Three Things Thursday; common sights in Vietnam

It’s almost a month since I moved to Vietnam with the intention of finding work and settling in, so this month I present for you Three Things…

… which are peculiar but very common sights on the streets of Vietnam.

With impeccable timing, I arrived in Ho Chi Minh City (HCMC – formerly Saigon) the week before the lunar new year, known here as Tết, at which time all things close down and everyone clears out of the city to visit family. The up side of this was that rather than find an apartment and a job straight away, I was able to (or ‘I had no option but to’) chill out and enjoy the happy party vibe.

The happy party vibe in HCMC involves flowers, decoration, and glitter everywhere. As Tet also celebrates the arrival of the spring, flowers and trees in lucky yellow and red are a key part of the decor. Monkeys were also in evidence everywhere as 2016 is the Year of the Monkey, the birth sign of 75% of my closest family circle by odd coincidence. The park nearby was dedicated entirely to elaborate displays of cacti, exotic fish in aquariums, carved stone and wood sculptures, bonsai of all types, from tiny to quite extraordinarily large (for bonsai, anyway), and an array of flowers, foods, and evening performances. Tet alerted me to a number of new sights on the streets of Vietnam, but post Tet I noticed that several of them were continuous presences, and these I present below.

Thing 1 ~ Street shrines and offerings

109 OfferingOnce the huge street decorations for Tet are cleared away, the plethora of smaller shrines and offerings become more prominent. At the base of the many trees that line the streets and avenues of towns and cities lie clusters of incense sticks and bunches of flowers.

Homes and businesses all have shrines of varying sizes with fruit, cigarettes, drinks, packs of favourite snacks and a lot of boxes of choco pie – the famed liberation snack of choice for those fighting the North Korean regime. No wonder the most common Buddha statue here is the laughing Buddha – he’s got a lot of choice treats to keep him very happy.

109 Street shrine

Thing 2 ~ Bonsai!

Again, the prevalence of trees and plants in pots outside almost every building over Tet meant that I initially missed how important bonsai trees are to the Vietnamese. My favourite exhibit in Tao Dan park was without a doubt the bonsai section.

Once the pots of Tet chrysanthemums wilted and started to disappear,  the bonsai population began to shine through. From very well-cared for landscaped specimens outside larger businesses, to somewhat shabby and abandoned-looking monsters on the streets of quiet seaside town Quy Nhon, to entire nurseries of bonsai in the flower gardens of mountainous Da Lat, they are everywhere.

I was intrigued by the nature of the mini landscapes they presented. Tree roots wound possessively around rock. Miniature cranes nestled on obscure branches. Tiny pagodas perched in mini mountain nooks next to carefully crafted bridges. For a culture steeped in Confucian, Buddhist and Tao principles, the mixture of elements and images appeared significant, and a little background reading revealed that indeed, these trees represent a whole life-view (Viet Nam News).

Thing 3 ~ Street cafes

There is a powerful reason that Vietnam has stuck in my mind since a holiday here in 2014 – that reason is the best coffee in the world! A total coffee addict, the coffee in Vietnam blew my mind on that trip. Even once I’d travelled into neighbouring Cambodia, when I saw a Vietnamese cafe I’d dash in and enquire whether they had Vietnamese coffee to slake my newly acquired taste for it.

Street cafe ca phe

Street cafe ca phe

Some internet digging by Wonderboy revealed that the secret is probably in the beans: Vietnam is one of the top coffee producing countries in the world, second only to Brazil (blogs.ft.com). However, while Brazil is sending out the arabica bean to every city centre from Seoul to Salford, the Vietnamese market thrives on the humble robusta bean, relegated to the freeze-dried aisle in the rest of the world. Here, a drip-filtered cup of robusta or rich moka will set you back 10,000 Vietnamese Dong (more in the bigger cities and tourist centres), or about $0.50 / £0.30, and it will be the best 30p you’ve ever spent!

The other wonderful thing is that the cafes are a ubiquitous sight on all streets and in all towns. Turn a corner and you’ll see a row of diminutive plastic or metal tables and chairs and a handful of people perched on them with a coffee, a complementary iced tea (usually jasmine, green, or barley) and maybe a game of cards on the go. Just plonk yourself down and watch the world go by.

Ca phe nong (hot)

Ca phe nong (hot)

What common sights are peculiar to your neighbourhood?

***

Links and extras:

On preparing for Tet:

Aimee Enders. (23.01.2014). Preparing for Tet – Vietnamese New Year. Retrieved from http://www.tefladventures.com/tet/

On choco-pies:

AFP. (30.07.2014). South Korea sends chocolate snacks into North Korea by balloon. The Telegraph. Retrieved from http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/worldnews/asia/northkorea/10999802/South-Korea-sends-chocolate-snacks-into-North-Korea-via-balloon.html

On the significance of bonsai in Vietnam:

Minh Chau. (17.10.2011). Bonsai growing good for heart and soul. Viet Nam News. Retrieved from http://vietnamnews.vn/sunday/features/216629/bonsai-growing-good-for-heart-and-soul.html

On Vietnam’s coffee industry:

Valentina Romei. (24.10.2015). Datawatch: Vietnam is the world second-largest coffee producer. Retrieved from http://blogs.ft.com/ftdata/2015/10/24/datawatch-vietnam-is-the-world-second-largest-coffee-producer/

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