06 February 2011

Tet Flower Street 2011

Tet, the Lunar New Year, just doesn’t get any better than in Ho Chi Minh City. Every house and every shop and every big building is embellished in red and gold, with flowers and plants and decorations out front and on windows and doors.

The absolute best, however, is what they do to Nguyen Hue Street, in the center of town. This is a massive, wide boulevard that runs straight down to the Saigon River. Every year, for about the past ten years, the street is closed to traffic and turned into a park. And we are not just talking a few potted plants; the actually lay bricks and mortar to create winding flower beds, install giant fountains and, this year, a central lotus pond with concrete walls. It takes about two weeks to build, is open to the public for one week, and then it comes down.

I learned that before the annual park, came into existence, Nguyen Hue Street was where they used to have the flower market that I had visited last week. It had taken place every year for as long as anyone could remember. The city fathers, however, were tired of the mess it created and tried to put a stop to it. Finally, someone came up with the ingenious plan to move the flower market to a park, and turn Nguyen Hue into a temporary Tet garden.

Even though half the population has left the city to go visit relations outside of town, that still leaves a goodly number of residents. The traffic is very light in comparison and it is not quite so dangerous to cross the street. Nevertheless, that half of the population descends on central HCMC to walk amongst the gardens of Tet. And this is why one needs to take a stroll down Nguyen Hue at 6:00am.

When I got out of the taxi at 5:55, it was still pitch black. Even so, there were already people doing the walk which was lit by beautiful lanterns in various shapes. I tried to find my friend and thought I should have brought a flashlight. No need; 15 minutes later, there was plenty of light. That’s another interesting thing about life here; the sun comes up in a blast and goes down with almost no warning. Light to dark, dark to light in a quick flash.

All the types of plants I had seen at the flower market lined the sides of the streets, and down the center, arranged like a mini-Versailles. My friend and I stopped every few feet to marvel at the intricate displays and beautiful colors. Cat statues, in various forms and sizes, dotted the entire route.

My favorite was the lotus pond. I couldn’t believe that they were going to tear it down in a week. I asked my friend if maybe they would leave it. She looked at me like I was nuts. I thought about it and realized it was actually situated in a car lane so no, I guess they’d really have to remove it.

About an hour later, we stopped off for a cup of coffee then headed over to Tao Dan Park to see the flower show; yet another horticultural wonder. Upon entering, we were greeted by the most spectacular flower dragon I have ever seen. His body went on for what seemed like a mile.

Among the tall, tall trees and areas of grass, various plants held court. The special Tet trees, in yellow as well as red and pink, stood in pots throughout one section of the park. Bonsai plants filled one area, orchids in another. There were a few things I had never seen, like these gigantic potted gardens that had been made with rocks and bonsai plants, and contained little ceramic figures of people and buildings. I was a bit sad that there were only a few of the dragon figures that are made entirely of plants, vegetables and fruit. It must be a dying art.

As wondrous and beautiful as everything was, I was most touched by the people of HCMC and their love of the holiday. Families were out in all their finery, laughing and smiling and taking photos in front of picturesque backdrops. Young women, dressed to the nines, posed like Vogue models while they took turns taking each other’s picture. Grannies and grandpa’s and the whole extended family stood for group photos. Mom’s and dad’s, their kids dressed in bright silk, traditional costumes, had a bit of trouble getting the little ones to stand still, but eventually got their shot, laughing the whole time.

The sheer joy of the entire population is something I have never experienced in any country for any holiday. It has been a week of everyone smiling and everyone being happy. Wherever I walk, I greet people with Happy New Year, in my somewhat understandable Vietnamese. The reaction I always get is a giant smile and a return greeting.

It seems to me that the Year of the Cat is off to an excellent start.