08 December 2007

December Carnival

After a few Decembers in Malaysia, and now three in Vietnam, I no longer am totally astonished by the sight of Christmas tress, Santas, and fake snow in tropical countries that have a very limited Christian population. Oddities in Malaysia included Muslim girls and boys sitting on Santa’s lap and wearing Santa hats, in the middle of a mall with a massive Christmas tree. Here, the downtown stores have decorated entire building facades with styrofoam snow, lined streets with blinking lights and moving reindeer, and there are Santa suits on sale from street vendors.

My apartment building has not been spared the holiday make-over. The circular palm tree garden has been transformed into a blue-lit holiday tree. First, they trimmed the group of four palms, then bound the fronds together into a point. (looked painful). Over that was placed a wire frame, to which thousands of tiny blue lights were attached, a big red star at the top. We also have blinking wreaths with holiday greetings on all apartment block entrances.

Knowing that around this time of year, in the evening, it gets rather insane with spectators and revelers downtown, I have avoided it. This year, however, I decided I really should get some pictures and maybe get some sort of idea why this is all happening.

I knew the place to start was the Le Loi street and Saigon Center, which is a corner building with high-end stores inside; high-end coffee shops on its outer edges. This time of year they put up a massive Disney-type display of elves and trees and reindeer at the main entrance. You need to walk through Santa’s house to enter the mall. On the sidewalk in front, there are at least thirty vendors, each with a tub of kiddy toys that sparkle and glow with flashing lights and sounds. Another ten or fifteen people sell bright, Mylar balloons. Then there are the professional photographers just waiting to capture you and your family in amongst it all. The folks mill around with their kids, take pictures in front of the display, buy toys and snacks.

Being in the middle of it all, for the first time, (previously, I would do anything to get away from the massive crowd), I got it. It was a carnival and people were out to play. Simple as that. And I dove right in buying silver plastic tiaras with flashing lights that my friend and I wore the rest of the evening, much to the delight of all those that passed us.

Suddenly, while we were in the middle of absorbing all the merriment, the vendors lining the outer edge of the sidewalk next to the street, jumped up grabbing their wares, and high-tailed it away. Within five, I kid you not, five seconds, there was not one vendor on the sidewalk. Having seen this in other countries, I knew it was the police coming in to crack down on unlicensed sellers. As soon as someone notices the police, the call goes out, and it is a domino effect of pick-up-and-leave. We carried on down the street noticing the entrepreneurs and their goods standing across the street, waiting to return.

The next corner was the mall called the Tax Center. I have no idea why it is called this, because it is simply a huge building with lots of independent up-grade stalls inside, though prices here are reasonable. The bottom floor is electronics jewelry, and cosmetics. Floor two is clothing, and three and four are souvenir shops.

Now, the Tax Center, this year, had really gone all out. The entire building, which wraps around a corner, was covered in snow. Along the sides of the building, they had placed white benches and trees and mailboxes, so that you could sit and have your picture taken. Several of the benches had ‘actor-manikins’ dressed in…..actually, I was not sure of why they were dressed the way they were. One woman was totally pained in silver and stood frozen next to a silver tree. Another guy looked like something out of a 1940’s South American novel. On the sidewalk two men were chalking out snowman scenes, while people either avoided or stepped on their work. We took a quick peek inside to look at the dancing and singing show being performed by little girls in white, glittery outfits. Back outside, I saw that they even had a machine on the second floor, spewing out something that resembled snow onto the crowds below.

Continuing another few blocks, we turned right onto Dong Khoi Street, the really, really, expensive strip in town. Palm trees covered in those blue lights, (which must have just come out this year), and the mechanical reindeers made of tiny white lights, lined a block. Sides of building were draped in Astroturf-like fabric, bedecked with more blue lights. Locals posed in front of the displays and snapped pictures.

Walking back along Le Loi after dinner, I noticed that the streets seemed much more chaotic than usual, but put it off to the carnival. I had been told that that is the way it gets here in December. Then we started noticing young men on motorbikes waving huge Vietnamese flags. Hmm, maybe there was something else up, possibly a football game. As we walked, the motorbikes with joyously screaming riders, increased to the point that traffic barely moved, and this is on a massive, center-divided, French-built boulevard of about eight lanes. The drivers were now coming up onto the sidewalk to get through. It was getting a bit perilous. Also, there is no way one could get a taxi or, even if possible, where would it go?

Finally, after walking away from the main drag, we got a taxi. And yes, it had been a football match that added to the celebrations. Vietnam had beat Laos. Driving along, we passed hundreds of young people parked on the side of the road, watching all the traffic. I kept the windows down to take pictures and wave at people who smiled and waved back. (those tiaras were still blinking). It was so uplifting to see people having so much fun just driving around and being part of the whole.

Definitely a marvel of an evening. I plan to go back in two weeks to see the big city park that I hear is even more insane than Le Loi Street.

Peace on Earth