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Faces of Tet – A Vietnamese Lunar New Year

For the last week, Saigon has been filling with flowers. As the numbers of Westerners diminish and the hotels and restaurants become crowded with revisiting expat Vietnamese and those taking an early holiday, the signs have been abound that the Vietnamese Lunar New Year festival of Tet is almost here. In the large central park in District 1, orchids and ornate bonsai sell for spiralling prices, while the Tet versions of the Christmas tree stand with their branches bare, expertly primed to blossom with beautiful yellow flowers for the festive season. Each morning as the New Year draws closer, masked red-robed drummers dance and slice their way into the back alleys and burst onto the increasingly traffic-clogged main arteries of the city, blessing each house, business, hotel and backpacker guesthouse.

At a time of long journeys to see relatives, and in a country where the strength of family values should not be underestimated, our family unit grew to four as we welcomed my parents who have planned a visit to Vietnam to coincide with our stay here. In turn this coincided with our goodbyes to the family at Allambie, where we have made good friends and have found inspiration in the story of Suzanne and the children – thanks again to them for their generous welcome and we wish them all the very best for this New Year and the future.

We spent our last evening in Saigon with a treat of a drink eight storeys up, at the top of the Majestic Hotel on the riverfront. From here the scale of the build up to festival through traffic alone could be counted. From above, like the spectacular dragon that is another strongly symbolic feature of Tet, the seething mass of motorbikes and taxis converged, unable to move other than in slow winding procession, almost as far as the eye could see. Fortunately for us on the following day, once we’d escaped the mania of the city centre, we were able to make our way to our next destination – the beach resort of Mui Ne – unimpeded by such beasts of traffic.

The Pandanus at Mui Ne, around five hours north and east of Ho Chi Minh City, gave another flavour of Tet altogether. Giving the four of us some respite from the frantic city, it serves up all that the visiting European or American tourist might expect from a pleasant resort. Wine and cheese, a large pool, the beach, bikes, table tennis and more make it easy to forget you’re in Vietnam. But with Tet upon us, nobody could really allow that to happen.

Festivities kicked off in earnest here with the Tet Banquet, otherwise known as the New Year’s Eve Gala Dinner. Staged outside – the climate here is quite idyllic – this involved a large buffet meal, including a suckling pig and barbecued seafood, plus ‘special’ entertainment.

A fashionable five minutes of lateness was all it took for our mostly Russian co-guests to monopolise the staff with orders for wine and cocktails, leaving us with a crucial deficit in what effectively became a stampede for the buffet tables. The warmth and willingness to share amongst the Vietnamese people was put into stark contrast by the show of selfish tenacity to pile plates high and return more times than a neighbouring table. Nearby, a couple had eaten half the ocean before we’d even poured our wine. The food was good (and we certainly didn’t feel underfed) but the utter greed of some holiday-makers can, rightly or wrongly, be quite disgusting.

Meanwhile, the show got underway with a bizarre juxtaposition of traditional Vietnamese dance and the resort’s resident Filipino house band Stardust. The Vietnamese dances were sweet and gave some authenticity to proceedings, and whilst the Cabernet band worked hard, their dramatic interpretations of a pregnant Madonna (Papa Don’t Preach), a gun toting Michael Jackson (I’m Bad) and a ‘sultry’ Tina Turner were something to behold. Needless to say, Babs sang along to everything heartily…

What followed though, seemed more authentic. Preceded by an all-comers Vietnamese bamboo dance, we were treated to a truly spectacular lion dance, with acrobatics, drumming and above all, character. The costumes – more dog than lion, but instantly recognisable nonetheless – made the pantomime horse look like a faller at the first. Leaping and diving, they brought the creature to energetic life and were captivated an audience who, full of crab and Tina Turner, had barely seemed enthused otherwise. It’s likely that, given an ‘adopt a lion’ application form at this moment, many would have signed up happily. Poles were introduced for the dancers to sping onto, and they did just that, making the creatures seemingly fly through the air, at times apparently levitating in the night before a spectacular dual with a serpentine green dragon. Finally, with a large banner unfurled to wish the audience a happy new year and a quick tour around the tables by dragons, lions and tamers, the show was over with a flourish. Whilst we had the privilege of a recently-rare family occasion for Tet, the lions and dragons at least made the occasion closer to some element of what Tet is about.

For the first day of the Lunar New Year itself, the four of us took bikes out to explore the local area. Here was where Tet was really happening. Doors were open, people were smiling and, as cheesy as it seems, we saw how a festival can give families time to be together and enjoy themselves. With games of dice lining the streets and loud proclamations of mo, hi, ba, yo! (cheers) emanating from homes, we continued on to what is supposedly a local tourist attraction. Here, at Fairy Stream (a small canyon in the sand dunes, complete with a rather uninspiring waterfall), we saw families at play. Friendly children and parents practised their English with us and the feeling of a family day was undoubtedly in the air, as it has been for us for a few days now.

Rice paper parcels

Bikes, Bites and BBQs – Street Food With The Allambie Kids

As the flower displays have sprung up around Ho Chi Minh City and the orchids have begun to bloom for Tet (the Lunar New Year festival,) we have continued to spend time with the children from Allambie. Cinema trips, the zoo, bowling and games in the park have all helped us to get to know this fantastic group, and for more information on the work done at Allambie, click here to have a look at our post from a couple of days ago.

For some of the older kids, working in tourism represents a great future, so we were more than happy to have them practice on us with a tour of the culinary variety from Nhi, Thiet and Sa as they showed us how to really do Vietnamese street food in Saigon (and have fun at the same time!)

The night nearly got off to a terrible start. We’d arranged to meet near where we are staying, in the tourist and backpacker-centred District 1 of the city. With the streets thronged almost to choking point with motorcycles, the arrival of our guides on pushbikes was soon followed by the sight of Nhi, floored in the middle of the road with her back wheel under a taxi. This resulted in panic from us at first, until she pulled herself free and shrugging, Sa told us, “It’s OK, it happens to us all the time.”

Road crossing traumas dealt with, and a wheel straightening later, it was time for us to mount up. This was not a straightforward process, as it involved each bike taking a pillion passenger on the rear luggage rack. Helen is small enough to make a feasible load, and so went on Nhi’s bike. Thiet had Yeti (another helper and friend of the orphanage) on the back. This left me with the prospect of perching behind Sa, a girl half my size, and expecting her to pedal. I did the chivalrous thing and offered to swap – I almost instantly regretted it. Being on the back of any vehicle in Saigon is a passive and fairly exciting event. Actually having to navigate, let alone pedal an overladen bike, through some of the most intense traffic I have ever experienced is something I’d rather never repeat. Normally I’m a fairly red-faced chap after physical exertion, but by the time we’d gone around a roundabout that makes the Arc Du Triomphe look like a quiet boating lake and found ourselves on the wrong side of the road a fee times, we arrived at our first food stop in District 3 with me in the previously unheard of post-exercise state of being quite pale. The arrival of the food soon changed that.

We had tried a fair bit of street food in our week in Saigon, but at our first stop on Vo Van Tan Street, well away from the other westerners in the city, we knew we had to rely on the kids to order. With threats of duckling foetus, chickens heads and other such delicacies being served up on Vietnamese streets, we were glad that we were in such capable hands.

First up were platefuls of spring and summer rolls. Some were fried (Bo Bia) others beautifully wrapped in thin transparent rice paper and filled with slivers of pork, juicy prawns and fragrant vegetables (Goi Cuon). As Sa ordered confidently, we tucked in.

Next were delicious dim sum-like parcels of pork (Ha Cao) which were intense in flavour and melt in the mouth in texture. True to the interactive nature of Vietnamese cuisine, Sa, Thiet and Nhi showed us how to mix up a soy and sweet chilli dip from the condiments on the table, which was then combined with the fresh herbs brought with the dish.

Finally for this stop were what turns out to be an Allambie family favourite: Bot Chien Trung. Combining what seem to be two of Vietnam’s best-loved ingredients, rice and egg, this is essentially a rice cake omelette. Whilst that might not sound too thrilling, imagine it smothered in soy and sweet chilli sauce (another two favourites here) and the way in which this become fast comfort food becomes clear.

The speed of the street food is another of it’s defining characteristics, and is made possible by the ladies (they usually are) who man the small portable kitchens. Whilst the room we ate in looked like a no-frills cafe, the part that was on the street was where these dishes were created, and as we waved goodbye to the vendors, Sa suggested it was time she drove. There were few arguments from me.

After a brief stop to see a large pagoda temple, our next food came on an incredibly busy street around District 10. Here, on tiny chairs on a busy pavement, as Sa got her breath back and I felt guilty, we ate Teie Nyt Lot Ga Nuong. Put simply, these are eggs cooked in their shells on a BBQ. At first, we were unsure about this, as the eggs seemed to have turned a grey-green colour inside, but logically this just seemed to be a result of the smoke permeating the porous shell. Once peeled and dipped in salt and chilli, they were pretty tasty, so next time you think of slapping a burger on your barbecue, maybe plonk a few eggs on for 20 minutes or so (maybe practice first though and make sure you do as they do here – put a small hole in the eggs first so they don’t explode!)

Poor old Sa was still insistent that I shouldn’t be let loose on the streets on her bike, so despite me being a bit heavier after all the food, She still somehow managed to pedal me around. So, after a few hair-raising crossroad incidences and a number of dodgy looks from locals, we arrived at our final culinary stop. Here, somewhere towards the north of the city, rice pancakes and juice were the order of the day. By now we were getting full and although the pancakes seemed to be a favourite of the kids, I found them hard going, with strong flavours of shrimp paste and chilli. Helen, Nhi, Thiet and Sa, on the other hand, scoffed theirs down…


Drinks came in the form of Taro juice, a tapioca base, flavoured with different fruits. As we drained the last of them, Nhi relieved Sa of my weight on the bike and we arrived back in District 1.

We have have to say an enormous thankyou to Sa, Thiet and Nhi for a fantastic evening. These guys have a brilliant attitude, great sense of humour and are genuinely some of the most kind and welcoming young people we’ve met. Suzanne has done an unbelievable job at Allambie and all the children are testament to this. Please take a look below to see how you might help Allambie, and if you’re ever in Vietnam, don’t be scared by the street food – even the green eggs are delicious – but maybe avoid the chicken heads…

We think Allambie is a fantastic project and we are proud to have helped out in a small way. Take a look at the video below (click here if you can’t see it) and click through to to find out more about how you can help. Alternatively, you can donate directly below.

Click here for information on how to donate quickly and safely by text message!


Nhi, Helen and Sa

New Friends – Allambie

Never ones to over sell things, ‘amazing’ is a word we try not to use too casually. However, our time in Saigon has truly been ‘amazing’, thanks to our new friends from Allambie Orphanage

Clockwise from bottom left: Mung, Nhi, Truc, Thiet, Paul, Chuyen, Sa and Helen

It seems a bit strange calling it an orphanage because it feels more like a family home. In fact, that’s exactly what it is, thanks to one incredible woman. Suzanne Hook sold her house in England to set up Allambie in HCMC, having once been an orphan here herself. She’s overcome hurdle after hurdle to make it happen – fundraising, bureaucracy, finding a suitable home, cooking, cleaning and not least taking on the full-time job of being mum to 6 kids. And she’s currently doing it all with an injured shoulder following a recent motorcycle accident that would see most people take to their beds for several weeks.

So meet the family: Thiet, Nhi, Mung, Chuyen, Sa and Truc, some of the friendliest, liveliest, welcoming kids you’re ever likely to meet. We’ve been to the cinema twice; we’ve been bowling and painting; we’ve played card games; we’ve sampled the best of HCMC’s street food; and we’ve laughed…a lot!

Thiet’s been helping Paul with his music; Chuyen and Mung have been helping us navigate the city (we’d be lost in some far flung district without them); Truc has introduced us to the Vietnamese boyband, VMusic; and Sa and Nhi have given us an evening we’ll never forget – on the back of their pushbikes in night time Saigon (think wrong way up the M25 at rush hour); and we’ve even learned a few words of Vietnamese!

Chuyen prepares to bowl

Truc manages to bowl and phone

Thiet helps Paul with his music...

Nhi, Helen and Sa

Truc and Paul

It’s been a real pleasure to meet this family and a wonderful way to get to know Saigon. Guys, we wish you every happiness in the future. Cam On!

Serious work!

Thiet at the bowling alley

Chuyen beats Paul at another game...

We think Allambie is a fantastic project and we are proud to have helped out in a small way. Take a look at the video below (click here if you can’t see it) and click through to to find out more about how you can help. Alternatively, you can donate directly below.

Click here for information on how to donate quickly and safely by text message!