Tuesday, 12 February 2013

Lunar New Year in Saigon

Saigon has ground to a euphoric halt. The first day of the new lunar year is a rare public holiday and the Vietnamese spend it with family, eating traditional food, giving small gifts of sweets and money, playing games and relaxing.

This tray of traditional sweets is not for the faint-hearted. Each sweet has been prepared and wrapped by hand - nothing mass produced here. The candied ginger is as hot as chilli and the mashed fig and stoneless dates have been mixed with a sour sauce that leaves Haribo sours standing. I cannot understand why any Vietnamese men who have been brought up on these don't have hairs on their chests ........ or maybe these sweets are the reason for them being hairless!

No businesses are open; no shops, no buses, no bars and very few restaurants. There is hardly any traffic on the road. Half of Saigon has left the city to return the land of their ancestors. Vietnam is a newly industrialised and urbanised nation so all families still have parents, grandparents, cousins, brothers and sisters in the countryside and provincial towns. 

Prior to the new moon night flower markets pop up all over the city in parks, street corners, bridges; in fact anywhere where there is an empty space to display Hoa Mai trees, yellow crysanthemums, marigolds, cherry blossom, bougainvilla and miniature orange trees in fruit.

Vietnamese travel from all over the world to return home to their ancestors so it's impossible to get an internal flight, a train, hotel room or coach ticket unless you booked it months ago.

Local people, who have lived in our lane for generations, have smartened up the family graves by the  side of the road, by burning back the weeds and giving the stonework a lick of paint. 

The neighbourhood communist party office have hung banners from lamp posts on the main road and hung some jolly  'hammer and sickle'  bunting across the lane

Everyone cleans their homes, paints the front wall. scrubs the yard and chucks out rubbish and old clothes in preparation for the new year. 

in Vietnam the bins are emptied every night - yes, you heard me- EVERY night! the truck comes round with a team of 'sorters' on top and they sort all the glass, plastics, cans, tins, paper and cardboard. Most housekeepers enjoy making a bit of extra cash by taking bags of recycling down to the depot. 

I remember, as a child, there used to be a penny to threepence  deposit on lemonade bottles that encouraged people to take them back to the shop for recycling. Some young PhD economist will revive that idea as a revolution in eco-living one of these fine days and all the over 50's will roll their eyes in a 'granny suck eggs' kind of way!! Oh well.

Saigon city centre has really rolled out the party with street lights, flags, pedestrianised streets and by turning one of the main avenues into a fantastic garden and floral display with fountains, a waterfall, and acres of glorious flowers. There is a book festival and a sidewalk exhibition of all the different ethnic groups in Vietnam. Everyone comes out to pose and pout in front of the displays and to promenade in their best clothes or traditional outfits.

At ten o'clock at night we walked a mile or so to the Thu Thiem bridge to secure a good spot to view the midnight fireworks over the city skyline. they were fantastic and the gathered crowd whooped and cheered as they grew bigger and brighter and higher.

Sunday, 10 February 2013

Vietnamese Wine - no seriously

I was the greatest doubter of all when it comes to Vietnamese Wine. Like many people I had an unpleasant introduction to the local non-varietal wine while on an undistinguished Halong Bay tourist boat.  If the marketing director of Vang Dalat ( Vin Da Lat) knew what muck was being served up to visitors under the banner of Vietnamese wine produce I am sure he would  be horrified!t

If you follow my infrequent Facebook posts you will have noted the first time I bought some New World wine - some five or six weeks into my sojourn. Oh, it tasted like nectar but one bottle of decent Sauvignon Blanc is the same price as a fair bottle of Champagne / fizz in the UK so when you compare it to the price of fish, bread and eggs, it would be like drinking a bottle of MOET every time. My goodness.

As a result, I have been forced to take a longer look at the local wine which costs £2 a bottle. A wineau can't afford to be toooooo fussy...... afer all the days are long and hot and a chilled glass of white wine is often the only drink that will slake the thirst and sooth the soul.

Richard Sterling recently wrote an article in Asia Life about Vang Dalat. He says that, as a result of the French colonisation, wine has been grown in Vietnam for a long time but popular varieties were introduced about 20 years ago and the growers now produce very serviceable wine under the name of Vang Dalat ( not to be called VD) and I agree. Apparently there is also a Chardonnay and a Cabernet available but they are hard to find.

The white wine is light and crisp and sharp and reminds me a little of Muscadet. At only 12% proof it is also ideal for glugging in this sultry climate. Richard says it makes excellent Sangria so that might be my next expedition. The problem is that wine is a relatively new and misunderstood product to the Vietnamese and it is often stored badly.

It's hot in Saigon. It's around 80 degrees all year round and wine prefers a cooler storage temperature to retain its quality. One of the best places to buy it is a small supermarket where the turnover is fast enough to prevent any damage.

It's a good idea to drink it quickly as well! Mot Hai Ba Yo! (one two three down teh hatch it goes)

Dalat - home of the wine industry in Vietrnam