Once we met Binh the days got shorter and filled with many activities. We had not been so active for quite a while. Family visits, drinking with friends, excursions to floating market and fruit garden, beauty procedures, constant ‘change of plan’ (Binh’s favourite sentence) and celebrating the New Year on top of it.
The evening we met Binh, his sister and her friends we were immediately taken to his family. We meet his 91 year old great grandmother, countless aunties and uncles (they actually call them by numbers – aunty 2, uncle 5 etc) and few amazing kids. We were welcomed with an extremely tasty banh mi – a sandwich based on baguette, filled with veggies, meat, topped with sweet and spicy sauce. The family is having their own sandwich stand in front of one of the family’s houses – it is a Vietnamese thing. We saw countless business models like that. In most of the houses the ground floor reminds something of a garage – an open space with big rolling door that replaces the regular doors and windows. The space can be used as a coffee place, an auto mechanics garage, an sewing atelier or a small canteen, serving local dishes. The upper floors are used as private space. It is often that the property is not big and the houses keep on growing taller as the family expands.
After visiting the family (Stijn was welcomed as an old friend, he had already met them a year ago) we joined Binh and his friends for a drink. It was supposed to be a one beer thing, but of course it ended up being a 3 beer thing. The locals had their beer with a big block of ice in their jars, we had the fancy cooled beer. The beer consumption around the Tet is so big, that the restaurants do not have the capacity to cool all the bottles. With every sip we would take, we had to toast – everyone yells “Mot – Hai – Bai – Yooooooo!”, clinks their jugs together and takes a sip. I soon discovered that I am more of an individualist in this case – I constantly forgot that I would have to urge other to join in for a common sip. Most of the time I realised it when I’ve already had the jug off my lips. Few times we had to finish our glasses till the bottom in one go. Thank God, Tiger beer is a light one. I also got to taste some snails (to rubbery for my taste) and other sea monsters. Not really my thing. After few hours of toasting and cheering we had to call it a day, as we had an early excursion planned the next morning.
We got only 4 hours of sleep, when we had to get up for the trip to floating market. Stijn was even considering not to go. Long beer nights and early mornings are not what we are trained for. But we had promised to go, so we got up and went to meet the rest of the group at 5:50 am. It turned out that our guide (a cousin of Binh) had stayed longer with the beer drinking group of friends. And while we did push our selves to crawl out of the bed, she was still sleeping soundly. Binh managed to wake her up after the 5th phone call.
By the time we all gathered at the boat, that was to take us to the floating market, the sun was already quite high. We had a romantic wooden boat that was moving in a romantic speed. All the other boats passed us easily. By the time we reached the place where the sales boats were supposed to be, most of them were already gone. We saw only few – the ones that concentrated on selling drinks and fruit to tourist boats. We spotted few locals buying flowers for the upcoming celebration, but that was about it.
Our next stop was an old fruit garden. The original destination was closed (like many places during the Tet period, more about it in the next articles), but luckily there was another garden open close by. We had a little tour around the garden, with a short insight in the most common fruits (jackfruit, papaya, mango, durian, dragon fruit and others) and plants used in the local cuisine. We also met a bunch of cute newborn ducks – cuteness alert! We ended our tour with a degustation of fresh fruit, smoothies and some local sweets made from sticky rice, specially prepared for the feast.
After our excursion and breakfast there was beauty time arrange for girls, while guys enjoyed a nap or some swimming pool time.
It was my first time to have a beauty treatment with a group of girls, I was a bit nervous. It was me, Binh’s sister Hang and her best friend Joke. We were taken to a room with 4 or 5 massage tables. The room had soft light and big golden yellow baldachins were separating different part of the room, there was probably relaxing music in the background. Neatly dressed, young smiling Vietnamese girls with a perfect make-up greeted us. We were to take our tops off & use a curtain like dresses to cover our selves. I did not know what to expect. It has been a long time since I had a facial treatment and all of the times it was pretty basic. Since we opted for the basic package, I did not have big expectations.
We got facial cleaning, masks and a massage. It was one of the best massages I have ever had. Even though it was only face, shoulders, neck and a bit of skull, I was completely spaced out after that. The perfect pressure combined with soft, but strong movements. What they call “basic” lasted for something like 2 hours. It was quite heavenly. Maybe I should do it more often?:) Now I can see why so many women are tempted by the beauty salons. Having to experience together with Hang and Joke was fun too.
The only concern that I had was the skin bleaching products that they adore so much in Asia. I had a feeling that I came out of the place a little bit more white then I went in. And believe me, being a pale by nature, it is hard work to get at least a little bit tanned. So no bleaching creams for me, please! One one of the days I even got a compliment, I suppose, from a very bleached Vietnamese woman. I was something like “even though you have been traveling for so long in Asia, you managed to keep your skin in pretty good condition” (meaning white). Thanks, I guess… That’s not the effect I was planning to get out of this tropical climate though.
We were of course getting ready for the big even – the Lunar New Year celebration. The day it self, 7th February, we had a busy schedule with an early dinner with Binh’s extended family and then a late night dinner with friends. The morning was free for us. As we were about to leave Can Tho the following day, we decided to wonder around the city, catching impressions of the city and people getting ready for the feast.
Few things that are similar in many Asian countries are their love for karaoke and comedy shows. They also love to play their pop songs every where and very loud. Especially in the shops, cafes and on the streets. The popular songs are so present that few days latter we started humming them along.
This is a Tet video, watch carefully and you’ll find out a bit more about Vietnamese New Year’s traditions. Cha – cha – cha!
Another song, that we were often singing along as we heard “E-E-E-E-Enjoy…”, those are not the right lyrics though.
That was also the mood we encountered on the streets. Our first New Year’s Tiger was at noon in a local market. We we wondering around the stands with women selling meat, veggies, noodles etc. On our way out we encountered a group of men sitting around improvised table, having a meal and a lots of beer. We could not pass by unnoticed. We were greeted with big smiles and “happy new year’s”. They would not let us pass without having a beer with us. And so we did.
Later on, as we walked the small streets hiding away from the noisy main roads, we were invited to join the early feast table few more times. Very welcoming are the Vietnamese people. We also saw families preparing their celebration altars, burning papers (I am guess old receipts or documents), some were still buying flower pots. There was a sense of expectation in the air. The small streets surprised me with a very subtle colours. The most popular colours for houses are light sky blue and creamy mint green. Sometimes a light sand yellow pops out, but the whole image of the street are very harmonious. Almost always they had used a darker paint for window frames and doors, giving an artistic accent to their everyday lives. The one star red flags were present too.
The evening came fast and before we knew it, we had to get ready for the dinner with Binh’s family. We went to a restaurant. One long, long table covered with tasty, tasty Vietnamese food. Rice baked in pineapple, noodles, every possible sort of meat, a hot pot with fish and many more. My favourites were little sweet jelly rice cakes made by one of Binh’s cousins. I had quite few of those. A little bit more than I, my self, would consider polite, but they were so damn good.
The evening dinner was organised in hotel at the river side. We had our own private section with open windows giving to the river ant the new pedestrian bridge of Can Tho. When the midnight came we had the privilege to enjoy the fireworks in an open space with no one around us. 30 m further people were squeezing to get closer to the river side, to be able to see the fire works from close up, but we were in the territory of hotel. It even felt over luxurious to have the undisturbed view for only us. Even though I am not really into fireworks (it might have something to do with hours long fireworks festival in Geneva more that 10 years ago, at some point nothing can surprise you any more), but from the bottom of my heart I can say that Can Tho had done a good job. 15 minutes of tasteful show – very nice!
After kissing and hugging (everything like in the Western New Year) we were ready to walk back to the hotel. Since afternoon the town was full with cars and bikes. Going on foot was the wisest choice.
At the morning of the New Year’s first day we did not have a lot of time to sleep in. At 10 am there was a Dragon dance (Wikipedia teaches that it is actually a Lion dance) ordered. A New Year’s tradition that brings good luck and prosperity to the family or business. And it is of course an affirmation of the status of the family too.
The dancers arrived in a truck. First a long pole was installed in front of the house. Then a group of percussionists started with crowd gathering and warming up music. Soon a big-head-buddha and 3 dragons (lions as I now know), each created by 2 dancers, appeared and started their dance. At first the beasts were sniffing around the people gathered, coming closer and growing taller in hight, trying to scare the younger ones. Once the area was explored the most agile of the dancers was to conquer the pole. The reason for that was the red envelope, that was hanging above the pole from the second floor of the building. With some acrobatic tricks and smoke spitting the lion was entertaining the crowd in the house and on the street, as many passing by motorbikes had stopped to see the show. The envelope was eventually eaten by the monster (it has to grab it with his big mouth), a final dance with all of the dragons and bigheaded buddha was performed. Together with kids I had a task of feeding one of the beasts with a tip. The fluffy, glittery monster heads with blinking eyes were kinda cute. I was great to experience the show it such a private atmosphere.
Before we left for our bus to Saigon, it was time to scrap out another item of out trip’s bucket list – trying the durian, the smelliest fruit in the world. Binh and his family member were very excited about this aventure, as many of foreigners find the smell of the fruit simply disgusting. As they presented the fruit to me (few days earlier I was announced that it had been bought & ready for me to try), I was encircled by many of Binh’s family members and Stijn holding his camera to film. Big eyes and pure excitement in their eyes – what will happen? Will she try it? Or will she have to puke from the smell alone?
Well, the smell is specific, but I can tolerate it. The taste? It is as thick and creamy as avocado, with a taste intensity of garlic, but sweet. It is a heavy fruit, but rich with vitamins and minerals. I could not eat a lot of it, as it was very heavy. The taste (like with garlic) stays for a very, very long time. I can eat it and in some combinations I might like it a lot, but it is not my favourite fruit.
It was fun to be in a bigger group for a while and we can not thank enough Binh, his family and friends for such a warm welcome and including us in their celebration.