Tuesday, February 26, 2013

Tet in Vietnam

By far the biggest holiday in Vietnam occurs during the Lunar New Year and is called Tet. We've kind of gleaned information from here and there about the holiday, but in reality we had no idea what was going on or why. Some places/people describe it as "New Year's, Christmas, and your birthday all rolled into one huge party" and that does seem true. There is gift giving, lots of partying, visiting family and friends, and a huge celebration and lots of customs regarding the new year. The holiday is so big that it has 4 days of holidays on the calendar, and even Gameloft closed for almost a week (actually, since the days took up Monday through Thursday, so few people would come in on Friday that they did close for an entire week). Even the majority of restaurants and grocery stores close, a fact we had been warned about back in July when we first arrived. So, we planned to do what was recommended and leave the country. Unfortunately that led to even less of an understanding of the holiday, so I recommend looking it up online if you want the full picture.

The first things we noticed about the coming holiday were the lights and decorations going up EVERYWHERE. The city put up a lot of light displays, flower displays, and spent a month building a huge sidewalk display along the river.
Here are some of the things we noticed about preparations and celebrations, I hope it is correct but I don't really know, so take it with a grain of salt (kind of like how there are basic celebrations for Christmas but every family is different, etc):
Most Vietnamese travel to their hometown or where their family reside for the holiday, where they spend at least one full day with family and have designated days where they visit friends and teachers. So, a lot of things close and have irregular schedules. It took 2 weeks to get most places open, and about a month to get back to life as usual.
It is considered bad luck to cook during Tet, so the stores are PACKED for the few weeks before Tet as everyone gathers supplies and cooks in the days before it starts. The photo above shows some of the decorations up at one of the local supermarkets, Big C. (Hint: 2013 is the year of the Snake in the Chinese Zodiac, so that is why there are snake decorations everywhere)
There were awesome shops set up on every corner where people would sell large potted yellow flowers, which are lucky for the new year, as well as small potted trees with brightly orange colored citrus fruits. I don't remember the name of the trees but the idea was that you buy the one with the best fruit and display it in your home for luck for the next year. We saw this tree in a local diner where we get Bahn Mi sandwiches (sandwiches on a baguette, mostly eggs) - I thought it was cool as they decorated the tree with lights and the little red and gold trinkets that say "Chuc Mung Nam Moi" (Happy New Year) and other wishes of luck.
The street shops were really awesome to see with all of the trinkets/decorations for the new year. It was awesome, and we bought a bunch of the little cheap ones to decorate with and send home.
Before we both left town for Tet, we had breakfast with our Vietnamese friend Thui, who is totally sweet, and gave her a "Tet basket" for her family for the holidays. We aren't sure really how it works, but it seems like they assemble gift baskets to give people during the holidays; they are filled with cookies, treats, and usually some type of sparkling juice (which tasted funny to us), wine, or liquor. They vary in price from 150K  VND (about $7) to about 3 million VND ($150 USD) depending on the contents.  Thui bought us breakfast and gave us the awesome yellow flowers pictured below, saying it is traditional and lucky to have yellow flowers in your house for Tet.
So yeah... it's not a Christmas tree in the photo, with Lucky Money envelopes on it from Thui and later some of the red and gold trinkets from the store, it was our Tet Tree :P Lucky Money is also a very important part of the holiday. Basically, the tradition is to give your friends and family money in the various-styles of little red and gold envelopes. Members of the older generation give them to kids and youth, and you can give them to friends at work as well. I remember getting one from my boss at Whistle Wok in American Fork (a Chinese restaurant) when I worked there as a teenager - mostly I remember having no idea why we got the HUGE bonus of $20 (huge to a poor teenager mind you), but I was happy anyway. Michael gave lucky money to all of his design team at work too - a $1 bill in USD, it took forever to get them from the bank, but it worked out and a lot of them really appreciated the gesture. Thui was really sweet and gave us some as well in the cute snake envelopes above.
The huge display along the river wasn't done until we got back from our Tet trip to Thailand, but luckily we saw it the last night they had it up and it was really amazing. There were huge statues and art displays for probably close to half a mile, it was awesome. Here are some of the highlights as not all of the photos turned out - we were planning on getting a video the next day but alas, it was mostly gone by then, enjoy!

Wednesday, February 20, 2013

Son Tra Mountain - our Great Escape

Quiet. Beauty. Sunsets. Monkeys. What more could you ask for?

One of our favorite places to go on Sunday afternoons is Son Tra Mountain. As a mini National Park, it is truly amazing. It is home to 3 different species of monkeys, and according to one of the conservationists we met there last week, it is a truly unique place because you can have an encounter (sightings or sounds) with at least 1 kind of monkey every time you set foot on the mountain. Elsewhere, even other larger parks in Vietnam, you could spend a week with no monkey noises let alone sightings. We also love it purely for the atmosphere of being out in nature. It is quiet, beautiful, and with the clouds usually resting in the trees it has an amazing mysterious atmosphere. It is the best place to escape the bustling city.

Here's a lovely view of Michael overlooking the east side of Da Nang that you can see as you drive up the mountain. As you continue up you can eventually see the entire city - well, as it disappears into the mist at least.
The views are amazing regardless of the weather, as we discovered when we were first driving up through the clouds.
Here's Michael at the top of Son Tra on our first visit to that area of the park on a particularly foggy day. On our last trip up he took a short video to show what it looks like through the fog - it was the first time we had ever seen clearly what was there.
The serenity of driving through beautiful green trees with nothing but mist in the distance is my all-time favorite experience in Vietnam. It also rocks that as we stopped on this road to check the clock, we happened to be right next to a rather surprised troupe of the smaller, brown monkeys here sitting in the trees right next to us. We looked at them with equal surprise and then they all ran off.
"The Green Place" is in a little valley-ish of sorts of Son Tra, and they have this little hut thing where I guess you can hang out and watch monkeys. We had seen some really big ones eating and playing in the trees and stopped to see them, but they all ran off when they heard some other motorbikes coming through.

More Misty Mountain shots! We just can't get enough. It's my favorite place in the World so far.
The North side of Son Tra is simply breathtaking. Michael took another video to show some additional viewpoints.

One of our favorite things about Son Tra are the Monkeys. There are 3 different species and they are all really awesome, but these guys - the red-shanked gibbon I think - are some of our favorites. We tried to catch a video of this guy, it isn't really good quality but you can see movement! :) We also saw another troupe of the same kind booking it through the trees, I was able to catch one of them for a moment in this video - see if you can spot them.

Conservation is a big thing for the mountain now, the woman we met who explained a lot to us said that the BBC was just finishing up some filming there, we hope we can see it someday! For a free park that's less than 10 minutes away by motorbike, we are truly lucky.

The mountain is one of the most remarkable places we've ever been, and although it is good to see the younger generation of Vietnamese enjoying it primarily as a kind of secluded place to make out, we hope that in the future more will grow to appreciate it for even more than that. 

Monday, February 4, 2013

January Summary

January was a busy month other than our trips to Hue and Phong Nha Cave, I can't remember it all but here are the highlights with some photos in no particular order of occurence:

Toward the end of January Gameloft had their annual "Year End Party" (they celebrate according to the lunar New Year in February). It was a big to-do and a lot of people were dressed up for it, so we thought it was the perfect time to use the fake mustaches Michael's mom had sent in a care package. Needless to say, they were a big hit.
Here's a photo of a crazy-colored caterpillar we saw while visiting the giant Buddha statue on a sunny day. It had a crazy black and white face that was particularly fascinating. The creatures around here never cease to amaze.
King's cake - our French friends were excited that the new French grill and Pub, Luna, was offering King's Cake, a French traditional dish served for the New Year. Whoever finds the coin in their cake is the lucky person for the new year and gets a prize, and it happens that at Luna the prize is a meter of shooters. Guess who found a coin when Michael and I joined them to try the dessert? It was Michael! When you are one of the only non-drinkers in a pub testing fate, it's inevitable, right?
Michael's awesome sister Katie and her family sent us a Christmas package that arrived toward the end of January - so cool! It had a rather large dent/hole in the side so we were worried about the contents, but most of it was candy so it was all right! The candy canes they sent were all broken and had started to dissolve in the humid climate so everything inside the box was sticky, but other than that we enjoyed sharing some of the sweets and mostly ate ourselves sick. If you notice in my photo, I am wearing 2 shirts and 2 sweaters, January was a cold month with colder weather than we ever expected in Vietnam, but as all our family is still covered in a foot of snow, I think I will stop there :)
Here's an example of the Asian awesomeness you can find at Lotte Mart.
In an attempt to stay sane I periodically attempt handicrafts with what I can find. After enough Phineas and Ferb episodes I was inspired to create my own. Ferb turned out really well, but I ran out of the skin color with him so I'm afraid Phineas ended up looking a bit over-done. Ferb always was the most stylish of the two. I had thought the project would take a long time, but sadly it only took maybe 3-4 days from start to finish - you can tell how much free time I have...
Here are our friends Xavier (in the blue) and Charles (in the black) being silly after a game of bowling at Lotte Mart (you can tell this place just opened, right?). We had just finished a night out with the game design team at Gameloft and the producers came along to the bowling alley. It was a night of laughs if not anything else (the bowling alley was kind of a disappointment).
While on a random drive to explore town, we found this neat building/shrine thing down a little street near the Marble Mountains. The tree was growing all over the entrance, it was really cool.
Here's Michael with his favorite Buddha statue (at least we think it's a Buddha...) on the river walk near his work. At this part of the river walk area there are at least two dozen marble statues of anything from classical Romanesque styles (naked ladies) to a large Native American Indian with a full headdress to more traditional Asian lions and more.
Our awesome neighbors Haroeth and Alfa showed us this amazing place to hang out by the beach down by Hoi An. The chair is basically a full-sized bed, super comfy, and the atmosphere is amazing with a beautiful beach maybe 20 feet away. Apparently it's a huge foreigner hangout as while we were there we saw almost every other foreigner we were familiar with in Da Nang relaxing out there too (well, at least all the French ones as the owner is French). With sunshine and smoothies, you just can't go wrong :)