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.