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Tag: Tet

Sea breezes, sand castles, calamari, in february?

Sea breezes, sand castles, calamari, in february?

The week of New Years is about to start and Ho Chi Minh City is already starting to clear out. Everywhere, decorations are being put up and flags are being flown proud. So far, I get the feeling of 4th of July and thanksgiving is coming. National pride is everywhere, flags and banners are everywhere. Today I saw someone driving around in a Mercedes with a giant 6×9 flag attached to the roof. People are getting filing out of the city and traveling to stay with family during the celebration. The city is quieter and it is ten times easier to cross the street, even during rush hours. The excitement can be felt in the air everywhere around the city as people clean their shops and restaurants and post signs saying they will be closed during the New Years. I can’t wait for the fireworks.

Last weekend, a group of nine of us Loyola students took a trip to Vung Tau, which is on the coast just east of Ho Chi Minh City. We woke up early on Thursday morning to make it to the river to catch a hydrofoil boat. It was around $10 for the hour and a half ride through ports and forests, all while weaving in and out of huge container ships. This was really cool because we were going so fast and it was pretty smooth. When we got off the boat though, we were overcome with the sea breeze and sunshine. It is crazy how just an hour boat ride and the air clears right up and it is noticeably easier to breathe.

We walked over to the bus station and bought our tickets, then checked into our hotel and straight to the beach we went! The waves were huge! It was so much fun to jump and play in them, even though it was really really really salty. After what seemed like 45 minutes, but was really 3+ hours of swimming and building sand castles, we all realized we were starving. We caught some xe oms to a restaurant that everyone was referring us to. Our table was literally 15 feet from the waves and we had some of the freshest seafood I have ever had. It was so yummy, especially the calamari.

That night, we played a card game in the hotel driveway on little plastic chairs, it was awesome, especially when the desk worker guy played with us. A couple people went to go get food and when I went to go find them, I ran into this guy who called himself “Crazy Moe.” I tried calling him just Moe a couple times, but he would correct me every time. He walked me to his house and I had a good forty-five minute discussion with him. He was 66 years old, fought for the South Vietnamese Navy during the Vietnam war, was “reeducated” after the war, and about his family. His first daughter was born in 1972, his youngest, 1992. It was great to hear someone talk about how the government really works in a citizen’s point of view.

After checking out of the hotel the next day, we traveled to the base of a giant hill that had a huge jesus on top. Kind of like in Brazil. It felt like the stairs went on forever, but we finally made it to breathtaking views and a strong breeze to cool off with.

The journey back was an experience unlike any other… a sprinter van pulled up to our hotel, we climbed in and the sliding around started. Our driver was one of the most aggressive drivers I have ever even seen. It reminded me of the Night Bus in Harry Potter, weaving in and out of thousands of motorbikes. We would just stop in the middle of a huge intersection, someone would climb right from the back of a motorbike into the van, then we would speed away. Another weird thing that happened was it was picking up more and more people as we went. It got to the point where someone hopped in and the driver handed them a little plastic stool to sit on.

Something really funny that I’ve been noticing here, restaurants must just pick “popular english music” playlists. I am currently sitting in a cafe, with Jingle Bells blasting. It really makes you smile, especially when you don’t know what you’re eating.

This weekend was weird, for the first time in my life, did not watch the greatest game of the year. I could not watch the Super Bowl. I tried to pull a How I Met Your Mother and watch it later without hearing any news of it, but I accidentally saw the score.. but nothing more! It is currently downloading on this super slow internet… at between 12 and 24 KB/s… not to mention the only one online that I could find was 8.9GB. I am anxiously waiting to watch it when it finishes downloading. It’s been downloading for over 15 hours, and just over half way.. I hope I can last!

Back to classes for a couple days, then now I am off until the 17th for the New Years. After growing up in Wisconsin, this whole hot weather in February stuff…. I feel like I might actually melt into the sidewalk.


Check out my photos here!

Chup Mong Na Moi (Happy Lunar New Year): A Tet Adventure

Chup Mong Na Moi (Happy Lunar New Year): A Tet Adventure

I know I said I would pick up from breakfast, but lets fast forward a week to NOW and then after this blog I can backtrack a little bit.

While the students back home in Chicago are off school for a blizzard, I am off school to celebrate Tet, the Vietnamese Lunar New Year which is basically a Vietnamese version of Chinese New Year. You can tell Tet is approaching because the traffic in Ho Chi Minh is crazier than usual and many stores are already closing down for the holidays. Everything is occurring under Christmas, err, Tet lights strewn everywhere, tons of flowers EVERYWHERE! (Including lots of good smelling Easter Lilies), and everyone trying to sell you ‘lucky money’ which is basically fresh new monetary bills (crinkled is simply not allowed) placed inside a deep red envelope. I’ve heard that if you give American bills in your lucky money to someone, that person will hold you in very high esteem because it is a great honor. Red is a big part of Tet apparently, as I’ve seen entire buildings ( 2 stories) wrapped in red paper. Also lots of paper people pasted to building wearing traditional red oai zai (Vietnamese clothes) and sporting a red Tika, which I thought was unique to South Asia… but I guess it is part of the culture here too. I mean Hinduism was the dominant of religion (mixed with local animism) of Vietnam before Buddhism arrived in a pincer movement from China in the North and India in the South.
For Tet my roommate decided to invite me to his home town of Ninh Tuan up in central Vietnam. Tet is a time when family gets together and just relax with each other a take a break from everything. He said if I didn’t spend time with his family on Tet, I would be missing out on a lot of Vietnamese culture. I agreed because I really would like to see how Tet is celebrated, and I think it would be more fun than sitting around Ho Chi Minh/Saigon. His hometown is a nice little coastal town and the breezes here remind me of my summer home in Northern Michigan. Lets talk about how I got here up to today. That should be more than enough to constitute a nice long blog entry. Here we go:
Nghiem had left a few days early, but had reserved a ticket on a later bus for me. Our secretary in the Loyola office in Saigonland Tower agreed to take me to the bus station, my pickup time was 5:30. I was just finishing packing up my things around 5:20 when Trinh called, “Hello I’m downstairs waiting for you”. I picked up my belongs in my Inian Jones satchel and my trusty backpack that has accompanied me from Freshman year of high school through my Indian adventure, and now here. It has some battle scars, but that gives it charm and character. So much that I don’t want to get rid of it… and the fact that I’m really cheap. Anyway, I locked up my door and headed downstairs. On the way out Robbie gave me a salute and said jokingly, “Have a great time buddy, and don’t eat anything I wouldn’t.” I reply back, “Psh, yeah right.” And smiled because my palate is a little bigger than Rob’s. He’s a burger and fried chicken man. Nothing’s wrong with that though, in fact earlier that day I walked to KFC and bought us both a ‘bucket’, aka two pieces of fried chicken. Eating it felt like a guilty pleasure after a week or so of noodles and rice. I shook hands with Gabe and we wished each other a happy Tet. I met Trinh outside at the gate. She handed me a helmet, I hopped on her bike, and we rocketed off to the bus station with the wind whipping her long black hair in my face. I didn’t mind because it smelled like lemons.
At the station she gave the conductor my ticket and spoke some Vietnamese. We then waited for twenty minutes and when the bus boarded I wished Trinh a very happy Tet and hopped on the bus.
The bus ride, as I anticipated was not fun. I had my share of cross country buss rides varying from MegaBus from Chicago via Indianapolis to Cincinnati, Jaipur via Delhi to Dharamsala, and now Saigon to Ninh Tuan. I think I would rate MegaBus as #1 because I can plug in my laptop and type away or if I am feeling really childish I might just do a throwback to High School and play some ROME: Total War. Indian buses are positively awful. No air conditioning, so bumpy I hit my head on the roof countless times, there is no personal space, and I was so frightened I couldn’t sleep even at 3 in the morning. Why so frightened you ask? Well, consider a crazy eyed driver driving a large tour bus up a one lane road in the Himalayan foothills with no guardrails, not that that would have made me feel even safer. The driver is averaging between 60-70 mph up twisting roads in almost pitch black, and I can see down the hill without having to crane my neck because we are so close to the edge. Reading reports of buses losing control and flying over cliffs is common in India, so that didn’t help either. My friend Kristen said it was one of the scariest experiences of her life, and I agree.
Now the bus to Ninh Tuan wasn’t frightening, but it wasn’t a MegaBus. There was AC and the seats could recline. The bus also did not rumble around cliffs at break neck speed either, which is nice. However, people thought it was cool if EVERYONE talked on cell phones until 2 AM, and then just as I was getting ready to sleep and baby started to scream. Not cry, scream. The girl sitting next to me, Nhi, was also a college student and she practiced her English for some time. Before we departed we exchanged numbers and promised to meet for coffee, or ca phe in Vietnamese, back in Saigon sometime after the New Year.
Getting off the bus I was swarmed by about 20 guys in leather jackets up in my face saying, “motorbike, taxi, you want go someplace? I take you.” To shoo them away, you have to show confidence and be assertive. I witnessed the opposite in India when we transferred buses in Delhi. An Australian girl had no idea where she was going, and the hyena tuk tuk drivers sensing a vulnerable prey closed in for the attack. She tried to be polite at first, and then they began to fight over who would get her like dogs. After five minutes of pestering she ran to her boyfriend who was getting his luggage off the bus and grabbed him sobbing, “Make them stop. I want to go home.” She was balling. Poor girl.
So the first wave descended upon me and I shooed them away with my hand and a stiff ‘no’ head nod. I had called Nghiem and he was coming to pick me up. So it was just a waiting game. I had to pit my mettle against a bunch of lean motorbike taxi drivers with cigarettes hanging out of their mouths looser than the flip flops on their feet.
After a few minutes and no Nghiem combined with most of the passengers leaving, a second wave of drivers approached me thinking I was stranded. It was time to pull out the big guns. I call it the Babylon strategy, named after the Biblical Tower of Babble. I used this to great effect in India. If people are incessant on selling something to you, or simply want to talk up your ear and you are not in the mood for it there is one thing you can do that will turn them off: Speak in a language they will not understand! So, at the Taj Mahal where people would come up to me and pester me to no end I would say with a big smile, “Hello and peace. My name is Jimmy. I am an Arab and I speak Arabic. Do you speak Arabic?” (In Arabic) Of course this is an utter lie, but it worked because people came up to me attempting to speak in Hindi or English, and when I apparently didn’t speak either, their smiles turned to frowns and they walked away dejected. So, in this situation I said the same thing, only in Hindi. The taxi drivers faces twisted with confusion and the all mounted up their motorbikes and sped away. Haha, I chuckled to myself. ‘Works every time!” Shortly thereafter Ngheim walked up and with a pat on the shoulder we walked to his home a few minutes away. It was about four in the morning so the rest of the family was naturally asleep. Nghiem led me upstairs to a central room with a large queen size bamboo mat on the floor and a large blue mosquito net above it. We both plopped down on the mat. I was so tired I didn’t bother to change into my pjs or brush my teeth. I think I passed out from exhaustion within a matter of seconds.

The next morning I woke up to roosters. That’s a new one to add to the list. Throughout my life I’ve woken up to different things: when I was little my mom’s voice or my dad ruffling my hair to get ready for school. Latter the bells of St. Vivian’s Catholic Church and St. Nicholas Orthodox Church, eventually my alarm clock at four thirty in the morning proclaiming it was time for swim practice, then last summer it was a competition between the local masjid’s (mosque) morning call for namaz (prayer) prayer verses the Hindu mandir’s (temple) early morning bhajans for aarti (prayer). It was almost as if they were competing for souls, a friendly competition unlike other times in history… but that’s a whole other story and before I start my lecture on South Asian history, I’ll stop. Recently I’ve been waking up to the staff using large palm brooms to sweep the compound around 5 AM and then later in the morning the bells of Notre Dame Cathedral-Basilica from around the block. Besides the morning noises, from my old house when I was a child I could also hear the festive sounds of Greek music coming from St. Nicholas’s annual Summer Festival charging the hot summer nights with a feeling of pure joy and in the cool of Fall I could hear the announcer and cheering coming from up the road and charging the air with a power felt down North Bend Road as thongs of fans cheered the St. Xavier Bombers, my future high school, to victory in football. Knowing all of this, I am certain that once I settle down and buy my own house I want to be within close enough proximity to a church so I can hear the bells.
Groggy, I walked down the stairs and found a FACTORY! I’ll comment more on this later and daily life at the Luu residence in a later blog… buts lets skip forward to the fun stuff, Tet… the Vietnamese NEW YEAR!

My first Tet began at the stroke of midnight when a huge barrage of fireworks lit up over the ocean and my roommate’s family climbed up little trees oohing and awing to see over the smaller houses blocking the view. It was a spectacular show with large bursts of every color. Considering fireworks are banned in Vietnam and firecrackers have been outlawed since 1994 for ‘security reasons’, the Vietnamese went nuts over this state sanctioned firework display. So next fourth of July thank your lucky stars and stripes that we live in the good old USA and have the freedom to use fireworks!
Anyway I went out the gate to get a better view and when I came back inside the compound I was greeted with pats and my roommate said I was the first ‘caller of the year’, fancy word for visitor from outside the family to officially come inside the home after New Year has begun. Due to this I had to go around and wish everyone a very happy new year1 (chup mong nam oi). Supposedly this brought great luck to the household and me. I couldn’t help but laugh though because the word Chup in Hindi, Urdu, and Nepali is a very curt way of saying ‘SHUT UP!’ haha

The whole family gathered together after the fireworks and we had a toast for luck, health, prosperity, and happiness in the New Year. We counted to three in Vietnamese and yelled YO as we clinked our glasses together and downed glasses of cheap Australian wine. After our toast we all dressed up in nice clothes, including me in my fancy traditional Vietnamese clothes. My silk oai zai was dark red with golden and jade circles and dragons, and complete with large poofy cotton pants very similar to the Punjabi variant of pyjama pants that I wore in India. Pretty flashy I must say. Dressed in our finest, we piled into the family’s large Mercedes van that is used primarily to transport tea and headed out to the local Pagoda to pray.

The pagoda we arrived at was largely circular and had a sloped roof typical of pagodas with a spire at the top and red clay roof tiles sloping down in every direction. Surrounding the pagoda were several shrines to different images of the Buddha, lots of gardens, ponds, and stone paths intersecting them all. Walking through the garden with throngs of other New Year pilgrims we approached the pagoda reverently and removed our sandals at the base of the huge stone steps leading up the large welcoming auditorium complete with a huge Buddha sitting in contemplation and lots of little monks and nuns clad in saffron robes leading the faithful into different rooms and up stairs to different parts of the pagoda. My roommate’s family and I were led up to the central room upstairs where there was a large Buddha accompanied by several minor deities and pictures of deceased monks and nuns on an altar surrounded by offerings of fruit, vegetables, money, a variety of juices, and large pots of incense swirling up around the sparkling eyes of Siddhartha. Dozens of well wishers were laying prostrate on the ground with hands folded up in front of the alter. Others were kneeling, and many were holding incense sticks and waving them back and forth inside their clasped hands in prayerful position moving the stick forwards and backwards, never side to side. Nghiem’s mom placed a smoldering stick of incense in my hands, and I was thrust into prayer. I wasn’t expecting that, I thought I was just going to respectfully observe. However, with incense in hand I said a prayer to God to watch over my family here on earth, and for the peace of all my family that has gone before me, including my grandparents and my Uncle Dan. I then asked the spirits of my ancestors to watch over me and pray for me.
I remember talking to my Dad before the trip about ancestor worship in Vietnam and what he thought about it. He said he would never pray directly to our ancestors, but he often prays through his Mom and Dad who have passed away to look after our family. So, I prayed in the fashion of the Vietnamese, but with a Western Catholic twist. When I finished my prayer I placed my incense in the huge bronze pot beneath the Buddha along with hundreds of other sticks and walked towards the exit. A Buddhist nun smiled at me and gave my the pressed prayer hands to her face as I walked away. I returned the gesture and said happy new year in Vietnamese. On the way out a nun stopped us and gave my roommate, his sisters, and me some ‘lucky money’ and wished us a happy new year. With the family’s prayer complete, we piled back in the van and headed for home. We needed to get some sleep, because we would be travelling a long way tomorrow. First to a collection of hilltop Hindu temples built by the ancient Cham Empire, and later farther north a few hours to see Nghiem’s extended family.
Upon reaching home and laying down on the bamboo mat I reflected on the day and was very happy. I thought to myself “Now I can say I’ve prayed in Catholic Orthodox and Protestant churches, a Synagogue, a Mosque, a Sikh Gurudwara, a Hindu Temple, a Jain Temple, and FINALLY a Buddhist Temple! I think I’ve got God covered.” A few moments later though I thought “That’s a lie, because nobody’s got God covered because God is TOO BIG to be covered, but we all can try right? I’m going to keep trying until I die.” I relayed that thought to a family friend Zach a few days later in an email amidst our travelling among Nghiem’s extended kin, which will be a large blog entry in itself. So I’ll stop for now. Wishing you all a happy (Lunar) new year!