The Vietnamese and Chinese New Year begins the evening of February 2nd. Before leaving the US, I made sure I knew exactly what year on the animal wheel it would be so that I wouldn’t appear stupid. I found out that it would be the Year of the Rabbit.
The Lunar New Year is the biggest event of the year in Vietnam, and the city has been gearing up since before I arrived. Main streets in the central district are bedecked with ornamental lighting. Huge flower/plant markets are set up in all districts of the city and most likely throughout the country. Red and gold decorations depicting the animal year and traditional tokens of luck, such as pineapples and coins, are sold on street corners, supermarkets, and most shops.
Soon after arriving I started to look for a funky Rabbit Year talisman. I couldn’t seem to find any. I clearly remember buying gold plastic little horses and pigs when it was there year. So where were the rabbits? I looked at all the posters and door decorations on both houses and stores and the only animal I saw was a very strange rabbit with short ears. And I kept seeing variations of these critters. Perhaps Vietnamese rabbits were different from the ones I knew.
Several days ago I wondered by Nguyen Hue Street where they were busy constructing that temporary flower park. At the top of the street, at the main entrance, where they always have a large display of the current animal, I again noticed to the short-eared rabbits. Then I noticed the long tails. OK, so what I had been seeing wasn’t a mutant rabbit but a cat. That would make sense except that I had been certain we were going into a rabbit year. Maybe it was now rabbit and we were transitioning into cat.
While in the lobby of a hotel, waiting for a friend, I asked the receptionist what year it was going to be. Cat, she said. I explained my confusion about thinking it was rabbit and asked if we were just ending rabbit and going into cat? She finally set the record straight; this year in Vietnam will be the Cat, but in China it will be Year of the Rabbit. All of the other lunar animal years correspond exactly to the Chinese ones except for this year. This actually was a fact I had known but forgotten. Now I can go out and get some cat ornaments.
Before doing that, however, I made a trip to one of the flower markets, this one located in downtown HCMC. This particular park runs between Pham Ngu lao and Le Lai Streets. It’s at least a block wide and at least five blocks long. Always a pleasant place to stroll, rather than on its bordering streets of insane traffic and noise, it’s truly exceptional before Tet when growers bring in their flowers and plants to sell for the New Year celebrations.
Pots of chrysanthemums and sunflowers and many others I can’t put a name to, are packed into sections. A salesperson or two sits in their midst. There are sections devoted to the flowering “Tet trees”, just days away from blossoming, and alcoves of stunning orchids in all shapes, sizes and colours.
Many people are there to purchase the plants, but many more are there to inhale the splendor and take pictures of their friends and family amongst the foliage. Kids pose in front of tall sunflowers; others kneel in the middle of a patch of tall, blooming beauties.
Butterflies flit form plant to plant seemingly unaware that they are actually in an urban jungle and not the countryside. Everyone is as happy as can be, including me.
I may not know all the names of the plants, but I had seen them all before except, that is, for one; the plant of the dragon fruit. What a total shock to find out that it was some sort of succulent or cactus. It was like I had discovered a long lost secret of the universe that other people had known about but somehow I had missed. I usually know from whence my fruit comes, but not this time. It was like the first time I saw a banana tree and was totally dumbfounded to find out that the fruit grows up, and not down, as I had always pictured. These little bits of new knowledge make one realize just how remarkable the world can be.