SAI GON, Chuc Mung Nam Moi!!!! (Happy New Year in Vietnamese)

Once I could take my flight to Ho Chi Minh, also known as Sai Gon, little I knew about what was awaiting for me. I had organised a stay with a Vietnamese woman through couchsurfing, Mai. This was the first time I was doing this and I only had her number and her address. On my arrival to the airport, I had to get sorted my visa and I also had a bit of a problem with my credit card. So, once I organised to take a local bus to city centre, where I was supposed to meet Mai, I found out that she had been already waiting for me for a long time and she decided to go home. Alright, I have her address; surely this cannot end up badly.

I took a Xe Om or a mototaxi and got to the place indicated. There were 3 huge towers of apartments in front of me and I had no idea where to look at for the address or even worse, how to read the address. That’s how I ended up in an elevator and had the luck of sharing it with someone else. I just showed him the address to ask if I was in the correct tower and exactly how I was expecting, I wasn’t. Thank God I didn’t end up ringing some else’s door, it would have been comical.

I took another elevator down and got in the correct tower this time. I found the apartment, rang the bell and found Mai and a French couple in the apartment. They just welcomed me and made me feel at home during the whole week I would spend here. Incredible or not, the week would fly by, full of events and surprises.

The next day of my arrival would be New Year’s Eve. We were to receive the year of the rooster, so right after my arrival we got to city centre to admire the lights, decorations, flowers and all the people in the streets with their best clothes ready to get nice pictures with the display. It felt great that just hours after my arrival I had the chance to taste the atmosphere and see how people were getting ready for the New Year. The Tet holidays had started, there was not as much traffic as usual and the people were ready to enjoy themselves! You could read everywhere: Chuc Mung Nam Moi and fins roosters in every decoration. The New Year was the year of the rooster.

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When in Rome, do as Romans, so I took a pic with the flower arrangements. Although I didn’t dress up for the ocassion. 

After this, I had the great pleasure of meeting Mai’s husband, Phuc. He happened to be an architect and immense artistic person, the one that had painted all the paintings I had seen in the house previously. Talented and lovely person. I have to say that they make such a great couple!!

For New Year’s Eve, I had been invited to Mai’s hometown, Bien Hoa. It is a small city very close to Ho Chi Minh, so we would spend there the night and come back to Sai Gon the next day. As shops and pretty much everything would be closing at noon, we made our way in the morning and got there to spend the day from the afternoon. It all consisted in eating, the family fed me and fed me and they were all so nice to me! We also went to some market to get a few things and, in general, got to enjoy myself a lot with some nice chats and enjoying the atmosphere with the family. I got a particularly enjoyable conversation with Mai where she told me that she believed everything was connected. For example, a girl from Spain that she didn’t know at all was sitting there with her, how’s that?! Maybe there was a previous connection, maybe I chose her and she chose me because we had met before in a previous live, because somehow, there was a connection and we meant to meet each other now. That made me think a lot about all the random people that I have met during my life and how some of them, even if they were completely different to me and we met by chance, have sticked to me and have had a special meaning in my life.

She also explained to me that I was the first invited person to her house for New Year and how important was that. If the person was nice and happy and all that, it would bring good things for the New Year. There were also a lot more traditions and believes, flowers everywhere, Buddhas and altars and incense. And I was part of all of it, I was delighted.

The New Year came and we saw it from the TV from one of the rooms. After that, we gathered all the family together in the sitting room and toasted with sparkling red wine to the New Year. We also had some watermelon roasted seeds, as per the tradition and then they exchanged some lucky money. I had been told that the young ones get lucky money, but I wasn’t expected to receive it myself!! I didn’t really feel comfortable taking money from somebody, but for them it means that they are going to receive money in the New Year and I HAD TO take it. Otherwise it would mean they are not going to receive money during the year! After this surprise, we all went to the pagoda and prayed. I just walked around, enjoying the sights and the catchy music in the background. One of the Monks gave us an envelope and then another one gave us a brazalet. Guess what there was in the envelope: along with some inscription and good wishes for the New Year, there was more lucky money. A symbolic amount, but still.

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Receiving “lucky money” after the toast

After returning home, I was sent to bed and Mai and Phuc went to the pagoda as they had promised to spend the night there. I was good and did as I was told. I woke up the next morning with more food, a huge breakfast noodle and a coconut to drink. After that, we made our way home and returned to Sai Gon. I was totally destroyed and had a huge nap. I like the Vietnamese style, you eat and you have a nap. It’s hot outside, so there is no point bothering in making it to somewhere, you have a nap because you had a big lunch and you deserve to sleep. It reminds me to home and the siesta style.

I had in mind a bit of sightseeing of something indeed around city centre, but Mai had organised a party and what I thought it would be an evening party, started at noon/lunch time. So I just joined in and had a great time. Traditionally, the second day of the new year is meant to be spent with the friends, as the first one was for the family. So a good number of friends gathered up in the apartment to enjoy a lunch that lasted for hours, beers, live music and laughs. It was interested to see how different friends swung by, but the ones that stayed most of the time were a few artists living in Sai Gon. We all eat and drank beer and many of them were playing the guitar and singing. They made me sing and although I found very difficult to find a song to sing so they could follow with the melody, I got to sing a couple of popular Spanish-ish songs, as ‘La Bamba’, which they loved because they sang with me. The French couple, Olivia and Frank, had also their moment and delighted us with some French Jazz song. I ended putting the cherry on top of the cake when, after been asked if I could dance flamenco and refused to, had the brilliant idea of showing them a bit of flamenco clapping a bit and then singing. Yes, I got to sing ‘Para volver a volver’, song that I absolutely love and although I started timidly because I am no good singer, I sang with my heart the final part. Give me a beer and I will think I can sing…hahaha. I was probably motivated by the fact that everybody was contributing, singing, drawing, playing guitar, saying a poem… Somehow, I wanted to contribute as well and we all know I am not an artistic person, so the drawing was completely out of the table for me. All I had left was a bit of singing. And they liked it very much, I think here is where I gained them all.

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Singing

Despite I was enjoying myself so much, my try-it-all spirit betrayed me and I thought I was dying. There was this cool guy with a pipe that apparently was typical Vietnamese. He was smoking from this pipe and my curiosity got me to want to try it. After ensuring and re-assuring me that it was free of hash or any other drug and checking that it was only tobacco what he was putting on it, I got to try it. I just inspired the smoke and…. F*CK!!!!! My lungs closed up, the smoke was inside me and everything went straight to my head. I couldn’t breathe and went out of the apartment, all dizzy, trying to find a spot to seat near a window.  I cough and sweat and tried to drink some water in between…. It took me 10 minutes to get over this feeling. That was hell!

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“Yo” or cheers in Vietnamese. After surviving the smoke attack or my attempt of smoking of his pipe

During the party people were also drawing. I can say that the best artists of Ho Chi Minh City were there and they were making portraits. I got two from two different persons. I also got my smile complimented. Something I particularly like, not because I work on it, but because I try to smile as much as I can. And by the end of the party, I got invited to hang out with one of the guys. He had no English. So what? I couldn’t refuse an invitation and I was curious to see why he wanted to hang out with me. So I did what I love so much to do: get in the motorbike of some strange to do something I am not quite sure what it is in a new city! My mind got memories from India and those crazy days and smiled. We arrived to some park full of decorations and people and attractions and shops and families… Great atmosphere! We were supposed to pay an entrance ticket but we didn’t and I understood why 5 seconds later. By the entrance, the other guys in the party were situated there working in portraits for people around. We said hello and then this guy took me to one of the stalls. He wanted to get me one of these straw decorations. I couldn’t accepted it, nono, plus there was no space for that anywhere in my backpack. We kept going and reached a stall of one friend of his who was selling stones, rings, Buddhist stuff and meditation stuff. This man and a girl who was also there spoke English, so happy days, we got to chat a bit and show me how this man had appeared in whatever Vietnamese magazine as one of the 100 most influent business in Vietnam. He showed a lot of hospitality and offered biscuits, coconut, tea… I was a bit scared of the tea. There were some leaves inside a pot. Until that, all normal. But then, along with the water, he added some strange powder. I watched carefully. Everybody was drinking from these tiny little cups and then I proceeded. I would find out a bit later that this was the same that the powder from the incense after burning, one that you could eat. It didn’t seem very appealing to me, to be honest and to know where it was coming from was not any better. Then, I was offered some cashew nuts and along with those there was some strange “herb” that I strategically avoided. A few minutes after, I got that “herb” on the palm of my hang, ordering me to try it. I didn’t do it until I got clear that it was some kind of mushroom. It was supposed to be very delicious, but I didn’t like it. I had 4 more to be eaten on my hand and all the pressure was on. I invited my friend who took me there to take some, but he didn’t. Damn it, I will have to eat it now, I thought.

After a while, we got back with the lads that were drawing. They were all drawing in pencil and my new friend made me take a seat and started preparing the pastel colours. He would paint me once more but in colour now. A huge circle formed around us and everybody was watching. Mai and Phuc arrived after a while and by the time it was finished, we could get back home.

The third day of the New Year was to be spent with the teachers. Mai had some plans for this and the French couple and I were happy to join. But first, we had been invited for breakfast to the house of some man that was retired and had been living in Canada.

We went to his house, which was kind of a house museum he was dying to show us. The four floors of it were full with Boddhi Dhama (or however this is spelled, excuse my ignorance). This was the twenty-something reincarnation of Buddha and his collection was conformed of over a thousand of this in different forms: from paintings and pictures to cups and figures. The man spent the whole time speaking in French. I just thought he was dying to speak French after so long in Canada (French Canada) and the rest of us could understand very little. I was trying hard at the beginning but then, the conversation raised the level of depth and I just got tired of making an effort and gave up. We had some breakfast consisting of lovely meats, fruits and other stuff and what shocked me the most was the inclusion of shots for the breakfast. It was quite strong and after a few ‘Yo’, this thing they use every time they want to drink like a cheers that make you cheer and drink every time, I had to take mini-sips of the liquor. Too strong for the morning. I also was offered some beer, but ended up with some coke that was good enough giving the circumstances. Too much alcohol in between. I think we all left with an strange impression. The French hold a conversation too deep for a person that they have just met, full of subjectivity. Mai and Phuc were quite annoyed, especially Phus as he was friends with this man from before, because it doesn’t make any sense to invite people to your house and speak French all the time, a language that only 3 people in the house could speak. I was quite shocked by everything, plus for some reason I got a souvenir from this man: a stone with the Dalai Lama printed on it. Great, more weight for my backpack, I thought.

Next, we followed Mai plans and came back to Bien Hoa to visit a 400 years old pagoda. I would have never thought what was expecting there for us. We were treated especially well just for the sake of being the only foreigners around. People brought us chairs and after seeing the performance of the dragon dance, we took a sit while people were praying/saying stuff on a microphone. There was an important Nun talking, she was the lead of the Nuns of the region and lots of nuns were around along with other people and monks. The Nun had a special mention to the foreigners and made us feel very special and welcomed. She was appreciating our presence there and wanted to thank us. She got some offerings, including the lucky money and a cake that Mai was offering, through Olivia and Frank. After all the offerings, the Nun also had lucky money for everybody. So, they made us queue and besides the lucky money, we got an explicative book in Vietnamese and English of the story of the pagoda. Plus, the lucky money was containing Cambodian money and US Dollars! 2 USD!!!! Hahaha, I couldn’t believe. Mai was joking all the time about all the lucky money I had got and how I was going to have a big promotion this year. Then, she kept adding the boyfriend and the house. Funny Mai!

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Outside the pagoda, with Mai, Olivia and Frank.

We had to go back to the family’s house to get dinner, but we couldn’t get a taxi and our lift got lost. We were waiting for a long time until we all got back and it was actually nice that we were all together and have a few minutes to absorb what just happened over there. I felt especially thankful for the great moment that she had the kindness of sharing with us and make us participate of it. It had been just beautiful that, although we couldn’t understand most of it because of the language and the unfamiliarity with the religion, I felt welcomed, never judged, everybody kept smiling at me and they really wanted us to be a part of the whole occasion.

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Homeless, waiting for someone to collect us. So, let’s take a selfie!

It got late and I ended up sleeping in Bien Hoa for the second time. It was nice to alternate the couch with a mattress on the floor and I honestly didn’t really care where I was sleeping because I was feeling comfortable with them and that was it.

By the time we got up, we went to have some pho (noodle soup typical from Vietnam) for breakfast and like that, we went back to Sai Gon, this time by bus. I could notice how between Phuc and I had also grew a special relationship and despite the lack of fluent communication between us due to language barriers, we were feeling close to each other and felt respect not only professionally but personally.

I took it easy for the rest of the day (yes, again, plenty of time to take things easy because there has been too much emotion mix previously and also because I have no idea what to do next or what I want!). This would be my last night in Sai Gon and next day had to be taken to do some stuff around the city.

So I woke up, did my stuff and went to the city with Olivia and Frank. It was weird to remember that we were tourists here. I had been leaving the real experience and now we were just doing the typical touristy stuff in the touristy area. We got to a market, the post office, the war museum, which raised some feeling inside me… Between these feelings, the strange feeling of being following somebody in the city as I was guided by Olivia and Frank and the thought of leaving the city that very night, the mix inside me was intense. That night I made the honours and cooked dinner for everybody. It was the least I could do. As a Spaniard, and with 4 months on my back without trying any Spanish food, the menu could not be any different. I picked something simple enough to like everybody and also to make sure I could find the ingredients. Challenging enough, I made a tuna salad to make some company of what would be the star on the table: Spanish omelette. Delicious and everybody liked it. Although I doubted of its integrity when flipping it over, it just looked beautiful.

All I had left to do after that was to get a nice basket of fruits for my hosts as an appreciative gesture of how thankful I was for everything. When I got home, Mai surprised me with the menu for the last dinner together: frogs. I couldn’t wait to try them and they were delicious!!! Sadly, after that culinary experience, I had to say goodbye and I felt sorry to do so, because they are sooooo amazing and I was feeling so comfy with them! But I need to move on, it’s been too long here and I need to get back on my feet. Plus, I had a flight to take, this time with the correct date on it and I could not miss this. Da Nang, in central Vietnam, there I go!

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