Although I went back to work on Friday, it was with a sense of having been somewhat indulgent, as Vietnam enjoyed its annual lunar New Year shut down last week and, life as we know it here in Saigon, ground to a very pleasant halt.
Families and friends idled away four days of public holidaying, the focus being on eating festive foods, drinking large quantities of alcohol, and speculating at length what the year ahead might hold (see previous post on Dragons, although for those with less time to spare to read post, the nuts and bolts of it is that the Year of the Dragon is an auspicious year in the twelve yearly zodiac cycle, and there is heightened expectation amongst people here about what 2012 will bring.)
Due to the significance of the Dragon there will be more babies born over the next twelve months than during an average year in Vietnam, as couples believe their children will go onto great things if they are delivered during Dragon season.
The Year of the Tiger on the other hand, brings with it a very different vibe for newborns, particularly for girls. A girl born in the Year of the Tiger will be “aggressive and hard to marry” – so the zodiacal gurus would have us believe. That said, we’ve also heard that a family with five daughters is supposedly luckier than one with five sons. Daughters bring stability, a hard working ethic and loyalty to a family. Boys, well, don’t.
As usual it has been great fun learning about, and living amongst, all such cultural eccentricities and habits, and we have enjoyed getting into the spirit of things.
We have bought yellow Tễt flowers, de-leaved and watched bloom our landlady’s Tễt tree, have handed out “lucky money” in red envelopes to children we know, eaten some new seasonal treats (such as sticky rice, cured pork, pickled vegetables, as well as a variety of sugared products including ginger, sweet potato and coconut) and, purely to fit in with what is customary, have consumed our fair share of beer and wine.
So far, I don’t think we have let the side down or made a faux pas. Although at a colleague’s house the other day for lunch I thought one guy there was the brother-in-law of the host, but rather embarrassingly instead he turned out to be someone with whom I work in the office, and I had just failed to recognise him – quite shameful on my part!
The amusing tale attached to that particular chap was that he also then took Martha for a walk down the street after lunch, only to rush back into the house a few minutes later looking pale and flustered, as Martha had been eating a small banana and he’d managed to let her chew on a whole strip of banana skin, which I had to then prise out from the back of her mouth, to the horror of his wife sat opposite me.
In any such scenario (the embarrassing one about not recognising a work colleague, as opposed to the slightly bizarre one where you tip your daughter upside down to pry out unusual food that someone else has got stuck down her throat) we tend to bring out our secret weapon, Florence, who these days insists on dancing and singing Vietnamese songs when given even a glimmer of a chance or invitation.
She’ll be in the elevator, for example, and in the time it takes to travel the nine floors up to our apartment, she will have eyed up an unsuspecting Vietnamese (man or woman, she is not picky) and will have launched into a few verses of the latest song she has been taught at school.
Initially, we thought this was a little over the top, but it transpires all Vietnamese adore children, especially those with blond hair and clutching a doll (Flo usually carries one of hers to most places).
People here react quite beside themselves when faced with a cute Western girl singing in Vietnamese, and will take photos if they have the chance. The work colleague I failed to recognise now has ten minutes of Flo performing songs on his video camera. Not surprisingly, he didn’t film “banana skin-gate”.
In many ways, it’s a special society that has the vast majority of people default to viewing children in this light. People we walk past in the street, of any age, will smile at our two girls in a way that places an instant value on the innocence and charm of a child during their early years.
Just after Christmas – itself a suitably indulgent period, culminating on Christmas Day itself when a dozen of us descended on the Inter-Continental Hotel to feast on their famous buffet (I knew we were going to have an entertaining time when they sat us next to the vodka and oyster bar) – we hosted some great friends of ours, aka ‘The Cakes’, themselves with two gorgeous girls, Zara and Emilia.
We crammed in a fair bit whilst they were over, including five days in Hoi An which was enormous fun, and a very cool place – more photos of which, courtesy of Lou, are below.
What was consistent everywhere we went as an entourage of eight, was that the combination of no less than four western children together could send many a passer by into a confused and delirious spin.
On one occasion when we all paid a visit to Saigon Zoo, rather than snapping the elephants and giraffes, the hordes of iphones and cameras on display were each turned to our three girls, who were greeted so enthusiastically by everyone you would have thought they were some kind of toddler version of Destiny’s Child, with Martha playing the role of adorable chubby baby, proudly bearing her five new teeth and grinning inanely.
Florence and Martha continue to thrive out here – Martha is turning into a rapacious eater and started crawling about a week ago, whilst Flo enjoys reaching new daily heights of cheekiness. Earlier today she sat having dinner wearing her red ‘Dora the Explorer’ underwear outside her blue leggings, whilst sipping a can of tonic water, eager to skype someone to show them she was drinking “gin and tonic, like Daddy”.
They are both early risers, which does mean that we get to do lots of activities with them, at weekends especially, and make the most of our days. However, it also means that Lou and I survive during the daylight hours by lurching from one caffeinated drink to the next, and are often to be found preparing lunch at 10am, as we’ve typically been awake for five hours by this part of the day, and are ready for our next meal.
Bath and story-time have become sacred moments in our days, when the chaos begins to subside and the stimulant baton can then be seamlessly handed over, from caffeine to whichever alcoholic beverage is nearest to hand…
…so much for January’s New Year’s resolutions…
Whatever 2012 brings for us, this past year has been unique. It holds some very memorable moments for our family that we will always cherish, and which make us feel very lucky, again, to have made this move.