a happy tet (chuc mung nam moi)

i don’t know who started the calendar as it is today. who decided today is january 25th? at least, i know there are 2 calendar systems: solar and lunar. to avoid confusion, most people on this planet use a solar calendar now. but in some asian countries such as china and vietnam, people celebrate the new year by lunar calendars. as a matter of fact, the first day of the lunar (or the chinese) new year falls on january 26th, tomorrow. they have their own customs and vernacular style of celebrations, all the same, it is time for family reunions just like it is for the japanese.

in vietnam, the new year is called tet. a week before tet, shion, my daughter, and i visited ho chi minh city, formally and better known as saigon, in 2007. vietnam had been sort of my obsession since i met cong, who is a parisien painter and of vietnamese origin, back in 1991. it was a chance encounter that happened to me at la brasserie lipp in saint-german des pres during my trip to paris. one afternoon, i was having my late lunch by myself at the table next to the one where he and gary, a hawaiian guy on holiday visiting cong, were sitting. a clumsy garçon who served me got us started a “sympa” conversation. we clicked instantly.

cong invited me over to dinner and cooked excellent vietnamese dishes for me and gary. his apartment was so chic, adorned with vietnamese brocantes. after the dinner, we went out dancing to le balajo, a popular nightclub at the time. although i didn’t really fancy dancing, we had fun. while gary and i still stay close (we reunited in manhattan last year!), cong lost contact with me. even so, cong had instilled a longing for vietnam in my heart. later on, i was intrigued by the book, “l’amant” written by marguerite duras. as a result, i always associated saigon with paris and kept on dreaming about the city… luckily, the time was ripe at last.

flying from chilly osaka to some city in tropical southeast asia was something i had also longed for in winter. on our arrival at the airport, i at once felt a touch of everlasting summer: a humidity. then shion and i moved to the arrival lounge where we met our local guide and we walked up to his mini van. as we drove into the city centre, buzzing motorcyclists swarmed onto every road. what a chaos…we were completely mesmerised. i’ve never ever forgotten experiencing the bewildering moment and the momentum of ho chi minh city. people were going home in an awful rush as dusk was deepening.

there were few traffic lights for pedestrians in ho chi minh city, so if you wanted to go the other side of the road, it would be murderous. shion and i at first had to wait till some local people crossed the road. we later got used to it a bit and did cross over by ourselves, though. frankly, we got tired of the hustle bustle a little. our hotel room, overlooking the saigon river, was situated opposite the lamppost with a public speaker, from which some loud voices came every single morning at, i guess, 6 am. the rush hour started incredibly early in the morning in ho chi minh city. we had no clue what it was for or what was announced.

by contrast, vietnamese people walked quietly and talked softly. they were somewhat even graceful in manner. for example, the room staff, both male and female, of the hotel appeared and then disappeared, practically making no noise. they smoothly moved from one room to another in bare feet. we were impressed. ah, i selected the majestic saigon by the way, because this grand hotel had a french colonial flavour and was said to be some great authors’ favourite. it turned out satisfactory. the hotel was located in the heart of the dong khoi district, so most sight-seeing spots we planned to visit were all in walking distance.

shion and i especially enjoyed bargain-hunting at the ben thanh market for silk scarves, exquisitely embroidered bags and slippers and other pretty little things, or at trendy boutiques for a celadon green ceramic tea set and kitschy souvenirs. ho chi minh city was a girlie shopping paradise, so to speak. we came across a gorgeous hindu temple and a mosque, as well. they all looked overwhelmingly exotic. in the majestic, i sunbathed on the poolside chair (shion tried hiding from the sun) and pampered ourselves with a heavenly 1-hour massage at the luxurious spa. there was almost nothing that could cast a shadow over our holiday.

still, i must confess. shion and i skipped the war museum, which i knew it was our obligation to see what happened in this country. as far as the citizens’ daily life was concerned, the vietnam war seemed to have sunken into oblivion of the saigon river. the city was vibrant and progressive. but, one morning, i recognised a woman vendor who had some abnormality among other vendors selling fruits on the street. i suspected the cause was a sort of toxic weapons like agent orange used during the war. so cruel. she could’ve been a young lady back then? i could not help averting my eyes from her. there should've been tens of thousands of little children or babies in mother’s wombs who fell victim to the deadly chemical in this country.

anyway, why not celebrate tet, the lunar new year, too? in asian countries including japan, a happy new year means a happy new spring. actually, it may be already the new spring. like those pictures of flowers springing into bloom i posted last time (except that crazy cherry blossom), signs of spring are apparent. despite the recent big chill, spring is approaching faster and closer than we think.


Les Cotrions said...

What a pleasure for me to read about Vietnam! I visited V seven years ago I loved it! Ho Chi Mihn City is great, but I loved Hanoi too! And Halong bay...fantstic! I'd like to have my next tour in Cambodia and Laos (Japan is too expensive for me!!!)! I love Indochina...there's something fashinating me!
I wish you a wonderful lunar new year!

vosgesparis said...

helo there... you noticed wonder well the Jasmin on my kitchen table ;)
Have to run but will be back soon to read your amazing stories