New Country, New Year

So, I’m back in Vietnam. Ho Chi Minh City, formerly known as Saigon, to be exact.

Got an apartment. Got a cell phone. Got travel insurance. Got plenty of TUMS. Got a helmet. What I don’t got is a plan. Or blood pressure meds, which I’m starting to think that I’ll need to simply cross the streets in this city.

So, as I mentioned before, I’ll be hanging out here until my documents are processed to obtain a visa for a job. I’m living in a nice little studio apartment in a Vietnamese area in District 7. I’m currently looking for some part time work but not trying too hard. The city is preparing for Tet– the mother of all holidays here in Vietnam. Everyone is out in full force preparing for the Chinese New Year. Needless to say, it’s not the best time to be looking for a job, as schools are closed and families are returning to their hometowns, or traveling if they are expats. So, in the meantime, I’ll make the best of my time here, relax a bit, and write about my observations of the culture.

It’s 2012. It just so happens that it’s the year of the dragon, a fierce beast common in most Asian art, literature, and folklore. I feel like if you’re going to be in Vietnam during Tet, it should be during the year of the dragon. I’m already impressed with the efforts businesses have put into decorating their storefronts with reds and yellows and lights and lanterns and flowers. Big corporations like Coke and Oreo are taking advantage of the holiday for advertising purposes and have grand displays set up throughout the city.

A New Year’s display by Oreo.

The city is also blooming with beautiful arrangements of flowers. Flower vendors are already overstocked with various plants, particularly yellow and red carnations, orchids, and sunflowers. Kumquat trees are another traditional plant bought during the holiday, as it symbolizes fertility and the fruitfulness that the family hopes to experience during the new year. Peach blossoms bring protection to the household, whereas apricot blossoms foster luck. Though most businesses shut down during the week, these plant stalls stay open, as the flowers are an essential purchase during Tet. It can be quite surprising to see huge trees strapped to the “backseats” of the many motorcycles that zoom around the city.

Rows of flower vendors are set up in the park near Ben Thanh Market.

Exotic flowers add a lot of color to Saigon.

Nguyen Hue Street has also been blocked off to street traffic and transformed into a magical avenue of colors, flowers, and Vietnamese icons. With lots of dragon motif, I found myself wandering from display to display with tourists and Vietnamese alike. It seems that it’s common for the locals to dress in traditional Vietnamese clothing to take pictures with the beautiful arrangements. The kids were especially cute.

Flower displays on Nguyen Hue street.

Displays celebrating the upcoming year of the dragon.

Women dress in Ao Dai, the traditional Vietnamese dress, and pose near the arrangements.

More dragon motif on Ngyuen Hue.

There’s also this interesting concept of “li xi” or “lucky money” that comes along with the lunar New Year. During the holiday, Vietnamese children receive small bills in red envelopes from their family members. Although this is also a tradition in Korea, it’s taken to a new level here. Whenever I am trying to hail a motorbike taxi back to my place, I negotiate the fare with the driver. In the past few days, they have all been more stubborn about the price, giving me a sly smile and saying “Happy New Year!” I didn’t know what they were talking about until it was explained to me. They feel that luck is bestowed upon the giver and the receiver of the extra 10,000 dong (50 cents) or so. So, I’ve given in, seeing as it’s the culture and all. Plus, I could always use some extra good luck.

I made another observation a few days ago while having my nails done. A bubbly middle-aged man walked into the salon and cheerfully greeted all of the girls. I couldn’t understand what they were saying, but it was obvious that they knew each other. After a few quick words, he starting taking notes of 50,000 dong and passed them out to each of the girls working there. The small gesture seemed to make their day. They say that the perception of luck is based on one’s happiness and I guess receiving (or giving) money can have that effect. Who knows… maybe they’re on to something with this lucky money thing.

Let’s hope this little guy gets enough lucky money on New Year’s Day.

I’m just starting to get a glimpse of the Vietnamese culture, but I feel that I arrived here at the right time. I’m eager to see how the city will transform as well as learn more about the traditions of Tet, as well as the other cultural aspects of this colorful country.