the first time in ages. I used to be really good about walking in the evenings and bike riding on the weekends. I have lots of excuses as to why these activities have fallen to the wayside, but I won’t bore you with the details.

Where I live grows and changes by the day. If you miss a month of cruising the streets, you barely recognize things. When I moved out here a little less than a year and a half ago, there was one, less than stellar, supermarket. There are now two large ones, and lots of corner markets. New restaurants open up every day. In my block alone, there is now a gym, two flower shops, four new restaurants, two beauty salons, and a DVD shop. If I didn’t ever want to roam, I could live within a one block radius of my apartment building.

The gym, I find, is the funniest new development. Even with all the non-stop construction, I live in a very quiet part of HCMC. At night, one hears nothing but crickets and bull frogs, and that non-stop yapping little mutt the neighbors insist on tying up out front of the house across from me. Especially now with the dry season and cooler weather, walking in the mornings and evenings is fantastic. A light breeze, perfect temperatures, no cars to dodge, fairly clean air. Yet in the evening and morning, if you walk by the gym across the street, you will notice every walking machine occupied by some foreigner, power walking or jogging. And these people are paying US gym fees for the privilege. I just don’t get it, and apparently the Vietnamese people I talk to don’t either. They do have yoga classes but again, the price is more than I pay in California so I haven’t even bothered to try it out.

On today’s ride, I went up by the river where the beautiful, manmade, manicured, mini-river-walk is located. It used to be my favorite walk. To the right you could look over bulldozed land and to the river beyond. There is now a corrugated steel wall that blocks the view and the breeze and all I felt was claustrophobic. Just before you reach the walk, you pass the most humongous apartment building. They had just finished the first level about a year ago. I was shocked to see that it is basically completed. But they were working seven days a week, and until 10pm every night. I can’t imagine anyone wanting to live in such a place. It is scary looking.

There still is a bit of natural wonder right along the road the boarders the river bank. One feels like one is in the back woods of Vietnam. You can hear the birds, smell the flowers, gaze out on boats motoring up and down the river. I really just wanted to camp out there for a few days. Some of the workers from neighboring building sites had swung hammocks between trees along the river back. It looked so inviting.

Eventually, I decided it was time to drop by a coffee shop for a drink. Many of the places out my way are foreign owned, over-priced, and lousy. But all I wanted was ice tea, so it didn’t really matter. Driving up to the place I sometimes go, where they have the best French pastries in town, but the worst coffee and service, I spotted a new café. I drove by and heard classical music, and saw that the outdoor tables were filled with Vietnamese. There actually are quite a few Vietnamese, up-scale coffee/restaurant places in my neighborhood, but I never feel comfortable dropping in. Which is absolutely stupid. These are the nicest, friendliest people in the world and would love to have my business. So this time I parked the bike and sat down at a table.

The Roadster, complete with a totally cherry, 1959 Chevrolet out front, opened yesterday. I talked to the owner and found out he is an audio consultant, programmer, or whatever. (I don’t really understand this stuff). The café is a new venture. I told him what snagged me was the music. We talked a little about music and music quality and he put one a special CD for me.

Although I wasn’t there to eat, I looked at the menu which, for my neighborhood, was incredibly inexpensive. This may be a new hang-out. Lovely ambience, quiet corner, soothing music, nice people. Definitely the find of the day.

I suppose today I felt a little saddened that all the nature around me will be gone in a few years time. On the positive side, it is proof that the economy is growing and the country is going to do very well in the future. And growth and nature can’t always coincide. I am part of that growth. I am part of the reason the farm land that my apartment sits on no longer exists. So I probably do not have the right to fell distressed at the loss.

The photos of are some of the very interesting architecture that is taking place out here. These are the really expensive houses that sit on two or three lots. Buildings like the one I live in are pretty boring in comparison.