Saturday, 15 February 2014

The song of Vietnam

It has been a very noisy two weeks here in Hoi An.

Starting on January 23rd we had the Lunar New year festival, locally known as Tet which starts quietly with families burning ceremonial paper clothing, money, shoes and   poems in pots on the street outside their homes. In this ceremony they are sending the kitchen god up to the heavens to report on the behaviour and activities within the home over the past year. 

Our landlady (whom we call Auntie) came to the house with her brother and one of his daughters and the youngest son.

They brought with them a feast of whole boiled chicken, spring rolls, rice and cold meats. There were five fruits, flowers and new joss sticks for the altars in the garden, in the kitchen and upstairs in the studio.  They burned ceremonial paper goods in the lane outside the house and the kitchen good was sent off to speak with the Jade Emperor for a week.  The kitchen god  likes to ride on a red carp and some people throw fish into the rivers to send the kitchen god on his way.

  • The release of the strong-swimming carp into local ponds, rivers and lakes, is believed to transport the Kitchen God to heaven. After delivering the God, the carp transforms into a dragon.
  • It is said that the God will then report to the Jade Emperor on the life of homeowners and pray for luck, happiness and prosperity for all members of the house in the coming year.
  • The Kitchen God returns to Earth on New Year’s Eve (February 9 this year) and resume his duties as the caretaker of Vietnamese kitchens.

Throughout all this, the Vietnamese, who love to sing, hold Karaoke parties in their homes and at local cafes.  they don't care how loud or how badly they sing; they just sing their hearts out. The older generation remember a time when public singing and public music was not allowed so now they make the most of the freedom to sing and celebrate. 

Tet lasts about a week ( or so) and on the last night they really let rip! A party at end of our lane was so loud that the windows rattled in the studio and the water in my pot rippled! At 9.15 everything stops like nothing ever happened. That is the one great thing about this country - everything stops before 9.30 and the streets go quiet.  

Huge lanterns blowing the evening breeze

This week, 14 days after the New Moon, we had Full Moon night in Hoi An. I have never seen the streets so busy. We had to fight our way through the crowds to get from one end of Tran Phu to the other. On these nights there are no electric lights allowed in the streets apart from the lanterns. The waterfront was completely dark apart form the odd candle-lit table in a cafe and oil lamps on the boats. it was magical.

Table altar outside the bookshop

A gallery owner tends his altar on the street outside his shop and makes offerings.

Lantern lit riverscape
Music filled the streets and the young people and families promenade in the crowded streets to see the sights. We listened to classical guitar on one of the boats moored along Bach Dang waterfront and ate near the Japanese bridge where we watched town elders playing Chinese chess dressed in traditional silk pyjama suits.

Two days later and its time for a feast at the local temple. we arrived to see tables laid out with fried spring rolls, fatty roast pork, boiled pork and blood cakes, salad and white garlicky sausage. Larue beer flowed freely and the old men went from table to table shaking hands and topping up everyone's glasses.

Everyone in the neighbourhood gathered, took a seat and enjoyed the feast. more food was brought in waves - now baguettes, now bean sprouts, more salad and bowls and bowls of pork broth. Everyone is laughing and drinking.The old men offer cigarettes around the table.

Mot Hai Ba Yo!

Mr. Hung had been on the sauce since breakfast I reckon. With his larger than life personality he missed his calling in Chinese opera!

The lady below is 84 and has a beautiful set of painted black teeth but she was reluctant to give me a smile.  

This guy arrived at out table to show off his skills by making a bird and a grasshopper out of palm leaves. We gave them to as little boy and girl.

A woman with a beautiful voice stood up to since a traditional song without any accompaniment. Everyone was quiet for a little while.  Then the men started to sing and a boy band was formed. Finally all the singers sang a popular song and the entire party clapped along in rhythm.
Here is Phuong and her lovely husband (below). 

Their family is in the middle of a funeral. An uncle died suddenly and the funeral ceremonies last for seven days.

 The lonely wail of a single stringed  'violin' has been winding its way around our little streets for two days, occasionally interspersed with the slow drum and gong rhythm that seems to signify a vigil. 
This morning at 4.30am, the saddest song founds its way into my room; an unusually melodic song of a male choir that really chilled me. I couldn't sleep again.  

Here is Phuong with Robert and Bill. 

And.... Robert with another lovely local.

I don't think I have ever attended such a jolly party in my life. These lovely people laugh and sing with abandon. I danced with one of the girls and came close to taking the mic to sing them a traditional song from the UK. That must have been the beer!  A good time was had by all and the party continued long after we left. 

Back home, the drunken singing from compete parties is drowning out the ever-present funerary dirges which will last for another two days I believe.

Saturday, 1 February 2014

My love of boats

I am passionate about boats. I love to draw them and back home in England I even lived on one for 10 years. I can sit and watch boats bob about in a harbour for hours. Just listening to the slap of ropes on masts and watching fishermen mend nets and wind ropes fills me with delight. One of the big benefits of living near the river or the coast in Vietnam is being able to enjoy a seemingly endless variety of traditional wooden boats and ships that move along the canals and rivers and gather in harbours along the coast.

I reckon I was born with some salt water in my veins because my mother’s family were seafarers in the north of England. I can just about remember wooden sailing boats coming and going in their home town but sadly the fishing industry is almost extinct in the UK which is a sad loss.

Here in Vietnam, however boats still form a major part of the transport systems internationally, nationally and locally. Whether you want to ship rice to Australia or take your chickens to market, boats are often the best way from A to B. Many communities in rural areas are only accessible by boat so the rhythms of the tides, the winds and the rain are the factors that set the pace of life.

Here are some of my favourite things to do on the water...........

I like to take a little wooden boat down the river in Hoi An at the end of the afternoon and return to the quay side by the market just as the sun is beginning to set. The low afternoon sun casts a warm glow over the ancient town and paints beautiful reflections in the silken waters of the river.

The thrill of taking a speed boat up the Saigon River to Cu Chi is hard to beat as way to spend a morning. Weaving through the floating islands of water hyacinths leaving a sparkling white wake behind you is truly exhilarating.

A truly evocative sight is the estuary at Phan Thiet which is jammed with traditional, wooden fishing boats moored so close together you could almost walk from one end of the town to the other across their decks.  Teams of fishermen work on their boats and the women ferry supplies and men from ship to shore in coracles and small wooden tenders. The sight from the bridge over the Song Ca Ty (river Ca Ty) reminded me of old paintings of the fishing ports of England a hundred years ago. It was like bringing history to life.

Take a trip from Saigon to Vung Tau on the hydrofoil to experience the open wildness of the river with its backdrop of blue and purple hills in the distance. Go speeding past the crotchety fishing boats with their double and triple tiered wheelhouses and wave to the light house keeper as you pass by.

Arrive in Vung Tau and walk along the beach amongst the curly fishing boats and fishermen fixing their nets.

Shrine house decorated for New Year

Yesterday, we went on a long bike ride along the river. On the way we passed a beautifully decorated shrine house. 

Suspended from the ceiling inside was the big red drum that the cox beats to keep the oarsmen in rhythm and two model dragon boats - one for Hoi An and the other for Cam Chau.

As you ca'n see from the photo, the Hoi An boys are sitting up and rowing but the Cam Chau oars are 'up' . I guess this might mean that Hoi An won the cup last year and that Cam Chau was the loser. 

As we cycled further we came to a meadow with a huge boat house in the middle.  I estimate this boat to be about 60 feet long. In teh bow were the still smouldering joss sticks that must have been lit by team members that morning as they prayed for victory in the coming year.

Chuc Mung Nam Moi ..................... Happy New Year everyone.