January 25, 2012
[Note: we are about to go to the airport to fly to New Zealand, so I am not sure when we will next be able to post a blog.]
We should have arrived a day earlier in Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon). We came from the Mekong Delta on Tet, the first day of the Lunar New Year. We thought we would see a great celebration. It turns out that the Vietnamese, like Americans, do fireworks and public celebrations on the evening before New Year’s Day ring in midnight.
So rather than see an epic pyrotechnic display, we were in a home in a small village.
This might not seem like too great a loss to most of you, but I am a “pyro-phile”. OK, I just made that word up, but it sounds better than pyromaniac and does a better job of describing my deep affection for quality fireworks. Last summer, Burnet County (and most of Texas) was under a strict burn ban that forbid any pyrotechnics. It was a sad time for all of us at camp, but for Moak Sir and me in particular, as we are the primary “pyrotechnicians” along with the Leadership Team.
But, it was not to be. Instead, we stayed in the spectacular home I described in the previous email (built in 1931 with carvings, mother-of-pearl inlay and the most tasteful shrine I have seen in Vietnam). It was actually as impressive as some of the museums that we have visited.
The next morning, we went on a bike ride along extremely narrow paths. As we were leaving, Zu (our guide) issued this warning: “Be very careful and stay way to the right. Today, everyone walks, rides bikes and drives scooters to everyone’s house. At each house, they will share “happy water”. So many of the people on scooters and bike will be drunk.”
“But is it 9AM.”
“It is Tet.”
We saw several singular sights. We saw young people dressed well and unusually effusive. We watched several families visit our hosts’ home and pray at the altar of their ancestors. We watched men gamble while yelling and gesticulating wildly with fists of cash. We saw home after home filled with people drinking and eating.
We also saw lots of roosters. Sure, we have been hearing roosters 24/7 whenever we are in the country, but we have never seen this many. Each was in an individual cage, had a generous amount of food but looked irritable. It was Wiley who guessed their purpose.
“I bet they are getting ready for cock fights.” He was right. Apparently, gambling is considered a “social evil” by the government, but all bets are off for Tet. As a result, villages host cock fights on this day. We approached one group of men looking over 6 feisty fowls. One of the men was giving the second largest rooster a bath while the other 5 crowed aggressively. Zu engaged the most senior man in a brief conversation and reported back to us.
“They are preparing the roosters for the fights. If you want your rooster to fight one of theirs, you must be willing to pay for the opposition rooster. If your rooster wins, your opponent’s owner must pay you the value of the rooster. The most valuable rooster here costs $250.”
I made her repeat the price. In a country where families typically make between $1000 and $2000 a year, a gambling chicken can go for $250. The families also buy massive floral bouquets, flowering trees, gifts and orange trees for Tet, often spending virtually all their annual discretionary income on these couple of weeks of celebration. They do so partly because they love a celebration, but also because of their superstitious nature. Tet celebrates bounty and they believe that the more bounty you display at Tet, the more you will receive during the following year. In essence, their profligate behavior is an investment in their future.
On the bike ride, we ran into an elderly widow who lived with her daughter. The daughter was out visiting friends, so the woman was alone in her home. We had talked to her because she lived next to a huge brick kiln and the rice husks piled there for fuel were smoldering. We wanted to make sure that this would not become a scary fire, so we told her about it. She thanked us and invited us in.
She did not offer happy water, but she did share the best watermelon and pomelo we have had on this trip. She also offered us some candy. Clearly, she had essentially nothing, but was sharing it with us on this auspicious day. After consulting with Zu, we learned (to our delight) that a standard custom is to offer some money to those who share with you (even friends and family) so we were able to give her a gift that I hope brought some cheer to her.
After the ride, Susie, Terrill and I went for a walk along the road we had biked. We had over an hour before lunch and we did not want to sit at the house. After about 15 minutes, we were waved into a home with 4 older men, a group of 5 women, a young couple and 3 children. They offered us smoked fish, beer, cigarettes and non-verbal companionship. We learned who was related and married to whom. We explained that we have 4 children. [Note: I learned - mid-pantomime – that there is not easy or non-embarrassing way to describe “boy” or “girl”. Without going into any additional detail, let me simply assure you that the collective gathering was quite amused at my efforts.]
Realizing that I had my iPhone in my pocket, I shared pictures of the rest of the family. It would have been far less embarrassing if I had thought of this before my pantomiming, but what can I say? I showed them pictures of us with tigers and elephants. I wonder if they thought “what an interesting family” or “how is it that these people still live – aren’t they the type that Darwinism predicts will get eliminated?”
All of us were touched by their genuine hospitality and desire to connect with complete strangers. For a brief cynical moment, I wondered if they were doing this in hope of a tip, but I quickly dispelled the thought. We were the only non-Vietnamese people in a 20 mile radius. These people were farmers, not vendors or folk who ever interact with foreigners. Also, the air atmosphere was legitimately inviting. Having been the recipient of manufactured hospitality, I can recognize the disingenuous. Nope, these folks were glad we were there, even though the grey-haired American makes odd hand gestures when talking.
We returned to our homestay for lunch and more celebration before we boarded our van for Ho Chi Minh City. The city is remarkably sleepy. Famous for its crazy traffic and aggressive tsunami of scooters, we saw a different Saigon. Apart from the fireworks display the night before (did I mention that I missed it?) the city is not a big Tet site. Most of its residents are first generation city-dwellers. Like China, Vietnam is experiencing a massive exodus from the farmlands to urban areas.
But the parents and grandparents still reside in the villages, so this most family-oriented of all holidays sparks a brief 3-6 day counter-exodus out of the cities. By arriving on Tet and leaving 3 days later, we inadvertently arranged a counter-commute from the majority of the natives. We are OK with this. We have seen mad traffic and sprawling markets. We have choked on the fumes of scooter-horde. [Note: Ho Chi Minh is a city of 9 million people and 6 million scooters. This seems improbable since scooters often have 3 or 4 people on them. I would think that 6 million scooters would support 15 million daredevil Vietnamese. But I guess we have more cars than we require in the US.]
A little quiet is OK with us.
PS I have a few nice shots that simply do not fit into my narrative, but I want to share them. They are from an afternoon floating on the Mekong River.
And a few more.
And I leave you with this wonderful face.