YOUR LOCAL GUIDE
ON VIETNAMESE 🇻🇳 CULTURE SINCE 2008
SAIGON INSPIRATION CULTURE
SAIGON Inspiration CULTURE VIETNAMESE NAMES A GUIDE
Decoding the complexity of the Vietnamese namesMany foreigners find it hard to understand the structure of a Vietnamese person’s name. In fact, it is not that complex. A Vietnamese name is usually three words long, but may also be two, four, or five separate titles.The first word is the family name or surname, and the last word is the given name. So if the name is made up of two words, it’s quite simple. For example, Le Duan — “Le” is the last name, and “Duan” is the first name here. But if a name has more than two names, generally you just need to remember the first and last names. You’re allowed to forget about the middle names, as sometimes they are hard to memorize.Because certain family names, notably Nguyen, are extremely common, they cannot be used to distinguish individuals, as is customary with Western names. So for three-syllable names, Vietnamese people use the final name — the given name — as a short form to refer to the person after the first reference.
For example, Nguyen Tuan Minh can be referred to as “Minh”. But if there are two people with the same first and last names such as Nguyen Tuan Minh and Nguyen Cong Minh, you’d better use the last two names to distinguish them. For four-word names, you can also use the last two names as the short form. Thus Nguyen Thi Minh Khai becomes “Minh Khai”.
and Dang Nghia
Most Vietnamese have one middle name, but it is quite possible to have two or more, or even no middle names at all. It might be because of their parent’s personal preference, or a family’s naming tradition. The most popular middle names in Vietnam are “Van” for men and “Thi” for women. If you see either of these options in a name, you can figure out someone’s gender. For example, Nguyen Van Minh is usually a man, while Le Thi Ha is usually a woman. A Vietnamese person’s middle name sometimes indicates which generation he or she belongs to. A family might use a different middle name for each generation. For example, the Dang clan has two generations with different middle names: Dang Dinh and Dang Nghia.
Unlike other countries, in Vietnam women keep their maiden names after marriage. The given name is the primary form of address for Vietnamese. It is chosen by parents and usually has a literal meaning in the Vietnamese language. Girls are often given names that embody beauty, like types of flowers, birds, rivers, or precious objects. Boys typically get an abstract name representing a personal quality, such as Duc (virtue) or Tai (talent).
Most Common Surnames in Vietnam
Nguyen is the most common Vietnamese family name. By some estimates, around 38 percent of Vietnamese have this surname. The prevalence of Nguyen as a family name in Vietnam extends outside the country, where many Vietnamese have emigrated. Nguyen is ranked the fourth most common surname in the world according to a list compiled by The World Geography in 2012; more than 36 million people have this surname.
Nguyen is the seventh most common family name in Australia, and the 54th most common in France. In the United States, it is the 57th most common family name according to the 2000 Census, as well as the most common exclusively Asian surname, according to The World Geography.
There isn’t an abundance of surnames in Vietnam like there is in China. The 14 most popular surnames in Vietnam account for well over 90 percent of the population: they’re Nguyen, Tran, Le, Pham, Hoang/Huynh, Phan, Vu/Vo, Dang, Bui, Do, Ho, Ngo, Duong and Ly.
The Vietnamese surname does not indicate much more than that you are Vietnamese.
Why do we have so many Nguyen in Vietnam?
There are many historical records that explain why Nguyen is the most common family name in Vietnam. Here are some explanations:
The surname Nguyen is believed to have originated from the Chinese surname “Ruan” (in Mandarin) or Yuen (Cantonese), owing to China’s long domination over Vietnam. During the Northern and Southern dynasties (a period that lasted from 420 to 589), a large number of Chinese bearing the surname Nguyen fled the country’s political chaos to Vietnam.
Over the years they assimilated with the native people and created a considerable segment of the Vietnamese population with the surname Nguyen. This segment continued to expand as more Chinese people with the surname Nguyen moved to Vietnam during the Five Dynasties, an era of political upheaval in 10th-century China.
Tran Thu Do (1194 – 1264) was a general and leader of the Tran clan during the reign of Ly Hue Tong and Ly Chieu Hoang in the kingdom of Dai Viet (now Vietnam). Tran Thu Do was credited for overthrowing the Ly Dynasty and establishing the Tran Dynasty by arranging a marriage between the Empress Regnant Chieu Hoàng and his nephew Tran Canh.
After the coronation of Tran Canh, now Tran Thai Tong, Tran Thu Do was appointed grand chancellor and regent of the Emperor because Tran Thai Tong was a minor. In 1232, he forced the descendants of the Ly to change their surname to Nguyen. However, it is still unclear why he chose the surname Nguyen; some historians said it was chosen by chance.
When Ho Quy Ly overturned the Tran Dynasty, he killed many of their descendants. When the Ho Dynasty collapsed in 1407, many of his descendants changed their surname to Nguyen, fearing the new ruler’s retribution. In 1592, following the collapse of the Mac Dynasty, their descendants also changed their surname to Nguyen.
When the Nguyen Dynasty (the descendants of the Nguyen Lords) took power in 1802, some of the descendants of the Trinh Lords, fearing retribution, changed their surname to Nguyen, while others fled north into China. The Nguyen Dynasty awarded many people who had the surname Nguyen during their rule, and many criminals also changed their surname to Nguyen to avoid prosecution.
There is another reason this happened: at this point in history members of the Vietnamese lower classes did not have surnames — only noble clans had them. In the 19th century, when the French colonized Vietnam, they held the largest-ever census across the country. This was a big challenge, as most of the lower classes did not have surnames, making it hard to collect usable data. As Nguyen was the last dynasty in Vietnam (1802-1945), the French decided to give the surname “Nguyen” to anybody without a surname.
SAIGON INSPIRATION CULTURE THE DO’S AND DON’TS FOR VIETNAMESE FUNERALS
Funerals are events that you would prefer not to ever have to experience.Depending on where you’re from, they can either be viewed as a sad event or a celebration. Here in Vietnam, there are certain age-old practices and routines that you may not yet be aware of. Take note of these rules and suggestions to make sure you remain respectful and beyond reproach during this delicate mourning period.
Do’s and Don’ts at a Vietnamese funeral
Here’s a quick guide for what to do and what to avoid if you’re invited to a funeral in Vietnam.
Bring a Gift
This is a sign of respect for the deceased and his or her family members. The most common gift is flowers and in Vietnamese culture, the most appropriate flowers to gift during funerals are white flowers. One of the most beloved flowers in Vietnamese culture is the white lotus, which is used as a metaphor for the cyclical nature of life, symbolising purification and regeneration.
Show up in Black
Since family members wear white, others in attendance are expected to wear black. Besides being one way to distinguish family members from guests, white is also worn by family members because they believe it will earn merit for the deceased and the family.
Stick to Odd Numbers
This might seem a little puzzling for foreigners but in Vietnamese culture, certain procedures are done in odd numbers. For example, when lighting incense, go for one, three, or five sticks, with three being the most ideal. This also applies when you bow your head in front of the coffin. Hold the incense sticks in your hands and bow once, thrice, or five times.
Vietnamese believe that odd numbers are ‘lucky’ at funerals. However, be aware that holding three incense sticks at any other time might be considered macabre or unlucky. Take, for example, the residential towers formerly known as Thuan Kieu Plaza. To the Saigonese, the three towers closely resembled the incense sticks one might burn to honour the dead and thus were cursed for failure from architectural conception.
Now here are things you should NOT do at a funeral in Vietnam
Do Not Attend if You’re Pregnant
The Vietnamese believe that during cremation, the spirit of the deceased is freed from the body and may enter the unborn.
Do Not Smile
This may seem like a no-brainer but it is very important to note that funerals in Vietnam are a somber event. Therefore, it is best to avoid smiling or laughter as it will be considered extremely rude.
Do Not Make Any Noise
Be as silent as possible and speak only when spoken to. Keep your volume low and ensure your phone is set to silent. The last thing you want is to attract unwanted attention to yourself, especially when you’re a guest. Watch how the other local attendees behave at the funeral and just follow what they do. Most of the time they will guide you on the steps and procedures so you will have nothing to worry about.
Do Not Light Incense if You’re Menstruating
Another one that may seem odd to a non-Asian. It is believed that lighting incense while you’re menstruating will bring bad luck to the deceased. What you can do, alternatively, is to stand in front of the coffin, hold your palms together and bow your head an odd number of times.
In Vietnamese culture, the deceased are accorded the same respect as the living, this is why it is perfectly alright to take pictures during Vietnamese funerals, an act that is frowned upon in most western societies. Because of the many different ethnic groups in Vietnam, there will be some differences in terms of customs and procedures. However, most of them share some similar practices, which will be listed below.
Step 1: The Final Bath
The body will first be cleaned by a professional, then dressed in a new set of clothes, before the body is put into a casket. If at that point, the casket is not available yet, then the body will be placed on the deathbed with a small knife positioned on the stomach. This is meant to protect the spirit while waiting for the casket to be prepared.
Another practice is to put a pinch of rice, with three coins in the mouth of the deceased. This is based on the belief that “being born from the earth, one must return back to the earth”. When the casket arrives, it will usually be placed near the center of the house, ideally in the living room. An oil lamp will then be placed under the casket throughout the entire duration of the wake. This act is meant to keep the spirit warm.
Step 2: The Broadcast
Black and white flags will then be hung, lining the route between the deceased’s home to the closest main street. The flags will be placed about 50 to 100 meters from each other. These flags serve as an ‘announcement’ to the neighbors, as well as to nearby spirits that someone in the vicinity has passed away. It also serves the practical purpose of marking the route to the house for the wake attendees.
Step 3: Entering The Coffin
Also known as nhập quan, this stage consists of a final clean-up or beautifying of the body before it’s placed in the coffin. Water and alcohol are used for this process before the body is then dressed in new white clothes. Relatives of the deceased will be dressed in funeral clothes consisting of a white robe, oversized pants, and a pointed hood.
After the body has been placed in the coffin, relatives will then slowly circle the coffin for a final time. If the deceased was a Buddhist or has no specific religion, a bowl of rice and an egg will be placed on the coffin. If the deceased was Christian, there will be a card with the name of the deceased displayed on it.
Step 4: Arrival of The Guests
At this point, the coffin will be ready for viewing and the guests will arrive to console the family, as well as to offer a final prayer. Guests usually don dark-coloured clothing, and they will bring flowers and money to help with the funeral costs.
The wake typically lasts around three days, during which friends and associates can come at any point to pay respect to the deceased and the family. They will usually bring a pack of incense, and an envelope with some money in it. These two items are given to the family as a form of contribution to the funeral process. After that, they will light up an incense stick, offer a prayer for the deceased, and bow. Two of the mourning family members will stand at both sides of the casket during this process and bow in return.
There will be a small area allocated nearby with some light food and tea so that the visitors can sit and talk after. Close friends usually stay and help with the funeral as much as they can, including running errands or helping to wash the dishes. If the deceased worked for a company, they will usually send flowers, which will then be placed around the casket and brought along to the burial site.
Step 5: The Final Goodbye
At the end of the third day, a team of about ten men will facilitate the next step, four of the ten will act as pallbearers. First, the men will perform a ritual to seek permission from local spirits to move the casket. The casket will then be moved into a funeral car—a vehicle customized with large windows so that the coffin is visible from the outside. This vehicle will be part of a convoy made up of friends and family, and, depending on the popularity of the deceased, it can stretch up to a kilometer or two.
The convoy will consist of a ‘lead’ vehicle carrying two family members. One family member will hold a portrait photograph of the deceased while the other holds the incense bowl. Upon reaching the destination, another ritual will then be performed by the same men before the actual burial process. Belongings of the deceased, such as clothes, will be burned near the gravesite, along with flowers and the mattress that was used as the deathbed.
As the convoy disperses, some close friends and the people who worked throughout the funeral will follow the lead car back to the house, making sure to follow exactly the same route as the earlier journey. This is done to ensure the spirit of the deceased will not be lost. This is also why the route is planned in advance to avoid one-way streets.
When they arrive back home, the house will have already been cleaned up and the furniture put back in place, usually by close friends who stayed to help, and the incense bowl will be placed on the family altar. Meals will be offered to those who worked during the funeral and to the men who performed the rituals.
Step 6: The Mourning
Depending on the deceased’s position in the family hierarchy, the mourning period can last up to three years. During this period, there will be several restrictions imposed on the family members, including being forbidden to marry. This is usually more common among the more conservative families, but not as strictly adhered to by the rest.
The white clothes worn by the family members will also be placed near the altar and will be burnt after an allotted time to signify the end of the mourning period. Vietnamese funerals can be a very eye-opening cultural experience if you take note of the do’s and don’ts to avoid unwittingly offending your hosts and the dearly departed.
SAIGON Inspiration CULTURE VIETNAMESE PROVERBS (AND HOW THEY RELATE TO US): PART I
Vietnamese culture uses plenty of great proverbs
Proverbs are unique phrases usually used to teach an important value or explain a particular moral concept. Regardless of where you’re from, you may have heard some of them as you were growing up, and some of these words may even stick with you throughout your life.
However, it’s quite interesting to note that proverbs can originate from anywhere in the world, and yet they can still be universally applicable. This is the idea behind this article: highlighting some common ones used in Vietnam and how they can apply to you too.
Most of these proverbs have unknown origins or authors and some were imported into Vietnam and mostly spread by word of mouth. Hence, it’s interesting that they have survived the test of time and are still used today.
Một con én không làm nên mùa xuân (A swallow doesn’t make a spring)
One swallow does not make a spring, only an entire flock does. Just like swallows that typically fly in flocks to signal the beginning of spring, one swallow is not enough to indicate spring’s arrival. This proverb highlights the collectivist ideology of Vietnam, where it takes an entire flock, in solidarity, to achieve something instead of just one bird trying to run the show.
Ăn quả nhớ kẻ trồng cây (When eating a fruit, think of the person who planted the tree)
When you are being presented with something good, think of the process that came behind the presentation too. This proverb highlights gratefulness: that everything you experience, it’s the result of the little things that came together. For example, your lunch today was made possible because the vendor woke up at 4 a.m. in the morning, while you were still asleep, to prepare it.
Đi một ngày đàng học một sàng khôn (A day of travelling will bring a basket full of learning)
To be able to think out of the box, you need to get out of your comfort zone and experience a new environment. This internationally popular proverb originated in Vietnam and is a relevant one for entrepreneurs worldwide. To be able to stand out from the norm and think outside the box, one must experience a new environment and culture to truly view things from a different perspective.
Cái khó ló cái khôn (Adversity is the mother of wisdom)
Most problems can be viewed as a lesson to make one wiser. This proverb originated in Wales and it’s not clear when or how it made it to Vietnam. The message, however, is clear: the problems you face are just lessons to wisen you up.
Con sâu làm rầu nồi canh (One drop of poison infects the whole tun of wine)
All it takes is one small toxic addition and it will affect the entire item. This proverb highlights how a negative influence to a neutral or positive situation can tilt the balance towards negativity. For example, in a group project, all it takes is one troublesome member to affect the general morale and performance of the entire group.
Múa rìu qua mắt thợ (Never offer to teach fish to swim)
You’ve probably experienced a situation like this before: someone trying to teach you something that you’re already well-versed in. This proverb refers to the act of arrogance and ignorance of trying to teach a skill to someone who clearly knows more than you, and even more so when the person offering to teach isn’t necessarily good at it. Sounds familiar now?
Sai một ly đi một dặm (A miss is as good as a mile)
In what would probably rank #2 in a list of “things you remember your parents always yelling while spanking you (especially if you’re Asian)”: a failure is a failure. It doesn’t matter if your favorite football team lost 0-1 or 0-5, and it doesn’t matter if you scored 49/100 or 4/100 on your test. The fact is that you still failed. Pretty harsh.
Khẩu phật tâm xà (A fair face may hide a foul heart)
Related to the famous proverb “never judge a book by its cover”. An attractive person may not necessarily be a good person. We’ve heard stories of how good-looking men and women have often tried to charm and seduce people, only for them to end up scamming the victim.
Việc hôm nay chớ để ngày mai (Make hay while the sun shines)
A direct reference to procrastination: do it while it’s the best time to do so. This is meant for all of us. How many times have we come across situations when we have a task to complete and somehow we just put it off until much later, only to realize we may not have enough time? Get that task done now… or maybe in five minutes.
Có chí làm quan có gan làm giàu (Fortune favours the brave)
You will have good luck if you carry your plans out boldly. This Latin proverb is certainly relatable to those of you who took huge risks or made a significant change in your life, like moving to a new country. With the right amount of courage, nothing is going to stop you from succeeding.
Dục tốc bất đạt (Haste makes waste)
Acting on something too quickly may actually slow things down. A more relatable example would be when you’re tasked with something at work which you want to finish as soon as possible and by rushing it, you miss crucial details which means you have to either redo it or waste time making those changes. Compare this to getting the details right at your own pace. The latter involves less hassle and you actually get it done much faster in the end.
Lắm mối tối nằm không (If you run after two hares, you’ll catch neither)
Contrary to what your boss might think, it’s actually close to impossible to do two things successfully at the same time (at least according to this proverb). The art of multitasking can be quite a draining process, and often people make crucial mistakes when they don’t focus on one specific task at a time. Whether this proverb is applicable to all is still debatable, especially in this day and age when most people are chasing up to five hares at the same time.
Nước chảy đá mòn (Constant dripping hollows out the stone)
What might seem like a slow, futile, and repetitive attempt at something might actually achieve its results in the long term. This proverb is an ode to dedication. By dedicating your time and energy at something, even if others may view it as ridiculous or useless, it might actually turn out the way you want it to: provided you have the patience to wait for years.
Ngọt mật chết ruồi (You can catch more flies with honey than with vinegar)
This proverb about approaching your day with a smile is known around the world, but in Vietnam, it has a slightly different context. Honey is sweet and vinegar is sour and, yes, those condiments are metaphors for the words you use to get something done – also known as manipulation. By honey-coating your words, you can easily deceive someone into doing something they’re not supposed to, which could get them into trouble. The same could happen in reverse: don’t always trust people who are too nice to you; they may have an agenda.
Trèo cao té đau (The higher you climb, the more you hurt if you fall)
One of the most literal proverbs around, the more prominent you become, the greater the humiliation when you fall. Everyone sometimes gets into trouble or ends up in an embarrassing situation. However, getting caught with your pants down could evoke different reactions depending on who you are. If you’re a regular joe, you might gather a couple of sniggers and winks and the world moves on the next day. But if you’re a celebrity or a high-ranking official, you’re going to have to endure an entire month of front-page news stories and discussions about you and your family in every corner of the internet.
SAIGON INSPIRATION CULTURE What are the basic honorifics and pronouns used in Vietnam ?
Vietnamese language heavy use of specific pronouns is a necessity and a challenge
Learning Vietnamese seems to be hard for a lot of ex-pats or foreigners but it really just takes a bit of practice and patience to be able to learn and understand it. Neutral pronouns are typically used in written forms, or in a more formal setting. In conversations, Vietnamese use ‘kinship’ honorific terms of respect to refer to themselves or others, even when they are not related by blood. Some of the most commonly used are:
Em – Generally refers to anyone younger than you, but older than a child. It can be used for younger male and female family members of the same generation and also with acquaintances. It can be a term of endearment, used to address a female/feminine companion or spouse regardless of age. It is also commonly used to hail a service staff who is noticeably younger than you.
Anh – Literally means ‘older brother’. It is used for males older than the speaker as a form of respect. A female equivalent for this term is “Chị”. Unless the subject in question is noticeably younger or older, these pronouns are the most neutral and socially accepted ones to use in any social setting.
Chú – Means ‘uncle’ and is used to address a male person whose age is similar or slightly younger than your father’s.
Cô – Used to address a woman older than you and older than “Chị”. Sometimes “Cô” is also used as a polite way to address females in a position of authority and/or respect, such as teachers, government officials, restaurateurs etc.
Bác – Genderless term that refers to a person that is not considered elderly but noticeably older than the speaker’s parents.
Ông – Refers to a man who is senior, in terms of age or social hierarchy. Employers and well-respected men are sometimes referred to as “Ông” regardless of their age.
Bà – This is used to address any elderly woman old enough to be a grandmother.
For information on learning Vietnamese go to How Difficult is it to Learn Vietnamese?
SAIGON Inspiration CULTURE UNDERSTANDING VIETNAM’S HISTORY THROUGH FOOD
Here’s how phở, bánh xèo, and cà phê sữa đá shine a light into Vietnam.
The history of Vietnam is as complex as it is fascinating. Travel back in time with us to the days of peasants and emperors, colonization, and revolutions to discover the lineage of some of Vietnam’s most essential dishes.
An Early Start, and the Birth of Noodles in Vietnam
The known history of Vietnam began around 12,000 BC when the indigenous people of Vietnam settled in the Hong River Valley. There it was possible to sustain life by hunting and harvesting plants. Six thousand years later we can see evidence of agricultural advances, and the Vietnamese people began wet rice farming. This rice, as well as the herbs, plants, fish and meat readily available on the fertile lands of Vietnam, was the early base of the Vietnamese diet.
Though rice has always been one of the nutritional staples for the Vietnamese people, the cuisine would eventually evolve as cooking tools became more sophisticated, and as the influences from other countries became stronger.
In the 2nd century BC, the entirety of what was then known as Nam Viet was considered to be a Chinese province. For 1,000 years the Vietnamese people would live under the reign of various Chinese dynasties, and this proximity, though often fraught with political strife, would have a by-product: noodles.
Noodles were invented in China sometime around the time of the East Han Dynasty. Originally made with millet or other grains native to China, the recipe soon expanded to include new forms made with wheat, rice, and eggs. These noodles and the techniques needed to create them were exported to Vietnam; soon they were being used in different and delicious ways.
Here we are, more than 2,000 years in the past, and noodles have come to Vietnam, so this must be when phở was invented, right? Wrong. Surprisingly, phở, the most famous Vietnamese dish in the world, was only created in Northern Vietnam in the early 20th century. By then the Chinese rule in Vietnam had long come to an end and the colonialist French had arrived on scene. From 1887 to 1954, Vietnam was an essential part of French Indochina, and the strong culinary influences of la cuisine Francaise in modern Vietnamese food can still be seen today.
A French Touch
The fusion of Vietnamese noodles and herbs with a French beef broth is likely the basis for the original phở. In addition, the word for soup itself has French roots. The French word pot-au-feu literally translates to pot in the fire. A pot-au-feu is traditionally made by boiling beef bones and vegetables in water and then adding meat to make a soup. If you pronounce phở so that it rhymes with ‘duh’, you will get pretty close to feu, the French word for fire.
Like pot-au-feu, phở had a humble beginning as peasant food. Nomadic vendors, from the village of Van Cu in the Nam Dinh province, could be seen in the early 1900s walking with flexible sticks balanced across their shoulders and two huge barrels of soup attached to either side. They sold the soup to anyone interested in a good meal on the roads outside of Hanoi.
Chinese migrant workers loved the soup because it reminded them of food from home. French missionaries and colonial settlers loved it because of the rich, meaty broth. The Vietnamese loved it because of its flexibility in regard to ingredients, and the fact that boiling the broth for so long would also rid it of any bacteria. And today? The various options are plentiful.
The Legacy Continues
The flavourful mix of cultures didn’t end with phở. The Vietnamese took the French baguette, filled it with their signature marinated meats, seafood, paté or eggs, added herbs, pickled vegetables, and chili, and called it a bánh mì. Bánh xèo, a thin pancake filled with bean sprouts, shrimp, and pork, could have some roots in the French crepe, except instead of using wheat flour, eggs, and milk to create the batter, the bánh xèo is made of rice flour, water and turmeric, ingredients far more readily available in Vietnam than the dairy-filled French version.
Chocolate and coffee brought over by European colonialists were adopted by the Vietnamese and turned into sô cô la and cà phê. Now, rather than the milk chocolates of Europe, the Vietnamese favor chocolate so dark and intense that it is almost black. Cà phê is brewed strong and has a hefty dose of condensed milk poured into it to make it rich and sweet. French colonial rule in Indochina was wiped out during World War II but the fusion of the two cuisines still remains inexorably linked.
At the Geneva Convention in 1954, Vietnam was split in two and many Northerners migrated to the South, bringing their recipes with them. In the South, the year-round sun makes the land more fertile than in the North. Cooks in the South began to add suddenly available produce like herbs, lime, and bean sprouts to the phở mix. The broth became spicier and more dominantly sour. This Southern-style phở has now become the international standard.
After the American War, hundreds of thousands of Southern Vietnamese journeyed to other countries. Many of these immigrants made their living by opening restaurants and sharing their cuisine with their fellow immigrants, as well as their new compatriots.
Vietnam’s Beauty Through Adversity
As Vietnamese cuisine began to find a foothold all around the world, rice production hit an all-time low back home. Changes to the structure of farming decreased motivation and led to widespread rice shortages. In addition to the low food production, much of Vietnam’s agricultural land had been damaged during the war. Rice paddies were laden with mines and Agent Orange had seeped into the soil. Nobody, not even those who had previously enjoyed the benefits of being in the upper echelons of society, had enough rice for three meals a day. People were forced to mix their rice with white potatoes, sweet potatoes, and sorghum, a grain known for being particularly difficult to chew. By the 1980s Vietnam was ranked as one of the poorest nations in the world.
Now Vietnam has undergone a remarkable transformation and famine has turned to abundance. The country is the fifth-largest exporter of rice in the world. Vietnamese parents are now more apt to overfeed their children rather than underfeed them, because after all the years of malnutrition, a chubby child is now considered to be healthier and more attractive.
Newfound prosperity has also changed the food culture in Vietnam, leading to some growing pains. Concerns about ‘dirty’ food, fast food, and obesity are on the rise, as Vietnam attempts to find its balance between increased wealth and decreased health.
Despite these issues, Vietnam is enjoying a culinary heyday. The ability to reinvent, renew, refresh, while staying true to one’s origins are things all chefs should aspire to, and that Vietnamese tastemakers have been able to accomplish. Walk down any street in Vietnam and you will find restaurants and cafes spilling out onto the sidewalks. From meat grilled on makeshift BBQs in the middle of a busy intersection to high-class restaurants serving only the most refined dishes, the flavours and fundamentals of Vietnamese food delight the palate and surprise the senses.
From a new interest in food tourism to the increased popularity of Vietnamese food overseas, the culinary path of Vietnam is continuing to evolve. So what’s next? Perhaps, Vietnamese cuisine will be inspired by the Western farm-to-table movement. Or maybe it will go down the road of mass-marketing and we’ll find our favourite Vietnamese chefs hawking frozen phở dinners on TV. Regardless, one thing remains clear: the Vietnamese people have been able to weather wars and occupations, famine, and feast, all the while adapting and transforming their remarkable culinary heritage. Whatever’s next is sure to be delicious.
SAIGON INSPIRATION CULTURE PEOPLE: VIETNAM’S GREATEST ASSET
Kindness is a Vietnamese trait
Having lived and worked in Vietnam for over nine years, I have traveled to many provinces and cities. I’ll spare you the tiresome list. The one thing that has rang true for all of these places has been the people. I have met so many warm-hearted people who have helped me in dire situations. Probably the best example? My motorbike accident was over a year ago.
As I was driving, a street cleaner appeared out of nowhere and caused me to swerve into the road. I was knocked unconscious and broke my arm. Two angels saved my life. They took me into their home, cleaned me up, brought me to the hospital, and even paid my entire hospital bill. They were some of the most caring people I have met in my life, and they were complete strangers.
Vietnam with Open Arms
Here’s another example of great hospitality: I first traveled from New Jersey to Ho Chi Minh City with a Vietnamese-American colleague in 2008. It was my first time overseas and he told me to follow him to his hometown in Ben Luc, Long An Province, around 90 minutes from Ho Chi Minh City. I drove from Tan Son Nhat Airport all the way to a place that I never imagined existed.
When I arrived at their home, I was seriously scared. People were just staring at me and laughing and I wasn’t sure why. Looking back and understanding more about Vietnamese and their culture, I can see now that they were just having fun and being welcoming. Vietnamese people love to be personable and for me, when they are laughing at me, it’s a sign of respect; if they are silent, you have a problem.
My friend’s family treated me like I was their very own “American Vietnamese” family member.
I remember every day waking up to fresh coffee and banh mi. Usually, in the afternoon, we would all have a giant family lunch and just talk – they talked. I just looked at them as they laughed at my bald head and hairy arms. I insisted on paying for their kindness, especially since I was staying for free.
I remember telling them to accept my US$150 to cover any expenses, and they refused. I realized how important “lucky money” was for children during the Tet holiday, so I gave three of the children in the family US$50 each. The kids were beyond shocked. They went around screaming and yelling. It was one of the happiest moments of my life.
Good Deeds Every Day
In Hanoi, there was a story about a foreigner who got into an accident and his employer raised some money for him while he was out of work. He told me that the TAs (teaching assistants) at the English center also put their funds together to help. He mentioned that even though they make one-eighth of his salary, they all came together when he needed it. Stories like this really make me love living in Vietnam.
The cleaning ladies where I teach work tirelessly, sometimes up to 12 hours a day. I see them hustling to make an honest living. Their strong work ethic is something to respect. Whenever I walk by they always smile and say hello. They know I speak conversational Vietnamese, which freaks them out (in a good way), so they are always trying to make me laugh with subtle Vietnamese jokes. I was also reading a post about a Grabbike user who left her pizza and phone credit on the back of the driver’s motorbike. The Grab driver contacted her the next day to let her know that she forgot her things; he sent her phone credit to her later that day.
There are countless people who really care in this country and are truly making a difference every day.
There’s a local who goes around Thu Duc City in Ho Chi Minh City to pick up all the nails and other pieces of sharp metal on the streets discarded from construction sites, protecting drivers from getting flat tires. Simple things like this show that locals do care. If you look closely you will see the love for others and the love for this country that people here have.
SAIGON Inspiration CULTURE THE MOST POPULAR CELEBRITIES IN VIETNAM
Vietnam has a relatively young entertainment industry that only started three decades ago when the Doi Moi reforms lifted economic and cultural barriers.
Since then, the Internet has given rise to a host of new celebrities. According to statistics gathered by Socialbakers, singer Khoi My, MC Tran Thanh, and singer M-TP are the three most celebrated personalities, each with over 10 million Facebook fans.
Khoi My is a singer, actress, and MC, who stepped on the big stage in 2013 by participating in and winning the first season of the reality show Guong mat than quen (Vietnamese version of Your Face Sounds Familiar). She is widely loved for her energetic personality and cute expressions, and her love story with singer Kelvin Khanh, ex-member of boyband La Thang (A#).
The famous couple also produced music together, including Gui Cho Anh, which won Music Video of the Year at Zing Music Awards 2013, and Nguoi Yeu Cu, Most Viewed Music Video at POPS Award 2014.
MC Tran Thanh
Tran Thanh is another celebrity with exciting love life. In 2015 he started dating Hari Won, the Korean-Vietnamese singer, and actress who ended her nine-year relationship with rapper Dinh Tien Dat.
This became a scandal; many fans were shocked by Hari Won’s seemingly sudden change of heart. However, their love survived the storm, and a year later Tran Thanh and Hari Won got married. His career includes acting in comedies and movies, voice acting, and TV show hosting. He and his wife starred together in the horror movie Benh Vien Ma (Ghost Hospital), where their love sparked.
Son Tung M-TP
Born in 1994 in the Northern province of Thai Binh, Nguyen Thanh Tung, known by his stage name Son Tung M-TP, became famous thanks to YouTube. His popularity among Vietnamese teenage girls is comparable to Justin Bieber’s in Northern America. He is probably the only celebrity of the digital age that even the elderly have heard of.
However, M-TP has faced criticism about the originality of his music. At the start of his career, when he was still an underground artist, he frequently sampled background music from Korean songs. As he became more famous, the public eye started to allege similarities.
The release of a 2014 movie in which he starred and composed the soundtrack, Chang Trai Nam Ay (Dandelion), was delayed due to allegations that the soundtrack was too similar to Korean singer Jung Yong Hwa’s Because I Miss You. This claim was dismissed later by the Korean company that manages the singer.
In another hit of M-TP in 2016, Chung Ta Khong Thuoc Ve Nhau (We Don’t Belong Together), Vietnamese audiences pointed out similarities with Charlie Puth’s We Don’t Talk Anymore and Korean band BTS’s Fire.
Despite the scandals, Son Tung M-TP remains one of the most popular Vietnamese singers who have reached an audience beyond Vietnam. He has been mentioned in Chinese and Taiwanese newspapers, and recently received the highest votes for the Favorite Vietnamese Artist at Mnet Asian Music Awards 2017. He also won the Best Solo Star by Australia’s SBS PopAsia Awards 2017 through voting.
SAIGON INSPIRATION CULTURE VIETNAMESE NEW YEAR TRADITIONS
In Vietnam, the Lunar New Year is known as Tết or Tết Nguyên Đán.
It is the most important and popular festival for the Vietnamese people during the year. Tết is celebrated from the 1st of January to the 3rd, according to the lunar calendar. Each year a different sacred animal in the Chinese Zodiac controls the luck and destinies of all people. This year will be the Year of the Dog. Not only is Tết a celebration of the arrival of spring and an occasion to pay respects to one’s ancestors, it is also a great opportunity for family to come together. Family members will return to their homeland for a reunion and to savour the flavours of the holiday.
Here are the few must-dos to celebrate a perfect Vietnamese Lunar New Year.
Mâm Ngũ Quả (The Five-Fruit Tray)
The preparation of the five-fruit tray is an essential Tết tradition in every Vietnamese home. The tray symbolises the family’s respect for their ancestors and their wishes for the New Year. Each fruit represents a different prayer for the future. Due to regional differences in climate and customs, people display the Tết fruit in different ways.
In the North, people believe that the basic elements of oriental philosophy are represented by colors. Metal, wood, water, fire, and earth correlate with white, blue, black, red, and yellow respectively. So people carefully choose and organize their fruit according to color. The northern five-fruit tray often includes banana, pomelo, peach, mandarin, and persimmon.
Due to the weather conditions and red basaltic soil, people in the central areas of Vietnam have a hard time growing many types of produce. These people feel it is more important to show sincere gratitude for their ancestors than to spend too much time making a complicated arrangement. Instead, they use any fruit that they have on hand. Some popular choices for the Central five-fruit tray are dragon fruit, watermelon, pineapple, and orange.
The five-fruit tray in the South is themed around the traditional southern wish for a wealthy New Year. The tray has an abundant display and is generally made up of custard apples, figs, coconuts, papayas, and mangos. Families also like to display red watermelons to bring luck for the year.
Normally, in all regions, the tray will be put on the altar in the home, though sometimes people set it up on the table next to a box of candied fruit.
Hoa Đào and Hoa Mai – (The Planting of Peach or Apricot trees)
During Tết people love to look at beautiful flowers because they think certain flowers will bring them happiness and luck in the New Year. People buy peach flowers (in the North) and apricot flowers (in the South) to decorate their homes.
To make these peach and apricot trees even more beautiful, Vietnamese people often hang twinkly LED lights on them, as well as red lucky money envelopes and small plastic figurines representing the gods of wealth. These plants are placed in the living room or in front of the house. Some companies put them in their offices to enjoy their beauty and to bring hope for good fortune.
Bánh Tét – Bánh Chưng – (Cylindrical Cake – Square Cake)
As Tết approaches you’ll notice a fire burning all night long on the stove in most Vietnamese homes. The families are cooking the traditional cakes for Tết. Vietnam is a country where wet rice is farmed, so it makes sense that there are many traditional Vietnamese cakes made from it. Bánh chưng and bánh tét cakes are made from glutinous rice, mung bean and pork and they are essential foods for the Lunar New Year. The colours of the cake symbolise the earth and the sky.
The Northerners prepare bánh chưng, a square cake, while the Southerners prefer bánh tét, which is shaped like a cylinder. Each region has its own customs, beliefs, and methods, however, both cakes hold equal importance for the families that prepare them.
Bánh Mứt – (Candied Fruit)
Like bánh chưng and bánh tét, mứt is a must-have food for every family during Tết, though, it’s really more of a snack than a kind of food. The mứt is traditionally offered to guests when they arrive at a home to give their greetings and hopes for a happy new year. There are many categories of mứt, such as candied fruit, coconut jam, kumquat jam and sugared apples.
Cookies, candy, and seeds, such as melon and sunflower seeds are also offered during Tết. The sweets and seeds will be put into a beautiful box and placed on the table in the living room so that families and their guests can enjoy a cup of tea and something to eat while deepening their relationships with one another.
Lì Xì – (Lucky Money in Red Envelopes)
On the first day of the New Year, the whole family will dress up and get together to offer New Year’s greetings and wishes to one another. This is a custom that has been maintained for generations. The eldest members of the family will give red envelopes to the children and young adults while advising them about their life, school, and work. These red envelopes symbolize wishes of luck and wealth for the youngest in the family. After receiving the envelopes, the youth are expected to give some wishes to their elders for good luck, success, and good health in the New Year.
Xông Nhà – (The Aura of the Earth)
On the first day of the New Year, Vietnamese families will carefully choose the first guest to step into their home. If the guest has a good Aura, meaning they are good fit with the zodiac of the homeowner, has good education, and is kind and healthy, then the family will receive luck and good fortune for the year. This is especially common among families who work in business.
The chosen person may bring some gifts for the children of the house and then he or she will offer his/her sweetest words to the family. The well-wishes will depend on the member of the household. If the person is aging, health and happiness will be hoped for, a businessman might desire luck and wealth, while the children often receive wishes for success with their schoolwork and obedience to their parents.
Bữa Cơm Đầu Năm – (First Meal of the Year)
The Vietnamese believe that Tết is meant for getting together with friends and family. Therefore, the first meal of the year plays an important role in Vietnamese culture. Family members will return to their homelands, even if they’ve been living far away from home for a long time. Tết is a time to enjoy delicious food as a family and to talk about the events of the past year. Normally, the family will cook together and make traditional foods like spring rolls, Vietnamese sausages, bánh tét or bánh chưng.
Now that you know the proper way to prepare for Tết, let’s enjoy it!
SAIGON Inspiration CULTURE ESSENTIAL VIETNAMESE NEW YEAR FOODS – SOUTHERN FOOD
Have you ever tried Southern Vietnamese delicious foods?
If you could only use a few words to describe your Southern dish, what would they be? For some people, the answer is clear: rich, flavorful, and sweet! We have gotten to know more about Northern and Central Lunar New Year foods in the previous articles, so let’s head down to our last stop: Southern Vietnam.
Diverse Natural Resources in South Vietnam Result in Food Flavour Richness
We all know that regional cuisines differ according to the climate and local products. So in Southern Vietnam, the abundance of rice, fresh fruits, veggies as well as coconuts are reflected in the dishes of this region, which tend to emphasize sweeter flavors.
The warm weather and fertile soil of Southern Vietnam create an ideal condition for growing various fruits, vegetables, and raising livestock. As a result, food in Southern Vietnam gets a more vibrant flavor profile with the generous use of garlic, shallots, and fresh herbs. Additionally, thanks to the widespread use of coconut and sugarcane, sugar is added to more food here than anywhere else in the country giving the dishes a distinctly sweet taste—just like how sweet and friendly Southern people are.
Bánh Tét (Tet Cake or Vietnamese Round Glutinous Rice Cake)
If bánh chưng is an indispensable part of Northerner’s Tet, bánh tét plays the same vital role in Central and South Vietnam. Year after year during the Tet holiday, Southern families enjoy this Tet cake, the central dish of the Southern Tet celebration. According to Southern people’s belief, bánh tét is a symbol of a prosperous life. That’s why it is considered a New Year specialty although it’s available throughout the year.
As we have talked about Central bánh tét in the previous article. In this article, I’m going to introduce you to something totally new! The Southern version of bánh tét isn’t well known by foreigners. This sweet and vegetarian dish is called bánh tét ngọt. Basically, bánh tét ngọt is the ordinary bánh tét but filled with vegetarian ingredients like banana, back mung bean, and mung bean instead of pork.
The process of making bánh tét is time-consuming and provides an opportunity for family members to catch up, bond, and revel in the holiday spirit. In preparing this dish, glutinous rice must be carefully chosen and washed before being stir-fried with coconut milk and some salt. Then the hardest part comes, filling the cake. The exact taste of the cake’s insides is up to you. This could be savory or sweet depending on the taste of each family.
Watch how Southern people make their special bánh tét:
Bánh tét ngọt also differs from region to region, as locals tend to base their recipes on what natural ingredients are close at hand put their own hallmark spin on bánh tét. For example, Can Tho is famous for its unique bánh tét lá cẩm (violet Tet cake). This bánh tét's sticky rice is soaked in purple water colured by lá cẩm (magenta leaves), which gives the cake a more eye-catching, charming purple appearance. Inside the cake, there are tasty ingredients such as mung bean, black mung bean, and sometimes salted egg yolks. All are tightly and beautifully wrapped in banana leaves. The cake is cut into pieces, which show the dark purple of the banana, the yellow of the green bean, and the orange of the egg. The flavor of glutinous rice cake is tender and tasty.
Some just make Tet cakes for family consumption and gifts, some make them for businesses, and some have become artisans by elevating their Tet cake making to a craft.
Củ kiệu tôm khô (Pickled Scallion Heads Served with Dried Shrimp)
If Central people like to savor bánh tét with dưa món (pickled vegetables), Southern people love to enrich their sense of taste with pickled scallion heads and dried shrimp. Even as early as mid-December, the housewives have already bought scallion heads in preparation for Tet. This rustic yet simple-looking dish, contrary to popular belief, requires an extra meticulous cooking process.
First things first: scallion heads are soaked for hours in water. Then the roots are carefully washed and then exposed to the sun until their leaves turn dry and wilt. Next, all the scallion heads are put into a clean jar. One layer of sugar is covered with one layer of scallion heads. After placing all the ingredients together, one must leave the jar in a dry area for about 10 days until the scallion heads are slowly fermented and eventually are ready to be taken out.
Finally, one serving dish of củ kiệu isn’t complete without some dried shrimp on top. Make sure to prepare more dried shrimp in advance for our littlest diners. I assure you kids will definitely be fond of this savory, sweet, and sour dish.
And there it is! Your Southern Tet feast is halfway finished!
Thịt kho Tàu / Thịt kho hột vịt (Pork Braised With Eggs and Coconut Water)
This Vietnamese dish of braised pork with egg and coconut milk is best cooked by the Southern people. Just like other Southern housewives, my mom, a true Southerner, would prepare a giant pot of pork braised with eggs, enough for the whole family to eat during Tết.
Two days before the Lunar New Year’s Eve, my mom would go to the nearby markets early in the morning to choose the ingredients: the best meat, eggs, as well some coconuts for her giant pot of thịt kho hột vịt.
Making Southern thịt kho hột vịt is not too challenging if you just follow some tips. After watching my mom make it for years, here are some good tips that I can offer.
In order to make the most delicious braised pork dish, you must choose the ingredients wisely. Pork belly must contain both fat and lean meat, or it will get unsuitably dry during the long cooking storage. This meat must be cut into large pieces, and marinated with spices, and fish sauce for about 30 minutes. While waiting for the meat to become thoroughly soaked, boil the eggs and remove the shells.
To start, heat up your pot, then boil fresh coconut water and add cold water if needed. Then put all the marinated pork into the pot, and cook until the meat becomes soft. Now it’s time for the next step, putting the eggs into the pot. Finally, season it to match your family’s taste and simmer the food until the meat becomes super tender.
The finished dish of pork braised with egg and coconut water is considered properly done if it has these two qualities: an eye-catching and distinct golden brown color and well-seasoned, tender meat.
Learn how to make your own dish:
This is a dish were cooks have some leeway to give it their own style and spin. For example, some Southerners love to dry pork belly in the sun before braising and some others like to braise their protein with scraped coconut meat. But my mom’s recipe is done without either step. This dish is best paired with pickled scallion heads and a fragrant hot bowl of rice.
Canh khổ qua dồn thịt (Bitter melon Stuffed With Meat Soup)
You might be wondering why superstitious people like the Vietnamese would choose a bitter dish for their very first start of the year. This might surprise you, but canh khổ qua dồn thịt is a significant part of Southern Vietnamese spirituality.
It may look simple on the outside, but bitter melon stuffed with meat contains many spiritual elements according to the Southerners’ belief system. In Vietnamese, “khổ” means “hardship”, and “qua” means “pass”. So basically, Southern people eat this dish on the first days of the New Year with the hope that unlucky things in the old year will pass and that they will welcome a peaceful new year.
Bitter melon has a nutritious blend of bitter and sweet flavors. Additionally, canh khổ qua dồn thịt is also good for health thanks to the cool-tasting broth, which is a relief amid the humid and warm weather in Southern Vietnam. This food is believed to help lower the heat inside our bodies.
SAIGON INSPIRATION CULTURE WHO INVENTED THE VIETNAMESE ALPHABET ?
So you all think French missionary Alexandre de Rhodes invented the modern Vietnamese alphabet, called quoc ngu, huh? Well, you’re wrong! Actually, it was this guy who started it all:
Francisco de Pina, born in 1585, was a Portuguese priest and missionary who drowned along with the rest of the crew of a trade vessel off the coast of today’s Hoi An in 1625. Some might doubt that a Westerner can learn the Vietnamese language in a lifespan of only 40 years. However, de Pina did!
It’s a Long Way to Vietnam
Portugal was the world’s definitive seafaring nation at this point, which made Portuguese the lingua franca between Europeans and Asians. Cochinchina – what we consider central Vietnam today – was no different.
Francisco de Pina is said to have been the first Westerner to fluently speak Vietnamese, although he might never have learned it, had he been able to carry out his initial plan: to evangelize another great kingdom – Japan. It doesn’t bear thinking about what would have happened if it hadn’t been for the Christian missionaries being kicked out (the term seems appropriate here) of the country in 1614 before de Pina could go to work. Latin script in the Land of the Rising Sun? That was a close one, Japan!
So instead of Japan, de Pina’s journey, which included a raid by Dutch privateers, led him through Goa, Macau and the Malaysian port town Malacca, and ended in Cochinchina. He arrived in Faifo, today’s Hoi An, in 1617. Why Hoi An? Let’s give historian Duong Trung Quoc the floor: “Hoi An was […] a busy trading port in previous centuries, and it was an entrance [door] for cultural and Christian preachers [to] the south of Vietnam.”
An Epoch-Making Idea
De Pina soon understood that evangelizing an Asian country cannot be done in Portuguese. He started learning Vietnamese – and we all know that this is an ambitious task. Alexandre de Rhodes, the old show-off, stated in his journal that it took him only six months to be able to give sermons in Vietnamese, so let’s assume that it didn’t take much longer for Francisco de Pina.
However, spreading Christianity in a foreign country is easier if more than one missionary can read and speak the language. So, in order to make communication possible on a broader scale, de Pina had an epoch-making idea: what if he romanized the written language of Cochinchina?
In a letter dating from 1623, de Pina wrote: “For my part, I am busy writing a small book on the vocabulary and accents of the Vietnamese language, and I have begun to write a work about grammar. At the same time, I am researching stories and folktales. I also found someone to help me transcribe them into Portuguese.”
It was hard work, obviously. Transcribing a language full of words differentiated only by their tones is anything but an easy task. But de Pina’s work soon bore fruit: more and more priests were able to read and speak Vietnamese.
Enter Alexandre de Rhodes
One of them was Alexandre de Rhodes, undisputably the main populariser of quoc ngu, who arrived in Hoi An in 1625, the year Francisco de Pina’s died. He took language lessons from a 10-year-old boy and was a strong-headed fellow: during the following 20 years, he was deported six times (!) for fear his mission undermined the Confucian doctrine but always made his way back to Cochinchina!
After the Vietnamese finally threw him out of the country for good in 1646 – who else but a Nguyen lord could manage? – he still wouldn’t leave Vietnam. In 1651, while in Rome, he published the first edition of his Vietnamese-Portuguese-Latin dictionary called Dictionarium Annamiticum Lusitanum et Latinum, which used a mix of European languages (French, Italian, Spanish and Greek) to transcribe the Vietnamese sounds.
The quoc ngu spread from there, and helps millions of Westerners learn Vietnamese to this day…… Or does it?!
SAIGON Inspiration CULTURE BEHIND THE BLEACH: VIETNAMESE WOMEN’S OBSESSION WITH WHITE SKIN
Vietnamese women cover up because they simply love light white skin
Rochelle Nguyen, a 25-year-old Vietnamese-Canadian woman who teaches at a prominent English center in Ho Chi Minh City, explained how she went to get a health check in order to obtain a work permit. “They take a urine sample. They check your eyes. They check your teeth. They check your skin.” (Rochelle accompanied the word skin with air quotes.)
She related this story over a bowl of bo kho in a tiny eatery located in one of the off-the-beaten-track hems of Phu Nhuan District. Rochelle explains how she was doubtful about the proposed skin test but decided to subject herself to it anyway because she needed to in order to work. “All they looked at were my hands, back and forth, and then [the doctor] was like, ‘Hm.
Your skin is really dark. You must like the sun…You’d look better if you were lighter. Lighter girls are prettier.’ It wasn’t even like, ‘Stay out of the sun; it’s bad for your skin’ or anything like that!” Rochelle was floored by both the non-medical nature of the doctor’s advice, and the boldness with which he dismissed her skin tone as unattractive.
The question arises: why are so many Vietnamese women obsessed with having white skin?
Ho Chi Minh City’s ‘Street Ninjas’ Avoid the Sun
On a walk around Ho Chi Minh City, you can see the care in preserving skin whiteness in the fashion of the women driving around on scooters and motorbikes. Women are covered almost entirely from head to toe in combinations of helmets, scarves, sunglasses, facemasks, long sleeves, gloves, long pants, and socks (even if they’re wearing open sandals).
This ‘street ninja’ motif, as it has been dubbed by some, has become a staple style in Ho Chi Minh City’s fashion culture, while serving the purpose of shielding women from sun rays.
Photographer Mona Lippi explores the culture of skin covering amongst Vietnamese women in her series of photos entitled “White Skin”. While many might see this penchant for covering as something that strips the wearer of individuality, Lippi marvels at the distinctiveness of each subject.
Lippi said, “I was very interested in the original, colorful, modern individuality of each driver. Vietnamese love to keep their white skin and even in the humid tropical heat, they wear many layers to keep out the sun.”
Many Vietnamese women would rather sweat while wearing layers of clothing than expose their skin to the browning effects of the sun’s rays.
Whitening Agents in Vietnam’s Skin Care
You can also see reflections of the obsession with skin whiteness while perusing the skin care aisle of a local Co-Op mart. For example, finding lotion that isn’t advertised as having some kind of skin-bleaching properties is nearly impossible. My, a 25-year-old local Vietnamese woman from the center of Vietnam, gave her thoughts about the ubiquity of skin-whitening products.
“Vietnamese people prefer to have white skin. In their minds, white skin stands for being rich and beautiful so they want to buy a skincare product that helps them to have white skin.”
It becomes clear that there are assumptions about class attached to skin color, a sociological fact that is not particular to Vietnam but is ubiquitous throughout Asia. Mimi, a 24-year-old woman of Vietnamese descent who was raised in Europe, wrote via Facebook messenger that
“In terms of historical classism, and the way it was explained to me very early on by my own parents, it was only royalty and wealthy people who could afford to sit indoors and avoid the sunlight. The working class had to be out and about in the fields, on the streets, hence the exposure to the sun and darker skin.”
Nguyen Oanh in an interview with Asia Life Magazine supported this assertion by saying, “For Vietnamese women, being white means that you are beautiful, that you are a person who has money and doesn’t work too hard. Darker skin means you have to work hard and you don’t have time to make yourself more beautiful.”
Tu, a 30-year-old local woman from Hanoi adds that there’s also an east Asian influence at play. When asked about skin-whitening products, she notes that they have been “…endorsed by celebrities, advertised on national TV for decades. Influenced greatly by Japanese and Korean culture since the early 2000s, where women there have naturally lighter skin.” On another note, Tu points out that the penchant for white skin can also be attributed to the lack of options provided by makeup manufacturers.
Vietnamese women with darker skin “… have no makeup products that match their skin tone just yet. That’s why having lighter skin allows them to have more natural-looking made-up faces. It’s quite a homogenous society, so there’s a delusion that one could obtain exceptional white skin by paying a lot of money for products. The truth is that some people’s skin will just remain the same tone unless [they use] invasive intervention.” When asked her own opinion about why women in Asia seem to be obsessed with having lighter skin, she adds, “They associate lighter skin with a better lifestyle. Probably from years of being colonized.”
What’s Colonialism Got to Do With It?
What does colonization have to do with it? My Tho is a city of about 220,000 with only a handful of western ex-pats living there. Even though there is a dearth of westerners taking residence in My Tho, a good percentage of the advertising aimed at the local population features caucasian faces. One could wonder who the target audience for this marketing is, considering the fact that nearly the entire population of My Tho are local Vietnamese folks. Are the beauty standards being promoted the result of the ‘opening’ of Vietnam to the absorption of western ideals via globalization?
Are they an echo of Vietnam’s colonial past and its relationship with Europe via the French?
Vietnam has a history of incorporating the ideas, fashion, cuisine, architecture, and religion of former colonizers into its own culture. As a historical practice, Vietnam has traditionally expelled its subjugators while keeping some positive aspects of their cultures. (“Thanks for the Buddhism and the noodles, China, but you have to go now.” “Thanks for the banh mi, the infrastructure, and the modifications on the ao dai, France, but we’re done here.”) It is likely that at least some ideas about whiteness and its proximity to wealth and power were handed down from Vietnam’s former status as a French colony.
Fewer Incidents of Skin Cancer in Asia?
Vietnamese women’s avoidance of the sun does have a practical benefit. During the sun-drenched months of the dry season, the sun’s rays are powerful and dangerous. People in western countries who have the inverse obsession as the Vietnamese and enjoy tanning, pay a high price for their sun-worship. Although this is at least partially due to genetics and lack of melanin in caucasians, white westerners have the highest incidents of skin cancer in the world.
Vietnam ranks on the list of incidents of skin cancer by country, 165th out of 183, according to the World Life Expectancy website. It even ranks lower than Iceland, Finland, and Norway, countries that experience dark winters lasting for months.
The preference for white skin amongst Vietnamese women is influenced by a score of factors. Even men get caught in the undertow of perpetuating beauty standards that hold white skin as being preferable. Recent studies have shown that Asian men are investing in skin-bleaching products, possibly influenced by imported media from East Asia.
Perhaps in time, Vietnam will become so influenced by its western counterparts that one-day tanning beds will be a staple of Vietnamese spas. In the meantime, we can be sure that the ‘street ninjas’, covered from head to toe on the eternal quest for the milkiest of skin, will remain iconic features in the tapestry of Vietnam.
SAIGON INSPIRATION CULTURE HOW DO YOU COCK-A-DODDLE-DO ?
Born under the sign of the rooster? Then this is a year of romance, good fortune, and health. Sounds terrific, doesn’t it?
2017 is the Year of the Rooster, the 10th of 12 creatures in the list of zodiac animals. The animal has not been granted its own year since 2005 and will not return until 2029. But what does this mean for you?
What type of rooster are you?
To make matters even more confusing, there are five different types of the rooster, depending on your date of birth.
If you were born in 1957 (or 2017), you are a Fire Rooster, and tend to be trustworthy, good at timekeeping (good luck with that in Vietnam) and responsible in your work.
Born in 1969? Then you are an Earth Rooster. You are said to be sweet natured, generous, trustworthy and popular among friends, family and neighbours.
Born in 1981, the Gold Rooster is determined, brave, hard-working and perseveres well.
Born in 1993, the Water Rooster is smart, quick-witted, warm-hearted and compassionate.
Finally, the Wood Roosters was born in 2005 and are energetic, over-confident, and tender but somewhat unstable.
The importance given to the zodiac in Asia cannot be overstated. Many people plan everything around the stars, whether it’s business ventures, buying a house, or planning a marriage. Strangely, the year of one’s own animal sign is considered unlucky, so 2017 is not a year for the roosters out there to get too cocky.
Roosters are said to be observant, hard-working, courageous, and resourceful; they are also talented individuals. Popular among a group of people, they are gregarious and fun to be with. However, they are demanding and sometimes crave the attention of others too much. They are tough cookies, don’t often fall ill and when they do, they fight the illness well.
The list of jobs at which roosters excel is as long as a Friday-evening Saigon traffic jam: teacher, soldier, fireman, security guard, police officer, newsreader, salesperson, hairdresser, restaurateur, public relations officer, farmer, athlete, waiter, journalist, travel writer, dentist, surgeon and on and on and on.
Affairs of the Heart
So, all in all, you roosters will face a mixed year. What are your feelings? Will this prove to be a rooster-booster of a year, or a load of old cock?
SAIGON Inspiration CULTURE ARE YOU JUGGLING 2 VERSIONS OF YOURSELF ?
When Vietnam’s national Under-23 football team went on its fairytale run, reaching the finals of the Asian Under-23 football championships for the first time in history in 2018, ex-pats living in Vietnam viewed an unforgettable display of the pride Vietnamese have towards their country. Social media was also abuzz with comments and praises all around. It was certainly a great time to be Vietnamese, even if you weren’t one.
Lost in Translation Online
However, on a certain thread in a Facebook group, an American ex-pat English teacher by the name of Daniel Hauer, who fronts a very popular YouTube channel with over one million subscribers, and who has about over 100,000 followers made an offhand comment in reply to a fan who had boldly proclaimed that he would tattoo the Vietnamese flag on his body if his country were to win the tournament.
The only problem with Daniel’s comment was that he chose to correlate a well-decorated former military general with a body modification process that involved the genitals. In other words, he committed one of the biggest cardinal sins in Vietnam—insulting a historical figure, even though it was only meant to be a joke.
The festivities momentarily came to a screeching halt as Daniel, who had been living in Hanoi for years with his family, suddenly found himself dealing with the wrath of the Vietnamese. He had his contracts voided by the schools he was teaching at; there were calls to boycott his channel; his family was thrust into the spotlight and he found himself in front of the Authority of Broadcasting and Electronic Information (ABEI) having to explain what he had just done with the prospect of a huge fine.
However, this leads to a question. If he had just been a regular nobody, would the reactions toward his act have been equally as intense? If he was still unemployed, would it affect future employment opportunities?
How Online Personas are Viewed in Vietnam
Over the years, there have been foreigners and even locals who have learned that Vietnam is concerned with different content issues than in other countries. However, the press coverage, as well as online debates over their deeds did not quite reach the levels that Daniel faced. One of the reasons behind this could have been due to his online persona and its wide reach.
Social media has allowed people to create an alternative persona that may not necessarily coincide with their real lives. Although Daniel’s online persona was an extension of his career, some others do it purely out of seeking attention; some feel it is an easier way to make friends or new contacts and some do it purely to escape from a harsher reality.
How an Online Persona Can Heal
22-year-old Ngoc Hong Nguyen, a student, and the part-time content creator had a tough time as a teenager. She battled depression, an abusive relationship, and bullying in school. Although she did remarkably well academically, often finishing in the top ten among her cohort, she felt a lack of appreciation from her parents.
Her depression got further compounded after a traffic accident left her partially paralyzed for almost half a year. As a result, she started gaining weight, her grades suffered, and she started entertaining suicidal thoughts but the straw that broke the camel’s back was a comment her ex made to her.
“Nobody is going to date you unless you go for surgery to fix your ugly body and face.”
Instead of letting those incidents kick her down, she decided to prove her detractors wrong. She studied even harder and managed to get into a university, went for a nose job, lost weight, took up boxing, discovered and honed her talent in makeup, and decided to start her own Instagram account where she would post-makeover pictures and videos of herself and start blogging. She was so good at it that even her own friends could not recognize her post-makeover looks.
“I started a transformation on Instagram aimed to inspire others that they too, can pull off a Hannah Montana in their lives. Before achieving happiness, it is normal to suffer.” She said. However, it wasn’t an easy beginning as she had to deal with comments labeling her as fake or even poking fun at her looks.
“At first, it made me cry because it felt like no matter what I did, people would still think I was full of it. But I also received messages from girls saying that I was a reflection of them and that it helped them face society. This changed everything.” She added. She eventually focused on creating even more content, with the sole purpose of inspiring girls to challenge their own imperfections.
Why Your Online Persona is Important in Vietnam
Although Ngoc and Daniel are drastically different from each other, they share one thing in common – they have a strong influence online. While the scandal surrounding Daniel showed the negative repercussions of making a mistake online, and how it can affect his real life, Ngoc’s case was the opposite. She had been using her online persona as an escape from her harsh reality, as well as a means to inspire others.
“I now understand why people react negatively towards me. It’s because they want what I have, but aren’t confident enough to do the same. One reason could be that they aren’t brave enough to face society and the many rumors and untruths that will come with it. However, I don’t think that way. I write my own story and I have the power to give it a happy ending.” She added.
Creating an online persona may not necessarily reflect who you are offline, but it will certainly provide a window to who you are to prospective employers doing a background check on you. Just like how Daniel Hauer lost his contracts after his mistake, there have been many instances of job candidates falling down the pecking order after a quick google search revealed undesirable social media posts from years earlier.
In this day and age where information about you is freely available online, and where political correctness is turning into a frequent buzzword, it will take more than a glossy LinkedIn profile and a well-curated Facebook page, YouTube channel, or Instagram profile to impress potential employers. You will also have to ensure that any remarks or photos that you post are not likely to offend the wider world or the past may literally come back to haunt you.
SAIGON INSPIRATION CULTURE VIETNAM MEETS CIRQUE DE SOLEIL: BEHIND THE SCENES AT TEH DAR
Teh Dar is an international-level performance and show, unique in Southeast Asia.
Walking up the stairs to the grand Saigon Opera House and finding your seat is a journey that might happen in any major European music hall, from France to Germany to Vienna. This perception pops, however, when the show begins, and this is a good thing.
Over the next hour, Teh Dar presents an international-level nouveau cirque gone, Southeast Asia. Rhythmic beats accompany acrobatic marvels, musical numbers, and dances taken straight from the dance circles of the ethnic minority groups of Vietnam’s Central Highlands.
“Teh Dar, in K’ho, means going in a circle,” Tuan Le, the show’s director, told #iAMHCMC. “With this specific ethnic minority people, the culture is still about the circle.” Focusing on the Tây Nguyên group, Teh Dar is a celebration of a culture both neverending and at constant risk of being lost: they celebrate the idea of the circle, so that it may not be broken.
A Hard Look at the Lune
Forty-year-old Tuan Le is a man young in years and wise at heart. As he sits on the balcony of the Saigon Opera House during one of Teh Dar’s afternoon rehearsals, he looks down at the young performers practicing their moves with a look filled with both paternal love and a kind of weariness. The second emotion is understandable: besides directing the youngest cast in Lune Production’s five-year history, Teh Dar is a real risk to Tuan’s credibility.
After the tremendous success of crowd-pleasing favorites like A O Show and Lang Toi, shows that toured 12 countries in the past year, he wonders if this high-energy rendition will pass muster as well. Teh Dar is scheduled to start its world tour in a year.
“I think the audience would expect something more,” he said. “I have to see about [the performers’] condition also. Not just physically; it’s also in their mind; where they are at this moment.”
For anyone who has seen a Lune Productions show, this balance between spontaneous audaciousness and established professionalism is par for the course. For Tuan, it’s more about trusting his own performers rather than establishing guidelines or strict choreography: “Whatever story happens in each show, even I don’t know before.”
Embracing the Spontaneous
Teh Dar was released in August 2017, but for Tuan, it was a long time coming: “We first came up with the idea 10 years ago.” “Our goal is, whatever show we pick to do, we go to the new locations and pick local people from there. We focus on different cultures [of Vietnam], so the value of the show should be from there.”
For Teh Dar, this meant heading to the Central Highlands, specifically the tribes of the Tay Nguyen. Here he held castings for acrobatic performers, singers, and musicians—professions some of the current performers had never considered before. For Tuan, this is part of the show’s beauty. Rather than focus on what Tuan refers to as “too common” acrobatic ability, he and his partners prefer to search for something rawer, more real.
“When I was searching for a singer for Teh Dar, the ones who came to the audition, were all the same. They all wanted to be pop singers. When Sier [the current singer] auditioned, she … just sang a pop song. I took her to the window. The wind was blowing. I asked her to just sing something, anything when she felt like it. She started to cry, and she sang a song in K’ho, and even the men in the room, they could feel the emotion too, even if they couldn’t understand the words. Some of them had tears in their eyes.”
Raising the Bar
The authenticity and skill level of the performers and producers of Lune stage productions are welcome additions to Vietnam’s cultural offerings. A common lament of tourists has been the lack of high-quality entertainment. Besides the near-obligatory water puppets, most spectacles in Ho Chi Minh City are architectural rather than performative. As the Department of Tourism works to ramp up this sector, high-quality cultural performances will be necessary.
Earlier this year, entertainment mega-company, the Tuan Chau Group, opened Quintessence of Tonkin, a cultural stage show about 40km from Hanoi’s city center, set entirely on an outdoor, water-covered stage, complete with an extravagant light show and a pagoda that rises from the stage floor. Dao Hon Tuyen, the billionaire entrepreneur who spearheaded the lavish production, expects it to become the go-to cultural event for tourists passing through the capital.
It might sound like stiff competition for Lang Toi, the Northern-inspired Lune Production playing regularly at the Hanoi Opera House, though this would be life comparing garish Las Vegas to a Broadway show.
More important for Tuan is showing foreign audiences what Vietnamese culture is really like. When asked if the show is meant to be a look into the past, he shakes his head and frowns. “Even today, these small villages are still new. If you go to the mountain, if you go to a real ethnic minority area, you could maybe sense it, there’s nothing here real like that.”
SAIGON Inspiration CULTURE WEDDING TRADITIONS IN VIETNAM
What we must understand about wedding traditions in Vietnam
Have you ever been to a wedding reception in which guests start eating before the bride, groom, and the couple’s family? Why the bride might choose to don an ao dai in preference to a white taffeta wedding dress, or why do family friends will always come bearing betel leaf wedding gifts? While these practices might seem strange to Westerners, in Vietnam, from Hanoi to Saigon, this is par for the course. Read on to learn what to expect when you’re invited to an authentic Vietnamese wedding, and why these traditions have come to be.
A History of Showing Status
In the past, families in Vietnam with similar social status orchestrated marriages and weddings together, and the wedding ceremony presented a great opportunity to show the family’s level in society. Wealthy families organized elaborate ceremonies, and the bride’s family usually demanded valuable gifts from the groom’s family prior to the wedding.
During the later half of the 20th century, the government enacted policies that sought to get rid of feudal customs, part of a scheme to reduce poverty in general. Weddings became small and simple, with sweets served to friends and family of the couple, rather than the grand feasts of years before. More recently, Vietnam’s rapid economic growth and the increased influence of Western cultures have made weddings, especially in big cities like Hanoi and Saigon, more expensive and less intimate. However, traditional customs remain important even today.
The Party Before the Party: The Engagement Ceremony
Before the wedding, an engagement ceremony called đám hỏi (or ăn hỏi) takes place at the bride’s home. Some families invite guests to a banquet for the engagement ceremony, especially if the bride’s hometown is different from the groom’s so that guests of the bride’s family don’t have to come to the actual wedding in a different town.
This is similar to the Western idea of a proposal, but instead of the man asking for the woman’s hand in marriage with a ring, all the family members of the couple are present, and the proposal is made from one family to the other, with traditional gifts such as betel and areca (trầu cau) and other goodies, packed in lacquer boxes covered in red cloth.
Then comes the day of the wedding. As with other important ceremonies in Vietnam, the date of the wedding is determined by a fortune teller, and may not fall on the weekend. Those who are invited but cannot attend the wedding typically visit the family before the wedding and congratulate them with gifts or money.
The ceremony starts at the bride’s home, where the groom’s family officially asks for permission to bring the bride with them to the groom’s house. Here the couple light incense as a way to inform their ancestors that they are getting married and ask for their blessings. Only family members are present in this part of the ceremony, except for the groom’s mother. The two families then head to the wedding reception where guests join them in celebration.
The modern Vietnamese wedding reception varies depending on which part of the country you are in. Many wedding traditions from Western cultures have been adopted, such as the bride wearing a white dress instead of the traditional áo dài, the exchange of wedding rings, cutting the cake, and the bouquet toss.
However, there are still significant differences. For example, for non-religious families, there is no priest to officiate the wedding, but instead, a trusted friend or respected relative, or a professional MC. The bride is not “given away” by her father, but both bride and groom walk down the aisle with their parents by their side. Firecrackers, an essential part of weddings until they were banned in 1994, are now replaced by confetti, similar to the tradition of throwing rice in the West.
The biggest difference is the huge crowd of guests at Vietnamese weddings. As a wedding is the business of two families rather than just two people, almost all relatives, friends and colleagues of both families are expected to be there. As a result, the newlywed couple and their parents have to go to each table to raise their glasses and thank the guests for coming. When they can finally sit down to eat, most guests have already finished their meal.
This may seem a little strange to Westerners, but it has become a tradition. The happy couple might feel exhausted on their wedding day, but they have a life together to enjoy after that!
SAIGON INSPIRATION CULTURE ESSENTIAL VIETNAMESE NEW YEAR FOODS – CENTRAL FOOD
This Tet specialty is made with sticky rice and filled with pork fat and beans that are seasoned with black pepper and shallots. It’s wrapped in banana leaves giving it an appealing pale green color and a slightly leafy taste. To prevent the banana leaf from coming apart while it’s cooking, people wrap it several times with plastic ribbon before steaming it.
How was bánh tét first created? Some studies have claimed that bánh tét is a different version of bánh chưng—a similar food that is also stuffed with beans and pork—but this one is presented in a cylindrical shape due to the process of southward expansion in the 17th century. According to these studies, when Vietnam expanded southward to capture the former territory of Champa Kingdom, the dish was adapted to the colonized people’s tastes. Bánh tét was thus shaped by a desire to affect the linga, a phallic-shaped post associated with the deity Siva, according to Cham belief. The culture’s artistic productions prominently feature rods and poles for this reason.
One serving contains a small, neat and beautiful slices of bánh tét. Vietnamese are also known to enjoy the dish fried, which gives the bánh tét a delicious, chewy crispness.
Dưa Món (Pickled Vegetables)
Just as bánh chưng is typically paired with onion pickles in the North, bánh tét goes along with dưa món (vegetable pickles). It’s not the đồ chua (pickled vegetable) you have experienced in Vietnamese bánh mì before. The vegetables in dưa món carry a distinct, extra crunchy texture.
What’s the secret to this textural peculiarity?
To answer this question, start by looking at the dried vegetables. People from Central Vietnam usually dry carrots and radishes in the sun for a few days until the vegetables get perfectly dried.
These dried veggies will soak up tons of flavor when cooked instead of going soggy like they otherwise would. They’ll hold texture even after sitting in the fish sauce for a few days. They remain crunchy with an al dente bite that’s truly addicting.
If it’s impossible to dry your vegetables due to cloud cover or pollution, just use your oven. Set it on the lowest heat with the oven door cracked open for three to four hours or if you have a gas stove give it about five to six hours with just the pilot light on. Follow these instructions and you can also achieve that same appropriate texture.
A properly executed dish of dưa món carries the aroma, flavor, and sweetness of fish sauce and sugar as well as the crunchiness of papaya. The added daikon compliments the beautiful vivid color of the carrots.
Learn how to make authentic Vietnamese dưa món:
Nem chua (Fermented Pork Roll)
Nem chua is an indispensable dish of the Central Vietnamese Tet tradition. It is made from fresh pureed pork mixed with pork skin, marinated with spices, pepper, chili, all of which is fermented before becoming ripe for consumption.
Some won’t dare to eat nem chua at first as they know this dish is made from completely raw pork. However, once you give it a try, you will slowly fall for its addictive light sourness, sweetness, crunchiness, spiciness, and fragrance blended on your tongue. Each province presents its sense of flavor and natural resources by using different leaves as wrapping materials. For example, Ninh Hoa’s nem chua wears gooseberry leaves, Binh Dinh’s nem chua goes with guava leaves. These wrapping materials also contribute greatly to the flavor of each fermented pork roll.
With close inspection, it’s easy to see that nem chua has two layers of wrapping. It has a layer of interior leaves, which decide the taste of nem chua mentioned above. The other is the outer leaves, which are usually banana leaves. The banana leaf layer’s thickness depends on how deeply fermented one would like their nem chua (more leaf means more fermentation). Normally, two layers of banana leaves are laid crisscrossed.
If you can’t afford to make it your own, no worries. Here are some of the tips from the people of Central Vietnam to find the best nem chua. First, a well-done nem chua must have a dried surface. Second, it should have a slightly pink color, firm meat, and reasonable sourness.
Nem chua can be eaten plain or served with wine at a Tet feast. Each region has different ways to evaluate the flavor of the dish. Though North’s people prefer its original sourness, people from Central and South Vietnam usually add sugar, garlic, chili, and pepper to increase the spiciness and sweetness of nem chua.
Thịt heo ngâm mắm (Meat Soaked in Fish Sauce)
While Tet holiday could be tempting you with loads of nutritious, fatty foods, this rustic dish of meat soaked in fish sauce rolled in rice paper with various raw veggies, herbs, pickled vegetables is even more satisfying.
Meat soaked in fish sauce is a simple, flavorful yet super-easy-to-make dish. This charming treat is a traditional dish at a Tet meal in Central Vietnam. Over centuries and generations, Central Vietnam’s families still love to have a dish of meat soaked in fish sauce at their Lunar New Year feast.
For locals, a roll of thịt ngâm mắm is well-rounded and balanced flavour-wise. The salty taste of the dish coupled with veggies dipped in sweet fish sauce play nicely against the spiciness of chili, pepper, garlic, and ginger to together create an exceptional culinary experience.
Mắm Tôm Chua (Fermented Shrimp Sauce)
If we’re going to talk about Central Vietnamese cuisine, we just can’t leave out its famous dish: mắm. And, at this time of year, mắm tôm chua is proudly in attendance at a traditional Tet meal. Unlike Mắm tôm—the well-known shrimp sauce that has a dark purple color and smooth surface—sour shrimp sauce owes its appealing orange color to the shrimp.
In order to make this sauce, the shrimp must be cleaned with salt water and slightly cooked in a strong rice wine. Carefully mix the shrimp with sticky rice, sliced galangal, garlic and chili before combining the mixture into a jar. Everything is covered with guava leaves and left for five to seven days.
Mắm tôm chua is best paired with thịt heo luộc (boiled pork), rolled in paper rice cake with loads of garnish including curly salad greens, cucumber, mint, and herbs. Wait. Did we forget something? Sauces!
Pour crushed garlic, chili, and sugar into the bowl of sour shrimp sauce, and mix them well with a spoon. Season the mixture until it matches your own sense of taste. Finally, squeeze a few drops of lemon in, and your sauce is ready.
SAIGON Inspiration CULTURE ESSENTIAL VIETNAMESE NEW YEAR FOODS – NORTHERN FOOD
What you shall understand about food during the Tet or the Lunar New Year in Northern Vietnam
Tết Nguyên Đán or simply Tet (Vietnamese Lunar New Year) is the most festive time of year in Vietnam as well as the busiest due to the amount of preparation required. You can easily get a sense of Tet’s intense yet joyful atmosphere just by watching streets crowded with a continuous stream of people busy with shopping and preparing in advance for Tet. On this special occasion, everything must be prepared carefully and early.
To get ready for the holiday in accordance with Vietnamese belief, you should clean your home, replace your outdated things with new ones, and—because you’re to stop all work during Tet including household work—cook all the food you’ll eat during the holiday.
There are certain dishes like bánh chưng (square meat cake) that are like unofficial Tet mascots for their close association with the holiday. If you’re in Hanoi or somewhere else in the North, expect to see typical dishes from that region there like xôi gấc (sticky rice) during this time of year.
In this series, we’re going to explore the food traditions of Vietnam’s three major regions—the North, Middle, and South—going from top to bottom.
An Overview of Vietnamese Tet
The Vietnamese call this time of year Tết Nguyên Đán or Tết Ta (Vietnamese New Year), Tết Âm Lịch (Lunar New Year), Tết Cổ Truyền (Traditional New Year). As the Lunar New Year is determined according to the phases of the Moon so Tet is celebrated later than Tết Dương Lịch (Western New Year). It has many different names, but we’ll just call it “Tet” here for short.
There is an additional month added to the lunar calendar every three years, but otherwise, the Tet window remains unchanged: the first day of the Lunar New Year is never before January 21 and never after February 19 in the Gregorian calendar. It is usually held from late January to the middle of February.
In the past, the entire annual Lunar New Year celebration used to last for about 2 weeks across two separate periods: seven or eight days of the old year and 7 days of the new year (23 December to the end of January 7).
Just like other Asian countries deeply influenced by Chinese culture, Tet holds a very important, significant meaning in the life of the Vietnamese people for many reasons. For one, it’s an opportunity for a family reunion. It’s often the occasion to welcome family members returning home after working apart all year round. Second, it’s also an opportunity to visit acquaintances, relatives, and friends during the longest leisure time period of the year.
Getting the Meal Ready
If you asked me which of Tet’s many activities is the most fascinating, I would doubtlessly pick preparing the traditional food. Tet foods play a vital role in worshipping the ancestors, reuniting the family, and receiving guests during the first three days of the Lunar New Year. Preparing for these dishes requires one to be meticulous and attentive to the particular traditions of your area. As Vietnamese people are creative in the kitchen, the selection of Tet’s food is rich and diverse varying from region to region.
My grandma and mom always bought and prepared loads of food in the week before Tet’s arrival because food plays such a large part in Tet celebration. Vietnamese people always make sure that there is plenty of food for the whole family to last for at least three days since it is taboo to work or cook during the first three days of Tet. It is also bad luck to run out of food during this time. Let me show you what might be on the typical plate of a Northern Vietnamese family during this coming Tet .
Northern Vietnam’s traditional meal
A complete Northern Tet meal is considered the most traditional meal of all. Hanoi is said to have retained the highest number of traditional dishes among all the other northern provinces. A complete meal there calls for preparing a broad number of foods and a sophisticated presentation. Traditionally, the complete Northern Tet meal needs eight dishes—four bowls and four plates—which represent four pillars, four seasons, and four directions.
The traditional Hanoian family meal has been simplified now compared to the number of recipes in the past. Nevertheless, there are still some irreplaceable dishes that almost every Northern family will prepare on this special occasion.
Bánh Chưng (Chưng cakes or Vietnamese square cakes)
This is the most well-known cake of the holiday, arguably the most famous Tet dish of them all. Bánh chưng (Vietnamese square cake) is made from glutinous rice, mung beans, pork, and other ingredients, which are believed to express the essence of heaven and the earth through the skillful hands of humans, according to Vietnam’s legendary ancient chief King Hùng Vương. By this belief, making bánh chưng cake is also the ideal way to express gratitude to our ancestors and homeland. It embodies the spirit of the Vietnamese Lunar New Year.
Vietnamese families love to pack and boil bánh chưng cake together as a household around one week before giao thừa (New Year’s Eve). It is also a great chance for family members to gather and spend the night together sharing neverending stories, games and conversations while waiting for the cakes to be boiled.
My family used to pack and boil bánh chưng years ago in a private corner right in front of our house. This is doubtlessly a precious memory to any kid growing up in the city like me. Because the making of the bánh chưng cake requires participation of all family members, each of us was involved in different parts of the process, but we shared a common joy.
Early in the morning, we had to head out to the market to choose lá dong (phrynium leaves). To make the cake, you must cleanse them over water, then carefully wipe up every single leaf. If you leave the leaf wet, it might ruin the whole cake.
Packing the cake is even more challenging. Bánh Chưng cake should be tightly and carefully wrapped, boiled for about 14 hours, taken out, soaked in water, and squeezed using a heavy plank. That way, when bánh chưng cake is cut, it will be limber but not flabby. It will instead be fleshy and fragrant.
Nowadays, times have changed and it is hard to find a family who packs and boils bánh chưng cake by themselves in the city, but family elders still get first dibs and choose before anyone else so they get the one that’s best cooked. The cake should be made from fragrant glutinous rice for better longevity.
Watch the video of Vietnamese people making bánh chưng cake:
Xôi gấc – Red Sticky Rice
Xôi (Sticky rice) is also an indispensable part of the traditional Northern meal. There’s a selection of different xôi: xôi lạc (sticky rice with peanuts), xôi đậu xanh (sticky rice with mung bean), and my personal favorite xôi gấc (sticky rice with special gấc fruit). Among these types, xôi gấc is in my opinion the best choice thanks to its distinct red color, which signifies a good fortune, according Vietnamese belief.
Generally, xôi gấc is usually served with giò chả (Vietnamese sausage) or boiled chicken in Tet meals. Sometimes it can be served with chè (sweet soup) like a dessert dish. Xôi gấc is a great start for the new year because this dish is believed to bring lots of luck and symbolise good things.
Dưa hành– Pickled Onions
Freshly pickled onions are often served as a side dish alongside bánh chưng cake or high protein dishes to reduce the greasiness. Foreigners may find this dish, in a word, unfriendly as they often can not handle the alliaceous, intensely oniony smell. But once you get along with these sweet-but-sour, slightly spicy pickled onions, you just can’t resist them. It helps elevate the flavor of Tet dishes as well as benefit our body’s digestive processes.
First thing first: in order to make standard pickled onions, you need to choose old onions with firm bulbs. Next, soak the onions in water mixed with borax and ash for two days and two nights. After that, take out the onions, cut off the roots, peel them, then put them into a large jar, cover them with salt and then put a thin layer of the chopped cane on top. Cover the onions with layers of bamboo. After two weeks, you can get the onion bulbs out, and soak them in sugar and vinegar. In three days, your pickled onions will be ready to rock.
Giò Chả, Giò Thủ – Vietnamese sausage, Pork Head Ham
Regardless of regional geography, the Vietnamese Tet feast must contain a dish of giò (Vietnamese sausage), one of the most savory of all Lunar New Year dishes. Vietnamese sausage (Giò), usually made of pork, from meat finely milled in a stone mortar and wrapped in banana leaves to form a tube shape. It is then boiled or steamed. There’s also giò bò (beef sausage), which is made from finely milled beef, a specialty of central Vietnam. A well-cut piece of giò must look neat, nice, and easy to pick up. The plating and presentation of this dish depending on the creativity of the cooks.
Then you have giò thủ (pork head ham), a Vietnamese sausage made from the meat of a pig’s head. For making giò thủ, pig’s ears and head meat are not milled but diced, and mixed with other ingredients like wood ear (black mushroom), fish sauce, pepper and garlic, all of which are stir fried. They are first fried in a pan, and then stirred well on low heat. Then, wrap the pies in fresh banana leaves, tie them carefully, and boil or steam them just like how we did with giò chả. A well cooked giò thủ dish gets it marble texture with the crunchy cartilage in every bite. This chewy, meaty, crunchy dish endowed with a deep, spicy, strong favour of condiments and garlic is best paired with pickled onions and a cold glass of bia hơi (Vietnamese fresh beer).
Thịt đông – Frozen Meat
Thịt đông is a dish particular to the winter-spring period of the Northern Vietnam, when the outside temperature is drastically cooler. Thịt đông is made from mixed protein, sometimes from chicken as well as pork and pork skin. After the ingredients are cooked in a pot, they may be left to cool down inside the pot, or divided into small bowls, depending on your preferred serving size. Then it is covered and chilled in the open air to make what you’d agree is one wonderful dish.
The complete thịt đông dish has a thin white layer of fat on top and a smooth jelly-like layer of frozen meat underneath. A piece of frozen meat served with pickled onions and a hot bowl of rice makes the true Northern Tet flavor. Frozen meat is typically served with a hot, fragrant bowl of rice as the heat of well-cooked rice melts down the frozen fat and soup. All harmonize into one perfect taste.
SAIGON INSPIRATION CULTURE TRADITIONS OF VIETNAMESE LUNAR NEW YEAR (TET NGUYEN DAN)
Tết Nguyên Đán, or simply Tết, is the most celebrated and important holiday in Vietnam.
Tết rites begin with Ong Tao, one of a group of omniscient kitchen gods named Táo Quân, hand-delivering a report to the Jade Emperor in Heaven about affairs in the family home.
It is widely believed that this report affects family destiny or extends or shortens life spans according to actions over the course of the previous year. Ông Táo’s report keeps him in Heaven for six days until he returns home in the night between the old and the new year. Most merchants close during Tết celebrations, so people try to stock up on supplies, food, clothing and home decorations. The streets and markets are crowded with people in the days before Tết and then deserted during the festivities.
Tết takes place on the first day of the first lunar month (late January/early February), a special day when the souls of ancestors return to earth “2021 is the year of the Ox”. The lunar calendar years are named after animals: rat, ox, tiger, cat, dragon, snake, horse, goat, monkey, rooster, dog and pig.
The first day of Tết is reserved to the core of the family. Children receive a red envelope called lì xì (or ‘lucky money’) containing money from their elders. To bring good luck, cash bills must be new and free from bends or rips. As for adults, it is customary to offer various gifts of wine, biscuits, sweets or jam.
Vietnamese families usually have a family altar to honour their ancestors. Upon this they will place a tray of five different fruits called mâm ngũ quả. During Tết, the altar is cleaned and new offerings are placed. As Tết is the time to welcome family ancestors, one’s house must be thoroughly cleaned to make it as welcoming as possible.
When welcoming visitors on Tết, vigilance is essential. It is believed that the first person to visit one’s home on Tết will bring either good or bad luck to a family for the following year. Thus, a rich and respected visitor would bring happiness and good fortune while the converse is also true.
Home decoration is an important part of Tết festivities. The house is believed to be protected against evil spirits by a kumquat tree, which symbolizes fertility. In the northern part of the country, a branch of pink peach flowers called hoa đào is displayed. In central and southern regions branches of golden apricot blossoms (hoa mai) are used. Bright colors are worn to attract good luck in the coming year.
During Tết special food is served, each with its own characteristics such as luck, prosperity, health or longevity. (Incidentally, before the advent of electric rice cookers, it was considered a bad omen for the coming year if rice was burned at the bottom of the pan.)
Bánh chưng is a square, steamed cake, an indispensable dish of Tết. It was invented during the Hùng King Dynasty and is rectangular to symbolize the Earth. This cake is made from glutinous rice, mung beans, and pork, and wrapped in banana leaves. All families place bánh chưng on their ancestral altar as an offering.
Bánh dầy, with its circular base of glutinous rice, symbolizes Heaven. With these two cakes, bánh chưng and bánh dầy, the Vietnamese pay homage to their ancestors and Heaven and Earth. Boiled or steamed chicken plays an important role during Tet meals. Indeed, all meals that pay tribute to ancestors must indeed contain a boiled chicken. The chicken is served with sticky rice and bánh chưng.
Xôi is glutinous rice of several types. Xôi gấc is one such type that is preferred by many Vietnamese for its red color – red symbolizes luck. This sticky rice is usually served with cooked chicken. Mứt is candied fruit and Mứt Tết is a Vietnamese jam served with tea. This jam, in its dry form, is always kept in beautiful boxes and placed on the table when serving tea.
Finally, during Tết, Vietnamese stay polite and smiling, under the watchful eyes of three statues (Phúc, Lộc and Thọ) representing happiness, prosperity and longevity. The main greeting at Tet is, ‘Chúc mừng năm mới’, which translates to ‘Happy New Year’.
SAIGON Inspiration CULTURE SPECIAL FLOWERS FOR TET
Every Tet holiday Vietnamese people celebrate and enjoy the arrival of spring with flowers.
Everyone looks for the best flowers and ornamental plants to decorate their homes, to provide a striking visual effect, and to create a feeling of freshness, helping us to look forward to a new year filled with luck, happiness, and good fortune. Some of the popular flowers for this occasion are yellow apricot blossom, cherry blossom, kumquat, chrysanthemum, orchid, and narcissus.
We find great joy in decorating our homes with flowers for Tet, raising our feelings as well as beautifying our homes, we also find ourselves expressing ourselves through personal tastes and communicating something of ourselves through the aesthetic of our style and decoration, in some cases hoping to mark ourselves as a connoisseur or arbiter of taste.
Let us consider what flower varieties are the hottest choices for this New Year / Tet.
1. Chaenomeles japonica
This is a kind of flowering shrub that visually combines the cherry blossom of northern Japan and the southern yellow apricot blossom. Chaenomeles japonica is also known as Maule’s quince, belonging to the rose family with a short woody bush growing to about 100 – 200 cm. The shrub is slender and graceful, rich in color, the flowers have broad petals, and grow to be evenly sized, with cleverly arranged petals 3 – 5 cm in diameter. The petals open by day and close at night and can be expected to be in flower for up to 2 months.
The flower shows a diverse range of colors, bright red, crimson, red-orange, and red rose. When in bloom, this flowering shrub is like red fire, symbolizing wealth, peace, virtue, and the common good. It is usually cultivated as a bonsai, and will also bear fruit. The shrub produces apple-like fruit, green until turning yellow when ripe, it appears quite like a pear, is fragrant, hard, and usually sour, but it can be used to make preserves.
The price of Chaenomeles japonica varies from 1 to 10 million VND depending on the shape and size of the tree.
2. Prunus mume Sieb
Prunus mume Sieb is a kind of white apricot blossom. It is a woody species, belonging to the rose family. The more rough and hardy the tree trunk is, the more beautiful it is considered. The flower buds are pink, but when blooming they gradually become white with very tight layers of petals. When the petals are shed, the remaining calyx (that protected the flower bud) gradually changes to red looking like a new flower, then this too falls away after a period of time, because of this, the flower has another name “twice apricot blossom” meaning that the flower blooms two times. Prunus mume Sieb symbolically represents the honorable man, for principles and values of virtue.
The three most favored silhouettes of the Prunus mume Sieb are the triangle, the straight, and the slantwise. The triangle is also known as 3 elements: sky – earth – a human with a large root and three branches forming the tree trunk. The straight upright appearance is straightforward, honest, and strong. The slantwise is also known as the silhouette of a waterfall, leaning to one side, the shape often bending as would a tree growing on a steep mountain slope, which means reverence to the superior, the master.
Most of the Prunus mume Sieb cost from 2 to 15 million VND depending on the shape, silhouette, and age.
3. Camelliathea amplexicaulis
Also known as Japanese Red Camellia (and has been called the Japan Rose), the flowers possess a conspicuous beauty and exude a beautiful, elegant and gentle scent (tea being a variety of Camellia). Camellia can be considered a gourmet plant with an added reward of flowers. Wherever you place the tea flower, the whole area will benefit and become refreshed and brightened as the flowers exude their wonderful aroma.
Tea flowers come in many different colors such as reddish brown (deep tea), dark pink (pomegranate tea), a pink rose (royal tea), white (white tea), yellow (gold flower tea) and sometimes hybrid combinations of white and pink stripes, red stripes, speckled (octagonal tea). The flowers are large and conspicuous usually with 5 to 9 petals. The Tea flowers will bloom for 5-15 days. The flowers symbolically represent perfection, loyalty, humility, dignity, and grace.
Flowers cost from 500 thousand to 120 million, depending on the color of the flower and the age of the tree.
4. Camellia sasanqua
The flowers are fresh and vibrant, but they do not overpower us with a dazzling feeling, but radiate our senses with a feeling of warmth. The petals are broad, and curved, and gently embrace the yellow stamens, the fragrance is very light. These flowers include two varieties, one with single petals and one with dual petals.
The colors are quite diverse with white, pink, dark pink, and yellow, with the most popular being crimson. Blooms can last up to 20 days; the flowers are often very thick and cover trees with a high density. Camellia sasanqua represents harmony, joyful life, and friendship of the family (in Chinese, the name of the flower is synonymous with the big house, the main house).
Flowers cost from 500 thousand VND to 100 million VND, depending on the shape, age, and age of the tree.
5. Hibernation Rhododendron
According to the ancients, the rhododendron flower is a symbol of gentleness, peace, prosperity, and reunion. For some European countries, this flower is considered a symbol of glory and pride. Rhododendrons can also have another name: Azalea. Possessing a brilliant beauty with warm colors, azaleas are commonly dark red, dark pink, pink, purple, orange, and white. Every time the flower blooms, it fills the space around it with vitality.
An interesting aspect of the rhododendron is its hibernation, in cold dry periods the plant will reduce its water content, but the cells will remain alive, in Autumn / Fall, the tree will slowly fall into hibernation with the appearance of dry branches. When the water supply at the roots resumes, after 2 days the tree will wake, and on the third day will bud and the flowers will begin to sprout. On the 7th day, the flowers will begin to bloom, and after 15 days the buds will fully bloom with brilliance.
The price of hibernation rhododendron is quite low, from 150-500 thousand VND / bunch of 30-50 branches.
6. Classic Rose
Classic Roses are always loved for their beauty, romantic association, elegance, and luxurious appearance. In addition, the number of blooms on each bush/tree is usually quite large. The rose bush also radiates a broad gentle fragrance that adds to its attraction. Classic Roses are a diverse and widely cultivated species. The flowers have many varieties such as Van Khoi Rose, Sapa Rose, Lipstick Rose, Bach Xep Rose, or imported pink called Tree Rose, all with various colors: white, pink, dark pink, yellow, red, purple, or veined stripes. Rose blooms usually last for 7-10 days, with some types of super long-lasting blooms persisting for a whole month.
Classic roses are priced at VND 1.5 - 250 million depending on the origin and freshness.
Peony was dubbed the king of flowers with a beautiful, noble and gorgeous bloom. Charming and delicate as roses, the petals are narrow, smooth, and layered from the center to the outside, giving a full shape, but the size is much larger (20-30cm) than a rose, making it stand out in every space. It also possesses a passionate and charming scent along with various striking colors such as pure white fawn, a noble and fresh pink, an attractive bright red, a charming high purple, a warm golden shine, a keen purple, and a charming pink color to a unique reddish purple. The flower symbolizes wealth, prosperity, beauty, and wisdom and is a popular gift all around the world. The Peony will bloom for 7-10 weeks in suitable conditions.
Peony flowers cost between VND 500,000 and VND 8 million.
Winterberry is a shrub that grows wild in many countries such as the Netherlands, Canada, and the United States. The tree is tall, and beautiful, with slender glossy green leaves, it produces small white flowers, then clusters of berries along its branches, appearing yellow then ripening to a striking red; these berries are also a favorite food of birds. The tree is at its most beautiful in the late winter and early spring, a clear sign of the New Year. Europeans have long used the Winterberry along with other flowers to decorate and bring a feeling of warmth to the home in the middle of the cold winter season. In the climate of southern Vietnam, fruiting branches can be kept fresh for 7-10 days. If the climate is as cold as in the north, they can be kept for months.
Winterberry prices are quite expensive because of their origin, incurring import and storage fees. Each branch will cost around 200-400 thousand VND, a large collection of about 5 - 50 million VND.
This flower blooms in early spring; the blooms are a bright yellow color, like the apricot blossom in southern Vietnam. However, Forsythia blooms in clusters, with the flowers clinging along the length of its long slim branches. The flowers have 4 long petals stretching out to hug the pistil. Forsythia grows as a wildflower in many European and American countries.
They also have the name “Easter Tree ” or “Golden Rain”, and are often grown as fences/hedges or in parks. The plants often shed their leaves before flowering. Each flower cluster appears to possess great intricate beauty, but close observation reveals quite a simple structure, but it remains visually dominating. The yellow color always raises one’s spirits, inspiring and bringing joy wherever they are found. The flowers can stay fresh for about 15-20 days.
The prices range from 300-500 VND / branch, depending on the height. A large plant is available for about VND 4 - 15 million.
10. Hybrid Orchid
The Orchid is still the first choice for many flower lovers, but the type of orchid most sought after recently is the Hybrid Orchid, even though their prices are quite high, from several million to nearly ten billion VND. The Flowers have a very distinctive appearance with different colors, diverse shapes, and widths of petals. There are many types of orchids such as Rhynchostylis gigantea, Dendrobium anosmum, and White Dendrobium Nestor… each species has a unique appearance, in fact, all are unique. For example the Paphiopedilum parishii orchid or “mutant beard”, originated in Germany, its shape is intriguing as it appears to be adorned by two long beards, and it holds the price of 4.6 million VND / plant.
Dendrobium anosmum orchid is marked by broad, thick, firm but not too long petals, costing from 5 million VND / plant. Rothschild: an almost extinct orchid species with only a small number remaining in the Kinabalu region of Malaysia – dubbed the “gold of Kinabalu”, blooms only once every 15 years, the flowers costing upwards from 110 million VND. To get these orchids, collectors must order a long time in advance, and sometimes there will be no guarantee that they will receive them at a given time, such are their rarity, but for many flower lovers and collectors, the investment is worth both the time and money, for them to attain the object of their passionate desire.
SAIGON INSPIRATION CULTURE WHAT’S YOUR SIGN? THE IMPORTANCE OF ASTROLOGY IN VIETNAMESE CULTURE
How surperstitious are the Vietnamese people?
As you visit famous pagodas in Vietnam, or simply walk down the streets of Hanoi and Saigon, you probably wonder why people are lighting incense and burning bundles of ghost money, or why they have a small altar filled with fruits in the corner or a store. The answer is: Vietnamese people are superstitious.
Many of us worship our ancestors, as we believe the spirits of the dead can affect the living. We believe the first day and the fifteenth day in a lunar month are moments when incense should be burnt and food should be offered to appease the spirits and gods.
Some go to great lengths to make sure the universe is in agreement with and even lend support to our actions, and to minimize any possible negative consequences. That is why astrology and fortune-telling play such indispensable parts in Vietnamese culture, even today.
Similar to the Chinese zodiac, there are 12 animals representing the years, months, and dates on our lunar calendar. In Vietnam, the 12 zodiac signs are Rat, Buffalo, Tiger, Cat (instead of the Rabbit in the Chinese zodiac), Dragon, Snake, Horse, Goat, Monkey, Rooster, Dog, and Pig.
Interestingly, zodiac signs also represent the 24 hours in a day. The hours from 23:00 p.m. to 1:00 a.m. are called the hours of the Rat, for example, and from 1:00 a.m. to 3:00 a.m. are the hours of the Buffalo, and so on.
The zodiac signs are related to a person’s personality, interpersonal relationships, and future. For example, there are complicated beliefs, like if a person was born in the year of the Monkey they will generally face hardships in life, but if they were born in the hours of the Tiger, they will be spared the worst and enjoy an easy life.
Each zodiac sign is associated with the characteristics of the animal itself, as well as a natural element among the Five Elements: Water (Rat and Pig), Wood (Tiger and Cat), Fire (Snake and Horse), Earth (Buffalo, Dragon, Goat, and Dog) and Metal (Monkey and Rooster).
Because the five elements interact with each other in either constructive or destructive ways, it is believed that people born in certain years are compatible, while people born in other years are likely to have conflicts if they work or live together.
There are also many other factors to consider in forecasting people’s destiny and compatibility, and fortune tellers have to study the principles of Tử Vi, or Purple Star Astrology, based on the ancient Chinese Book of Changes.
Traditions in a Modern Society
It should be noted that not all Vietnamese actually believe in such things, but astrological fortunes have become part of the cultural traditions to be followed. When a child is born, his or her horoscope will be prepared based on the date and hour of birth on the lunar calendar. Parents will use this as reassurance, to prepare themselves and their children for what the future holds. In the past, children were even named after the zodiac sign of the year in which they were born.
When a couple is about to get married, they have to check their zodiac compatibility. If their zodiac signs are conflicting, they have to do certain rituals before the wedding to get rid of bad influences. Sometimes people even check their compatibility before getting into a relationship, especially in the case of matchmaking.
People also use astrology to determine the date and hour for any important life events, particularly weddings, funerals, construction commencement, and new store openings. It is believed that the harmony of heaven and earth during these events will bring good luck and ensure success for the new journey. And don’t be surprised if any of your Vietnamese friends ever ask you to visit their home early on the first morning of the Lunar New Year. It means that your zodiac sign makes you suitable to be the first visitor of the house that year, and you will bring good luck to their family the whole year round!
SAIGON Inspiration CULTURE VIETNAMESE PEOPLE AMONG THE MOST PHYSICALLY INACTIVE BUT LEAST OBESE
Physically speaking, Vietnamese are mostly thin, and most exercise little.
Although Vietnam is ranked high among countries for physical inactivity in a recent global study, the country also has the lowest rate of adult obesity in the world. The Stanford University study that ranks Vietnamese people’s daily steps among the world’s lowest worried many at first.
Stanford researchers used smartphones to track the daily steps of 717,000 people in 111 countries and territories using the same health and fitness monitoring mobile app. According to the study, in countries with lower obesity rates, people mostly walked a similar amount per day. However, big gaps between people who walked a lot and those who didn’t coincide with much higher levels of obesity.
On average, Vietnamese people walk around 3,600 steps a day, far less than the global average of 5,000, leaving the country seventh from the bottom in the rankings. Hong Kong residents have an average of 6,880 steps per day, the highest level in the world. But the Stanford finding is not seemingly applicable in Vietnam’s case because another global study unveiled last month showed that Vietnam has the lowest rate of adult obesity with only 1 percent of the total population.
Reasons why Vietnamese do not like walking
Is it true that Vietnamese people don’t like walking? Probably because the streets in Vietnam, especially in Ho Chi Minh City are too crowded and polluted, and there is a lack of public spaces for physical activity. The sidewalks are not pedestrian-friendly as they are usually occupied, deterring people from going out for a walk.
In HCMC, people tend to go to the gym for exercise. In Hanoi, walking outdoors is still popular. Also, the frequency of exercise calculated by the average number of steps is not applicable to those who do other kinds of exercise. The study used data collected from mobile apps, so it excluded those who do not use these apps.
The obesity risk in Vietnam could be low due to factors such as the local cuisine which are mostly organic with a low percentage of oil. However, the low ranking could also be due to economic factors such as long working hours with workers having no time for exercise.
SAIGON INSPIRATION CULTURE ALL YOU NEED TO KNOW ABOUT VIETNAM’S MUSIC
Vietnamese music remains unknown to the world.
Vietnamese music, just like its food, is complicated, diverse, and yet, still largely unknown to the rest of the world. Due to the country’s turbulent history, the subject matter and the types of music that appeal to different demographics tend to differ.
From pre-war tunes to music echoing the Western ideology of individualism, Vietnam’s musicians have, over the years, been able to champion their own brand of music while at the same time gathering influences from America, as well as regional powerhouses like Korea and Japan.
The History of music in Vietnam
Historically, Vietnamese music consisted mainly of folk tunes featuring traditional musical instruments such as the monochord zither and various two-stringed instruments with a diverse range of forms such as Quan họ, which consists of alternate singing and Ca trù, which is performed mainly by females and is widely known as the Vietnamese equivalent of the Geisha movement.
Another prevalent form of music was classical music, with composers such as Do Nhuan whose work, Co Sao, is credited as the first Vietnamese opera. Another composer, French-trained Nguyen Van Quy, wrote nine sonatas for violin and piano. Between the 1940s and 1980s when the country experienced the French and American wars and the Fall of Saigon, notable composers such as Pham Duy and Trinh Cong Son, and singers like Khanh Ly and Le Thu started an era consisting of musical pieces inspired by the plight of Vietnamese refugees that eventually became ‘anthems’ for the Vietnamese people.
As nationalism reached an all-time high during that period, many composers, especially in the North, also composed Vietnamese revolutionary songs known as nhac do, or “Red Music”.
The Birth of Vietnamese Mainstream Music
The transition towards modern music didn’t happen overnight, as musicians retained the essence of their music and incorporated them into ballads or emotionally-driven slow numbers. However, when radio and television started to reach more households and networks bought into the age of music videos, it also heralded the beginning of mainstream music in Vietnam.
Vietnam does not have an official music chart, nor does it have digital sales figures, therefore the definition of the mainstream here reflects artists who enjoy airplay on radio or music video channels. The quirk here is that the songs are based on a “favorites” list, instead of “what’s new”. Therefore, evergreen tunes from decades ago can sometimes end up at the top spot on the list.
However, this didn’t deter artists from releasing new pieces, and the rise of J-Pop and K-Pop introduced a much faster-paced, bubblegum pop music that took root in Vietnam. During the turn of the century, Vietnamese musicians, influenced by Westernised music, together with the fashion styles of Japan, South Korea, Hong Kong, and Taiwan, created what is now known as V-Pop: a combination of bubblegum pop and fashion.
Popular Vietnamese singers such as Ho Quynh Huong, My Tam, Ho Ngoc Ha, Lam Truong, and many others were blazing the trail in the local music scene and it was not long until regional organizers such as the Asia Music Festival in South Korea invited these artists to perform, thus resulting in the expansion of V-Pop outside of Vietnam, and to the world.
This generated interest and inspired many other talented artists, and with the improving standards of music production, mixing, and mastering, V-Pop was now getting recognition in many other countries. Although not as huge as K-Pop or J-Pop, it was enough to inspire a new wave of artists who performed in other genres such as hip-hop, r&b, dance music, and rock.
The advent of the internet and the ability for home-based musicians to produce and release music online with minimal costs also propelled the likes of M4U, Bao Thy, Wanbi Tuan Anh, Khong Tu Quynh, Radio Band, Tran Khoi My, and many others to fame. The other genres of music that have surprisingly done well in mainstream circles are rock and metal.
First introduced to the country by American soldiers, rock and roll were popular in the South during the American War and the genre evolved over time to modern rock and metal.
Buc Tuong, a Glam Metal band made up of students from the National University of Civil Engineering, was formed in 1995 and introduced Hanoi to the heavy sounds of metal. They became so popular that in 2003, they were chosen as Vietnam’s representative for contemporary music at the Vietnam Festival Faces – Face of the French language in the city of Cahors, France.
The band has since gone on hiatus after the death of lead singer Tran Lap in 2016. However, it had helped start Vietnam’s rock revolution with bands like Unlimited, Ngu Cung, Microwave, and Black Infinity currently ruling the country’s mosh pits.
Another genre of music that has featured prominently around the world over the last decade is EDM, and in Vietnam, there is a knockoff version known as Vinahouse. One of the most divisive genres in the country, you’ll either love it or hate it but the often campy-sounding tracks have featured prominently in mainstream and vinahouse-dedicated clubs across the country and the genre shares huge popularity among young locals and mixed reactions from foreigners.
However, as mainstream music is reaching, or has reached its peak, there are concerns about how this can be maintained. According to an article by Tuoi Tre, there is a dearth of ‘new’ songs in Vietnam. Dr. Van Thi Minh Huong, head of Ho Chi Minh City Conservatory of Music, pointed to the inadequacy of music education as one of the main reasons for this. “In most education authorities’ current thinking, music remains a tool to teach other subjects, such as politics, ethics, and hygiene,” she said.
“Therefore, though elementary students do learn music at school, they are provided simply with brief glimpses of music, leaving most of them unable to appreciate good music or choose which music to listen to,” she added. However, that doesn’t mean there is no room for autodidacts or talented musicians who are ready to break boundaries because, beyond the mainstream, there is another layer that has already been breaking new ground.
The Indie Music Scene
Beyond bubblegum pop and pre-war oldies, there is another component of music in Vietnam made up of musicians who produce and market their music independently. These artists generally stay away from traditional broadcast media and focus on distributing their music online, or in small-scale live performances.
With genres ranging from hip-hop to house to rock, most of these musicians are still mainly known among like-minded music lovers in the country, although they do have followers across the world via sites like SoundCloud, MixCloud, and BandCamp.
Ran Cap Duoi project consists of members from Vietnam, USA, and Canada, and blending post-rock with experimental sounds, has built up a unique sound in the country’s already diverse soundscape. Another artist who has been making waves with his music is Touliver, whose meaningful lyrics and highly-polished music videos have led to a cult following among Vietnamese youths.
With his music spanning the genres of house and hip hop, and his refusal to “sell out” to the mainstream, he represents the archetypical artist who values artistic integrity over making money.
Another notable independent singer is Thuy Chi whose brand of music appeals to the younger demographic, and her popularity is evident with her endorsement deals with international brand names, as well as her inclusion in Vietnam’s Top 10 Artist of the Year. She currently has over 10 million Facebook fans from countries such as South Korea and the USA.
However, not all artists currently plying their trade in Vietnam are Vietnamese. American Sean Trace moved to Vietnam, and with his wife, singer and the winner of the first Vietnam Idol competition Phuong Vy, have been performing as a musical duo since 2014.
Although their fan base is largely local, Trace promotes their music by producing their own music videos and releasing them online, as well as producing a steady stream of vlogs, garnering a strong online following.
“The Vietnamese music scene is actually much more diverse and interesting than what is known outside,” he said.
The Rise of the Underground Music in Vietnam
Vietnam’s underground music scene is not only diverse in the range of genres available, but also in the range of artists themselves consisting of a mix of locals and foreigners based in Vietnam. This is most prominent in the electronic music subgenre which has seen its diversity and popularity in Vietnam rise crazily over the last five years. Heart Beat, formed by a trio of music aficionados, started the techno movement in Saigon in 2012 with monthly shows held at the city’s more underground venues like The Observatory.
From their connections with Europe’s underground labels like Dekmantel, Token and many others, they have managed to invite DJs who have featured in prominent underground music festivals and venues like Berlin’s Berghain to Saigon. Now in its fifth year, and with a new sub-label called HRBR (Harbour), the team is still going strong with shows featuring both international guest DJs as well as young local DJs like Huy Truong and Max Cleo, who are starting to make a name for themselves both locally and regionally as serious upcoming musicians.
This ascent is also mirrored in the country’s trance and psytrance scene with promoters such as Asian Rave Connection and Chillgressive Saigon organizing monthly events, as well as venues like The Lighthouse, and most recently, Shaka, playing host to these events.
Other than electronic music, there are also prominent artists such as Andree Right Hand, Big Daddy, and Shadow P who have dominated the underground music circuit over the years; and with hip hop groups like the G-Family featuring rappers based in Saigon and many other such groups sprouting up across the country, Vietnamese rap is getting increasingly popular, even without mainstream broadcast support.
The metal scene also contains an underground movement that’s populated with much more extreme subgenres from grindcore to death metal. Shows are held at rundown malls at the edge of the city and even in living rooms.
Made up of a small community of not more than 200 who are mostly youths, they focus on more than just producing music with anti-establishment themes but rather, creating a sense of escapism from the realities of life.
Vietnam-based photojournalist Neil Massey chronicled the scene with the help of the founder of Bloody Chunks Records, Vietnam’s only record label dedicated to underground extreme music, in a series of black & white film photos titled Bloody Chunks released in 2014 that made its rounds in magazines around the world.
Vietnam has a very bright and diverse music scene with extremely talented artists across the country, but it will still take some time and effort working beyond strict civic and moral regulations before the full extent of what the country’s artists has to offer can be seen by the world. Until then, it’s the country’s best-kept secret.
SAIGON Inspiration CULTURE FOOD BANK VIETNAM: LEADING THE FIGHT AGAINST FOOD WASTE
What’s being done to bring food to those who need it most in Saigon?
Sitting on a street corner in Saigon, it’s easy to catch the sight of street children polishing shoes and old women selling lottery tickets. These are just a few among the many Vietnamese people who may also struggle to put food on their tables every single day. Statistics from the Vietnamese Fatherland Front show that in the first half of 2017, there were 574,000 people suffering from hunger in Vietnam.
On the other hand, food waste is a widespread issue throughout the country at almost all stages of the supply chain. A survey by Electrolux on 4,000 households in eight Asia-Pacific countries suggested that Vietnam is the second largest producer of food waste in the region, behind China. 87 percent of the households admitted that they waste two plates of food per week on average.
There are many reasons why Vietnamese people waste so much food. Culturally, preparing more food than necessary is considered a gesture of hospitality and generosity. This has become a custom not only in families but also in restaurants and ceremonies. While Vietnamese people have a habit of saving leftovers for the next meals, nearly 50 percent of people surveyed said that they often forget about excess food or fresh ingredients left in the fridge.
A considerable amount of food is also lost or damaged during production, storing, transportation and distribution, due to the lack of investment in technology and infrastructure. The preference for fresh food also means that items more than a day old, though still safe to eat, are too easily considered garbage and thrown away because no one is buying them.
In Ho Chi Minh City alone, food waste accounts for more than 60 percent of the city’s 8,300 tons of solid waste per day. In previous City Pass Guide reporting, Nguyen Toan Thang, Director of HCMC Department of Natural Resources and Environment, said that up to 76 percent of this waste ends up getting buried in the city’s vast landfills, which leads to severe air, water and soil pollution in the surrounding area.
Until now, there has been no concerted effort to collect unwanted food and distribute it to those in need, thereby preventing it from becoming a waste. This is where Food Bank Vietnam steps in.
Project founder Nguyen Tuan Khoi shared his vision for Food Bank Vietnam. “We want to build not only a charity project distributing food for poor and disadvantaged people, but we also aim to engage businesses such as restaurants, food producers, and supermarkets, in the movement to save food, avoid wastage, and supply food for the people who actually need it,” he said.
The project is a non-profit project established by Development and Sharing Foods (DSF) and C.P. Vietnam. C.P. Vietnam is a branch of Thailand-based C.P. Group, one of the largest Thai conglomerates in agriculture and food processing.
To do this, Food Bank Vietnam plans to start by supporting ten community houses and homeless centers in 2018, by providing them with free food, such as pork and rice, on a regular basis. It will also organize cooking sessions with the ingredients collected from donors, and distribute the meals to disadvantaged groups in Saigon through the help of a team of volunteers.
In April 2018, Food Bank Vietnam will organize a seminar called Chong lang phi thuc pham (Fighting Food Waste) for representatives from the food and beverage industry to raise awareness among them about reducing food waste and ask for them to redirect their excess food from the waste stream. In the long term, it plans to develop a system of “Mobile Food Banks”, or stations to receive and give out free food, as well as “Food Bank Eateries”, selling low-priced meals for the disadvantaged throughout the country.
Another important part of the project is to build an emergency food bank to provide food during natural disasters, such as floods and hurricanes, which happen every year in Vietnam. With support from the Vietnamese Committee of Red Cross and the Youth Social Work Centre, the project founder is optimistic that this is achievable within five years and will be sustainable in the future.
SAIGON INSPIRATION CULTURE THINGS NOT TO DO IN VIETNAM
Following our “Tips to spot and avoid scams and pick-pockets”, here is
Things not to do in Vietnamese streets
To avoid being robbed or becoming victims of pickpockets, we highly recommended travelers not carry more money than they need when walking around the streets, especially when they are alone. Wear as little jewelry as possible, as even fake jewels attract unwelcome attention from would-be robbers. In fact, thieves and drive-by snatchers do not have time to decide if the jewelry is high value or not; they simply take whatever opportunity comes their way through a moment’s carelessness.
When taking a ride by xe om (motorbike taxi) make sure your bag, if any, is not on display or easy to grab. Bag snatches, although relatively rare, are probably the most likely crime a tourist will encounter, and the risk is increased enormously if your prized camera or laptop is clearly visible.
Vietnamese Cultural issues
Wearing large amounts of jewelry is considered impolite because it seems to be flaunting wealth in public. Don’t wear singlets, shorts, dresses or skirts, or tops with low-neck lines and bare shoulders to Temples and Pagodas. To do this is considered extremely rude and offensive. Don’t be surprised when you notice some local ladies wearing them. Such dress is actually being criticized in many official and unofficial discussions in both online and print /media. You should not create any chances for locals to lay the blame on western culture.
Never sleep or sit with the soles of your feet pointing towards the family altar when in someone’s house. Never lose your temper in public or when bargaining for a purchase. This is considered a serious loss of face for both parties. Always maintain a cool and happy demeanor and you will be reciprocated the same.
Physical displays of affection between lovers in public are frowned upon. That’s why you may usually come across couples holding hands while very seldom you can see a couple give kisses to each other in a public area. In fact, you may catch some couples hugging or even kissing to pose their selves in front of a camera. They are actually a part of the new generation of Vietnamese who are open-minded and affected by the film and entertainment industry.
Vietnamese Ethnic minorities
Avoid giving empty water bottles, sweets, candies, or pens to the local people when trekking through ethnic minority villages. You cannot guarantee that the empty bottles will be disposed of in a correct manner, and the people have no access to dental health. If you want to give pens, ask your guide to introduce you to the local teacher and donate them to the whole community. Never take video cameras into the ethnic minority villages. They are considered to be too intrusive by the local people.
Vietnam Minorities still are a Political issue
Blogging is acceptable if your content stays steer clear of sensitive stories about the government. It is OK to share your personal experiences and review accommodation or restaurants but nothing else. Talk about anything like corruption in the government or even the Vietnam War can lead to a negative reaction on the part of the authorities. Therefore we definitely highlight this important point. It’s better to forget the term of “Freedom of Speech” while traveling in Vietnam.
Do not try to take photographs of military installations or anything to do with the military. This can be seen as a breach of national security. Anything that depicts pornography is highly illegal. Prostitution also happens to be illegal. If you love bars and nightclubs, Ho Chi Minh City and Hanoi probably can serve your interests. But always keep in mind that sharing a hotel room with a Vietnamese of the opposite sex is generally not permitted.
Trading in or possession of drugs is illegal and a capital offense in Vietnam. As in other countries, drug abuse costs a lot in terms of prevention or even reduction, but it seems that it can never be completely eradicated. Therefore, don’t ever carry drugs with you while you are traveling in Vietnam.
Other tips about Vietnam:
SAIGON Inspiration CULTURE GHOSTS (AND OTHER WEIRD TALES) FROM VIETNAM
Superstition about ghosts runs deep in Vietnam
Everyone loves a good spooky story every now and then to satiate our universal and unexplainable thirst to scare ourselves silly. In every country in the world, there’s bound to be a creepy and unexplainable story or two, and Vietnam is no different. This is a country with a strong traditional culture, a strong belief in feng shui and a very deep history, some of which was traumatic; it’s no surprise that the stories here range from the absurd to the downright spooky.
Here you’ll find a collection of stories featuring urban legends along with an extraterrestrial story that took place during the war, told from a foreigner’s perspective. Nobody can really ascertain if any of these things actually happened, so take them with a grain of salt. Try not to read these at night, but then again, you clicked on this after seeing the title, so never mind, go ahead and enjoy.
Let’s start with a tale almost every Saigonese may have heard of...
The Daughter of Hui Bi Hua
One of the best-known stories in Saigon is about the ghost who roams the corridors of what is now the Ho Chi Minh City Museum of Art at Pho Duc Chinh Street in District 1. Back in 1934, when the trio of buildings was first completed, it housed the family and business of Hui Bi Hua, a real estate magnate who was reputed to own about 20,000 properties in the city. Basically, he was a very rich guy. The main building used to be the family mansion and it’s apparently haunted by the ghost of Hui’s daughter.
The story goes that she contracted leprosy during a city-wide epidemic and was confined to a bedroom on the upper floor. Back then, leprosy was viewed as more of a curse than what it really is: a disease. So maybe it was due to the family trying to protect their status and reputation that they made an announcement that the girl suddenly died from a “mysterious illness”; they quickly arranged a public funeral to put the matter to rest.
However, in truth, Hua’s daughter was locked away in her room, with her meals slid through a slot at the bottom of the door. This went on for years until it eventually drove her insane and she took her own life. Multiple versions of this story have claimed that she hanged herself, while an alternate story claims it was self-immolation (she burned herself alive).
Since then, many people have reported seeing the ghostly figure of a woman roaming the halls of the building and, in more extreme cases, the sound of someone crying in the dead of the night.
The Black Sphere
Location: Cao Bang
This story was set on August 12-13, 1968, and was an account compiled by Solomon Naffert, titled “Black sphere in the jungles of Vietnam” NLO May 17, 2004. During the war, a group of Soviet engineers working on a hydroelectric power plant suddenly heard a rumble of engines overhead. Thinking it was American B-52 bombers, they all ran out of their tents but were surprised to see a black, angular, diamond-shaped object emitting a greenish-blue light instead.
Moments later, a fiery comet-shaped object emerged out of nowhere and struck the floating object, resulting in a bright flash that temporarily blinded everyone in the group and sent out a powerful shockwave. The force of the shockwave knocked the Russian hydrologists down and tore their tents apart, sweeping their equipment away. Fortunately, nobody was hurt, although there were concerns that the explosion might’ve been radioactive.
Over the next few hours, none of their communication systems worked and instead, only produced severe static. It was only the next morning when it was finally possible to establish contact with their central base, where the men reported the incident. The scientists in their team promised a full report of the event and visited the nearest village where, strangely, there was no sign of destruction or evidence of an explosion; the inhabitants only reported hearing a very “loud thunderstorm” the night before.
It took two days before the scientists finally found, about one kilometer away from their base camp, a black half-sphere-shaped object about three meters in diameter. It was completely black with a non-reflective surface and didn’t cast a shadow as the rays of the sun seemed to go around the object instead, falling on the grass around it. By touch, the object seemed cool and slippery, like it was doused in soapy water; one of the men tried to scratch the surface of the sphere with a sharp knife, but it had no effect.
The central base gave the men instructions to set up a protective perimeter around the object and guard it until a “special group” arrived at the site. They were also strictly warned not to approach within 20 meters of the sphere. So, the men built the perimeter and camped right outside it, still wondering what this object was and where it came from.
One of the specialists, Boris Ivanov, wrote in his diary that the men rested while staring with unease at the object in the light of their bonfire. They had their carbines ready, just in case, as they waited for the special forces to show up.
Soon, one of the men, Viacheslav G., suddenly rose and walked towards the woods behind the object without much fuss. The rest barely noticed him and thought that he had probably just gone to answer nature’s call. After five minutes, he still hadn’t returned and the men were starting to worry. They called out his name, but there was no sign of him. They started to search for him with their flashlights but he was nowhere to be found. Concerned and afraid, the rest of the men retreated to their bonfire (although it’s not clear why they didn’t radio for help).
About an hour later, another man, Peter K., silently rose and walked in exactly the same direction that Viacheslav had taken. He seemed to move uncomfortably, in almost a drunken stagger, and a sense of anxiety started to pour over the men. However, they just could not seem to intervene. He too never returned. One by one, each man started walking away towards the sphere and never returned. Now it was just Sergey T. and Boris left. Both of them huddled together in fear, and suddenly Sergey’s face started to appear distorted; he rose and wandered away into the dark and disappeared, leaving Boris alone.
Moments later, Boris found himself able to move again and, in his terrified state, grabbed his carbine and shot himself in the leg to purposefully disable himself. Now, he reasoned, he wouldn’t be able to walk to an uncertain fate. He passed out from the pain. That action may have just saved his life because he woke up the next morning having lost a lot of blood but still alive. The specialists had already arrived and found him semi-conscious beside the already-extinguished bonfire and evacuated him. The sphere and his comrades were no longer there and Boris could only convince himself that the mysterious object was an extraterrestrial probe that had taken his friends away to an unknown place.
From an extraterrestrial incident in the 1960s to something closer to home...
Some of you may have seen this forlorn but creepy-looking abandoned building located at 727 Tran Hung Dao in District 5. Commissioned by millionnaire Nguyen Tan Doi, it was once known as President Building and was built in 1960, divided into six blocks with 13 floors each. At one point during the American War, it housed hundreds of U.S. soldiers.
The 530-room building was a pretty big deal during its time but, as most people know, 13 isn’t a very lucky number. This was brought up by the building’s French architect, who warned Doi about the inauspicious number. Doi didn’t listen, and it was only until the 13th floor was completed when deadly accidents started to happen. One such case was of a worker who fell down the supporting columns to his death.
This started to frighten the workers, so to boost their morale, Doi enlisted the help of a shaman to figure out what was going on and in one of the most extreme examples of getting something done “one way or another”, they secretly bought the corpses of four virgins from a hospital to be buried at the four corners of the building, for good Fengshui and to protect it from any negative energy. This seemed to work – the building was finished with no further incidents and Doi was delighted when the US Army chose to rent the entire building to house its soldiers.
But as time passed, the building’s glory started to fade and after reunification, local families started to move into the building. And that’s when strange things began to happen. Residents have reported experiencing unexplainable incidents such as odd whispers, sudden screams, and even the sound of a military parade. One of the most common sightings was of an American soldier walking hand-in-hand with a young Vietnamese woman down the halls.
There’s also a story from the coffee vendor at the entrance of the apartment who claimed to sometimes find a piece of joss paper (something locals usually burn as offerings to the dead) amongst her earnings, even when she carefully inspected the money given to her by her customers. Initially, she figured it may have been a prank by a really determined kid but she started to notice that this only happened on full moon days, when a particular young woman would buy orange juice from her. The vendor decided to try and find out who this young woman was, only to learn that years earlier the young woman committed suicide after being sexually assaulted…on a full moon night.
Thuan Kieu Plaza
Still on the topic of cursed buildings, one of the most notable ones, which also happens to be in District 5 (are you seeing a pattern here?), is Thuan Kieu Plaza. Located in the busiest part of Chinatown, It is made up of three towers, 33-storeys high, atop a three-story mall. Completed in 1998, Thuan Kieu Plaza was one of the first apartment buildings in the city.
However, multiple sources claim that the building was riddled with bad feng shui right from the beginning. Some unverified accounts claim that a mysterious fire during the construction led to a few deaths and the remaining workers then put an evil curse on the place. A slightly less superstitious version claims that the building’s management was cutting corners, resulting in safety breaches that led to accidents.
However, the most believable reason was that many residents who moved in disliked the interior architecture of the building, with its small rooms, low ceilings, and bad ventilation. Many complained about constantly feeling uncomfortable and falling sick often. In 2004 and 2009, fires ravaged the third floor where many restaurants were located. Due to the declining number of customers and the global financial crisis of 1997, many shop owners suffered huge losses and decided to close down. And with the lack of amenities available, one by one, the residents left. In the late 90s, it was purchased by the WMC group and redone fully. Since it has filled up and no one is talking about ghosts anymore.
Like with all doomed buildings, there was a fair share of stories from residents: one former tenant described a murder-suicide of a couple at one of the restaurants in the building and, like the result of all unplanned deaths, the couple still lurk around the complex. Another story reports a Chinese lady who is often sighted floating around in a cheongsam, and many residents have also claimed that they dreamt of fires and ghosts disturbing them every night, eventually driving them to leave.
The common explanation behind the building’s fate in most accounts however, is bad feng shui. It is said the building was meant to look like a grand sailing ship with three tall steampipes. However, the government unwittingly “wrecked” this ship by building Pham Ngoc Thanh Street, which ran across the building, and, according to feng shui practitioners, bisected this ship, making it sink.
And finally, something from up north.
To Lich River
The To Lich river is widely known by Hanoians as a narrow and not a very clean river, but it also has its tales that border on the supernatural. The following incident, popular among the locals, can only be found in Vietnamese, so here’s our attempt at translating it to English.
On September 27, 2001, a construction team was dredging the river near An Phu Village when they discovered some strange, ancient relics. They saw seven wooden panels buried under the river, positioned so it resembled a polygon from above. There were bones nailed to them and between the wooden piles they also discovered gold-plated objects, some pottery, elephant bones, knives and copper, all of which the crew pulled up.
Since then, plenty of strange things happened to the members of the construction crew. First, the construction work was affected when one of the excavators mysteriously plunged into the river. After this, some of the workers present suddenly fell to the ground and remained unconscious for hours. A week after the incident, a series of catastrophic events started to happen to the core 12 members of the construction team and their families which ranged from accidents to illnesses and even to death. This scared off the remaining 43 workers, who decided to walk away from the project altogether.
On October 9, the construction company invited a four-member panel of spiritual experts to the site to get to the bottom of this, and it was revealed that the items they pulled out were part of a long-buried ancient structure guarding the area. They then invited a Venerable monk to perform a ceremony to try and solve the issue. The monk died over a month later from an illness.
Scientists got involved in the case too, making preliminary assessments. Unfortunately, they were unable to come to any conclusions on what exactly was causing all these incidents and how they could be solved.
According to Professor Tran Quoc Vuong, the structures were traced back to the Ly Dynasty somewhere between the 11th and 14th centuries. He reasoned that the random items that were found, such as human skeletons and artifacts, were most likely offerings which had now been disturbed, resulting in a very powerful curse. Another theory traces the structures back to Cao Bien, a Chinese General with supernatural abilities during China’s porcelain epoch in the 8th century, 200 years before the Ly Dynasty.
The villagers and many other residents managed to restore the relics back to their original positions and pray for forgiveness to end the curse and it is unclear what has happened since then.
The river is still around, though.
SAIGON INSPIRATION CULTURE HOW TO DRINK LIKE A VIETNAMESE LOCAL
What is it really like to drink like a local Vietnamese?Saigon is known for its nightlife, trendy clubs, and smoky bars. It caters increasingly well to the Western version of a good night out, and a similarly increasing number of the city’s young locals are discovering the joys of vodka and a dance floor. But is this how the Vietnamese traditionally party? Good music and shiny glasses of champagne aside, what is it really like to drink like a local?
What is the Vietnamese Nhậu?“Nhậu” is the Vietnamese term for “drink beer (or rice wine) with friends”. People can nhậu wherever they want, really – the whole concept is just as possible in a techno club as it is in the more casual setting of plastic chairs by the side of the road. But the traditional concept of nhậu with your mates is based on sharing good food and good drink with good company, rather than partying. You don’t need to dress up to nhậu, you don’t even need to go out. You can nhậu over a meal; in fact, one of the most popular settings for a good evening of “beer with friends” is a BBQ joint or a circle of friends eating hot pot in someone’s house.
The Vietnamese Rules of NhậuTo nhậu effectively there are a few things to remember, the most important of which was mentioned above – the focus is on enjoying your time with friends. But that…
1. Don’t drink without “dzo” (pronounced “yo”)One essential factor of Vietnamese drinking culture is the idea of drinking together. “Drink beer with friends” is literally that – to drink as a group, having raised your bottle or glass to good company. The local version of “cheers” is “dzo”, and often follows a countdown of “1, 2, 3…” or in Vietnamese “một, hai, ba…dzo!” The first Vietnamese phrase that most travelers will learn, and one that fills the city’s backpacker strip every night.
2. Mồi (“food to drink with beer”) is essential
You can’t nhậu without nibbles. Mồi is literally food that you drink with beer when you nhậu, and can consist of anything you like. You could eat peanuts or you could eat a pizza, you could nibble on guava or gulp down loads of french fries. The local favorites tend to be mango and salt, big circles of rice-cracker, and pan-fried street food or dried beef, but it really doesn’t matter as long as you have something to munch.
3. Learn the choreography
If you happen to be nhậu-ing with people who are older than yourself, there are certain gestures you should use to be polite. According to Vietnamese drinking culture, when offering a beer or food to an older person, you should use both hands, or one hand with the other folded under your elbow. Also use “dạ” when you speak to them, a polite word that effectively works like “please” and “thank you” in English.
4. Ignore the sirens
Beer Ladies, as alluring as they are in their tiny dresses and sparkly heels, never talk to you for the pleasure of conversation. Like the mythical mermaid these ladies have another agenda, and you’ll soon find yourself very drunk and very poor having spent all of your money on the beers they offer you and your group. Beware! But be nice, they’re just making a living after all.
5. Learn how to scull (trăm phần trăm – 100% và năm mươi phần trăm – 50%)
There are two key phrases that define the hardcore nhậu-er, both of which indicate a rapid intake of beer accompanied by yelps of encouragement from your peers. “Trăm phần trăm” and “năm mươi phần trăm”, meaning “100%” and “50%” respectively (or just “một trăm” and “năm mươi” for short) are usually used later on in the nhậu session, and require you to scull as you’ve never sculled before. But this is really just an extreme, and the average nhậu session is far more relaxed. Most drink ice with their beer to make it last longer, and if you don’t want to drink something non-alcoholic is just as acceptable as beer. You can still raise a glass of Pepsi and shout “dzo”!
6. Be safe
There are a few tips to apply to your drinking session which will make it merrier and last longer. Many locals drink their beer with ice when they nhậu – this prolongs the effect of their beer, keeping them hydrated and tipsy without descending into that ugly side of drunk that usually ends in something very unfortunate. Another tip is to take a taxi. So many people, local and foreign alike, find themselves in horrible accidents after driving home from a drinking session. The old slogan applies – don’t drink and drive! Finally, drink with friends. The whole idea of nhậu is a good company, in fact without “friends” there would be no “drinking beer”.
Where to Nhậu
For the most local of nhậu experiences you can’t do better than the myriad of plastic chair shanti bars that pop up every evening on Saigon’s street corners. But these can be a little bit daunting, not always super-clean and the size of most Vietnamese plastic chairs leave the average pair of foreign legs far too cramped for comfort! And not all locals nhậu at these kinds of spots – there are plenty of joints to “drink beer with friends” around the city that are clean, comfortable, and still totally authentic. Here are our favorite four:
1. Saigon Xưa và Nay
A wide space open to the street, this spot offers a more traditional nhậu experience. Guests are seated on larger but still plastic chairs, and the food served is all Vietnamese. Beautiful beer ladies serve Sapporo beer and offer you menus in both English and Vietnamese, service is quite fast and the place itself is very popular as a cheerfully tipsy nhậu spot.
2. Quán Ụt Ụt
This American BBQ restaurant is modern and clean, with a rustic decor and the meals are big and delicious. If you are a fan of good, hearty American-style ribs, steak, burger and chips, then you’ll be a fan of this place. Though not as traditional as Saigon Xưa và Nay, Quán Ụt Ụt is still popular for groups of friends to enjoy a drinking and eating session together. They have two venues for your convenience.
3. 5ku Station
Grill your own meat and vegetables at this more authentic nhậu spot, as you enjoy a nice cold beer and a typically Vietnamese crowd. This is a really popular hotspot in Saigon and is full most nights with big groups of Vietnamese and ex-pats alike enjoying good company. The decor is sparse, like the wooden-chair cafes that line Saigon’s streets during the day, but the beer is cold, the service is good and the food is even better.
4. Barbecue Garden
96B Lê Thánh Tôn, Phường Bến Thành, D1 HCMC, Vietnam / 11 a.m. – 11 p.m. / $$ / +84 8 3823 3340
This is another open-grill style restaurant with a buzzing atmosphere in a garden full of fairy lights. Deceptively devoid of sound from the traffic that passes by just outside its walls, this restaurant is a great place to nhậu with your mates over a table of delicacies that you grill yourself. You can eat as much or as little as you like, the staff speak sufficient English and the food is reasonably priced.
SAIGON Inspiration CULTURE PHOTO STORY: PASTIMES AND BOARD GAMES
Vietnamese love to play games, for fun or money
Wander the streets of Vietnam. You will notice that you are not alone – you will invariably see someone just around the corner. It might be a security guard keeping an eye on motorbikes, a group of friends sipping on their cà phê sữa đá or a lottery vendor roaming through the neighborhood. Truth is, street life is an integral part of Vietnamese society.
You’ve got some time to kill? Let’s play a game of chess, then (cờ tướng, or Chinese chess to be specific). It is probably the most common board game that entertains Vietnamese for hours on end. Groups of spectators gather around to watch the two players, who furiously take down their opponent’s pieces while lighting one cigarette after another.
“Riding horse” is a board game I discovered an entire family playing while I walked by their house. It’s an adaptation of the original Indian game “Pachisi”, and trust me when I say that players get overexcited at times when they roll the dice.
All participants bet money (usually small bills) every time they start a game just to spice things up. Sometimes the prize is a few cigarettes, like in the group of three I caught playing cards next to our office building in D4.
Whatever the prize or board game, make sure you learn the rules before you join in. Even if you’re an expert, there is a high chance that they will crack a joke or two while you’re taking your turn. Don’t worry, this is part of the game!
SAIGON INSPIRATION CULTURE THE STORY OF TƯƠNG: VIETNAMESE FERMENTED SOYBEAN PASTE
Fermented soybean paste, or tương, is sweeter, and lighter in smell than shrimp paste.
Many people believe that shrimp paste, a typical dipping sauce of Northern Vietnamese villages, is the best sauce to pair with tofu. But since I was a child, I have always preferred my tofu to be dipped in fermented soybean paste, or tương, because its sweeter, lighter smell and taste reminds me of my grandmother, who used to make it at home.
This traditional dipping sauce enjoyed by vegetarian Buddhists is now less popular in the cities, and the recipes and techniques to make good tương are only handed down within individual families. But if you get a chance to try it and compare its taste to other fermented soybean pastes, like miso in Japan and doenjang in Korea, you will find a common, treasured food tradition.
How is soybean paste made?
The sauce has a high nutritional value because it is made from soybeans fermented with a type of mold or fungi. To make this mold, sticky rice is steamed, or alternatively, ordinary rice is cooked with less water than usual, and then scattered on a woven tray and covered with leaves to keep the heat. The rice is left to ferment for approximately 7-10 days.
Each family and each region has its own method to make the mold, but the basic principle is the same: fermented rice will generate heat and create an ideal condition for the fungi to grow. Scientists call this type of fungus A. oryzae. It’s also known as koji. These fungi help to transform rice starch into glucose, resulting in a powdery mixture with nice golden color and a sweet taste. It is important to keep track of the mold as it develops on the rice, as sometimes other, possibly toxic, types of fungi might develop as well, which will need to be removed.
At the same time, soybeans are roasted and pounded or ground into pieces, and then boiled with water and poured into clay jars. The jars are then covered and put in a sunny ventilated place to ferment. When the rice mold is fully developed, it is mixed into the jars, and the fermentation process will continue for at least 15 to 20 days to create the final product, fermented soybean paste.
Salt is an indispensable ingredient. Adding the proper amount of salt is important to ensure good taste and long storage time. Salt can be mixed with the mold after it is ready, or added directly into the jar. Either way, the end result is a perfect combination of salty, sweet, and the umami flavour of fermented soybeans.
Where can you find it?
In Vietnam, fermented soybean paste is mainly used as dipping sauce for dishes served with rice, such as tofu and boiled vegetables. It can also be used as a seasoning when cooking braised fish or braised vegetables. Especially in the North, bánh đúc lạc is a popular snack in rural markets. It is a savoury cake made of rice flour and peanuts, which is then dipped in fermented soybean paste.
The regions in Vietnam is famous for their tradition of making fermented soybean paste include: Bần village in the Hưng Yên province near Hanoi, Cự Đà village in Hanoi, and the Nam Đàn district of Nghệ An province. Many people use tương and tương bần interchangeably to refer to fermented soybean paste. The Bần village has been famous for this product since the late nineteenth century.
In Southern Vietnam, there is a type of fermented soybean paste called tương hột. It is made from whole-grain boiled soybeans mixed with ground roasted soybeans, fermented by rice or corn mold, or using ready-made soy sauce to speed up the fermentation process. Tương hột is also used as a condiment for braised fish, tofu, or vegetables. When blended it can be used as a component in the dipping sauce for fresh spring rolls.
Vietnamese tương and Japanese miso
If you love Japanese cuisine, you have probably tried miso soup, the Japanese comfort food made with miso paste, seaweed, tofu, and green onions. However, not many people know that miso is actually the Japanese version of fermented soybean paste. Miso is similar to Vietnamese tương in components and production methods but with some differences.
First, in Japan soybeans are not roasted before boiling. They are soaked overnight instead, so the boiled beans are much softer and can be pounded into a thick, fine paste. Second, steamed rice is mixed with industrially produced koji starter, and fermented for a few days, to become kome koji (rice mold). Finally, soybean paste and kome koji are mixed together with salt and put into a jar. The ingredients need to be weighed to pressurize the mixture. This is done with a heavy bag as in this video. The jar is then covered for a month-long fermentation process.
Vietnamese fermented soybean paste is just as nutritious as its Japanese cousin and even more versatile. It can be added to variations on the country’s much-loved braised fish (cá kho), used as a dipping sauce for the famed gỏi cuốn, or used as a condiment in many vegetarian dishes. The options are endless.
SAIGON Inspiration CULTURE FIGHTING STEREOTYPES ABROAD: THE PERCEPTION OF VIETNAM IN HOLLYWOOD
Vietnamese-American comedians share their experiences on what it is like to be an actor in Hollywood
During a comedy routine at The Comedy Palace in Los Angeles, she told the crowd, “For those of you who don’t know, we take all the weird [stuff] off the cow that white people don’t eat and we put it in a soup. And the lower the number on the menu, the weirder the [stuff].” The joke killed them, and she quickly moves on to another bit.
With parents who moved to the United States during the American War, Rosie Tran has never been to Vietnam herself, though she speaks Vietnamese, can cook Vietnamese food, and has a foot in two different cultures. Negotiating both identities is anything but easy. Tran grew up in New Orleans and laughs when she talks about her experience during a Skype interview.
“A lot of people have asked me if it was hard growing up Vietnamese in [southern US] if there was a lot of discrimination. I tell them that I’ve had more discrimination and stereotypes in LA, which is supposed to be a huge progressive hub.”
Does it Pay?
Her identity as a Vietnamese-American, as well as her place in Hollywood’s dog-eat-dog entertainment industry, relies on dualities. “I would say it’s hard and easy,” she said. “It’s quite a niche. There are very few roles for us, but there’s less competition.”
Nguyen Stanton, a model/actress based in Austin, Texas, feels similarly. Although Austin has a large Vietnamese-American population, she only knows of three fellow Vietnamese actors in the region, and they’re all younger: “I’m 48. So if they need someone to play the Vietnamese mom, guess who gets that role! I’m not complaining.”
Stanton and Tran acknowledge the heavy societal pressure put on them by their family, and especially their parents, who grew up in Vietnam. “I don’t think my mom really understands or knows that I act,” Stanton said. Speaking about her older sister, she said, “Every time I talk to her about a film, she always asks, ‘Does it pay?’”
For Stanton, who holds down a regular 9-5 office job in the IT industry, this question misses the mark; since she began acting in theatre and films in 2009, she has seen performing as a powerful creative outlook. She suspects that Hollywood will soon see an influx of Asian-American millennial actors, who she notes are much more confident than peers in her age group, after growing up in the United States.
Pushing Past Mean Girls
There might be limited competition for Asian-American performers, but that doesn’t mean it comes without serious hurdles. For Rosie Tran, getting the audition is easy, but dealing with the stereotypes is harder.
“Typically, I would say over 80 percent of the roles are a little bit stereotypical,” she said.
She points to the comedy classic Mean Girls (2004) as one example, a movie that features a group of Vietnamese students, dubbed the “Cool Asian Kids”. “[The movie] had them as snobs. They were kind of cliquish,” she said. Throughout the film, the Vietnamese characters spoke no English, spoke nonsense Vietnamese (“Anybody that actually speaks Vietnamese would realise they clearly weren’t,” Tran said) and only interacted with one another. Towards the end of the movie, it was revealed that one character, Trang Pak, was having an affair with the high school’s gym teacher.
“I’ve had that a lot in Hollywood, where they’ve had Vietnamese women portrayed as very slutty, or as prostitutes… Or I’ll go out for the very intelligent role, the valedictorian,” Tran said. “And then there’s a stereotype that Vietnamese women are very aggressive—dragon moms. Or, they’ll be very submissive. There’s a lot of bipolar associations with Vietnamese women,” she said with a laugh.
Tran channels these stereotypes in her own stand-up comedy. During one set, she quips, “I don’t understand why people think Asian women are so submissive… Just go to a nail salon—those women will get in your face.”
Tran finds the most offensive stereotypes not with the roles so much as with the casting directors themselves. She recalls one particularly offensive audition three years ago. “I auditioned for a role where I needed to speak Chinese, and I don’t. I told the casting director and the producers that I don’t, and they asked if I spoke other languages. I said I spoke Vietnamese, and they said, ‘That’s fine, just speak Vietnamese; nobody will know the difference.”
Reality vs. Caricature
Nguyen Stanton sees things differently. For her, many roles she’s asked to play aren’t so many stereotypes as just reality. She remembers playing a Vietnamese donut shop owner in the movie Zero Charisma, a role she effects with a heavy accent. “[The filmmakers] were more troubled by it than I was. They kind of asked me for approval of this character having an accent. We know that the reality is that anybody my age or older will most likely speak with an accent, so for me, that’s just reality, not a caricature.”
Stanton herself speaks with a Texas twang, having spent most of her life in the Lone Star State; she mentions playing similar roles as nail salon technicians, a popular profession for Vietnamese-Americans across the US.
For her, diversity in Hollywood has gone a long way since Rambo: First Blood Part II, in which Vietnamese soldiers were portrayed by Hispanic actors in the jungles of Acapulco, Mexico.
Tran, on the other hand, has not seen as much of a change since she moved to Los Angeles 14 years ago. “I have noticed that there’s more awareness and talk about the stereotypes against minorities and women, with things like #OscarsSoWhite,” she said, referencing a Twitter campaign in 2016 protesting the lack of diversity in the academy awards.
Stanton touches on the struggle of living as an American while trying to retain her Vietnamese roots. “In their eyes, I’m still the hyphen: Asian-American, instead of just American. But when I go to Vietnam, I’m not 100 percent of a fit, I’m too Americanised.” She pauses, and jokes, “I can’t win, even though my name is Nguyen.”
SAIGON INSPIRATION CULTURE HISTORY OF OPIUM IN HO CHI MINH CITY
Saigon was the French opium commercial trade hub in the late 19th and early 20th century
Just beyond an innocuous-looking colonial-style porch on Ho Chi Minh City’s Hai Ba Trung street stands a reminder of its colonial past. The restaurant “The Refinery” is located in the adjacent courtyard surrounded by a number of other high-end restaurants. While the scenery has changed dramatically, the surrounding wall’s decrepit charm still breathes the history of the past century. It was here, at 74 Hai Ba Trung, that stood Saigon’s opium refinery.
French colonialists in Indochina quickly capitalized on the huge financial windfall they could derive from opium whose use was widespread in the population. In 1861, two French men obtained a license to open an opium farm and their business quickly became successful. In 1864, the ownership of the farm was transferred to Chinese syndicates: first the “Wang Tai” and then the “Fockien”. 20 years later, the Governor of Indochina, Mr. Le Mure de Villers, decided to replace the farm opium’s board of taxation.
It appears that in the hands of Chinese traders, opium was beginning to be a problem for the French administration. Therefore, in 1881, colonial authorities decided to take over the lucrative trade and to ensure the exploitation of the opium trade directly profited the French.
While opium production required skilled and experienced workers, the equipment used by the Cantonese was relatively inefficient. They replaced the Chinese equipment with European equipment which not only improved the yield of the product but also greater purity. The government then proceeded to direct sales to approved traders and the first opium deliveries were delivered to smokers in boxes bearing the Board’s stamp and brand.
Sales prices varied according to different provinces and the drug was sold at a low price along the border of Laos and Tonkin to limit fraud. In 1905, about a quarter of Indochina’s general budget came from opium and in 1914, it represented up to 37 % of all revenues which made it the most important source of income for the French colonial government. Saigon’s opium trade
This prosperity came at a cost. In 1907, a decree prohibited the opening of new dens in Indochina to help alleviate usage though one could say that all it did was create an artificial shortage which increased revenue as prices rose.
Considerable damage was caused by the opiate to populations of other countries and on the 16th of September 1906, an edict from the Emperor of China declared war on opium. In 1909 also opened the International Opium Commission in Shanghai in which Germany, Austria- Hungary, China, United States, France, Great Britain, Italy, Japan, Netherlands, Persia, Portugal, Russia, and Siam all participated. Though it did not lead to any concrete decisions, the conference brought to light the woes of unregulated opium use on a population.
The drug trade was regulated in 1915, first in France and then in Indochina. Rising prices due to regulation largely profited the public finances of the French administration. Up until 1954, the transported opium produced to military compounds around Saigon where it was refined and sold to international markets.
They also encouraged and protected poppy cultivation in some mountainous areas held by minorities such as Hmong (also called Meo) to overcome budget shortfalls and finance operations against the Viet Minh guerillas. While much of the courtyard on Hai Ba Trung has changed over the past 100 years, the restaurant “The Refinery” still retains some of its heritage as a major spot in opium production in Indochina.
Local insight: The administrative building of opium, “The Board of Opium”, still stands facing the river at 2 Ham Nghi Street in Saigon
SAIGON Inspiration CULTURE STORY OF THE CAKES MADE FOR TET HOLIDAY
The Tet holiday cakes history
Emperor Hung-Vuong had many sons. Some pursued literary careers. Others excelled in martial arts. The youngest prince named Tiet – Lieu, however, loved neither. Instead, he and his wife and their children chose the countryside where they farmed the land.
One day, toward the end of the year, the emperor met with all his sons. He told them whoever brought him the most special and unusual food would be made the new emperor. Almost im/mediately, the princes left for their homes and started looking for the most delicious food to offer the emperor. Some went hunting in the forests and brought home birds and animals which they prepared into the most palatable dishes.
Some others sailed out to the open sea, trying to catch fish, lobsters, and other loved seafood. Neither the rough sea nor the violent weather could stop them from looking for the best gifts to please the emperor. In his search, Tiet-Lieu went back to the countryside. He saw that the rice in his paddy fields was ripe and ready to be harvested, Walking by a glutinous rice field, he picked some golden grains on a long stalk. He brought them close to his nose and he could smell a delicate aroma.
His entire family then set out to harvest the rice, Tiet-Lieu himself ground the glutinous rice grains into fine flour. His wife mixed it with water into a soft paste. His children helped by building a fire and wrapping the cakes with leaves. In no time, they finished, and in front of them lay two kinds of cakes: one was round and the other was square in shape. The round cake was made with glutinous rice dough and was called “banh day” by Tiet-Lieu. He named the square shaped cake “banh chung” which he made with rice, green beans wrapped in leaves. Everybody was extremely happy with the new kind of cakes.
On the first day of Spring, the princes took the gifts of their labor and love to the emperor. One carried a delicious dish of steamed fish and mushrooms. Another brought with him a roasted peacock and some lobsters. All the food was beautifully cooked.
When it was Tiet-Lieu’s turn to present his gifts, he carried the “banh chung” and his wife carried the “banh day” to the emperor. Seeing Tiet-Lieu’s simple offerings, other princes sneered at them. But after tasting all the food brought to court by his sons, the emperor decided that the first prize should be awarded to Tiet-Lieu.
The emperor then said that his youngest son’s gifts were not only the purest but also the most meaningful because Tiet-Lieu had used nothing except rice which was the basic foodstuff of the people to make them. The emperor gave up the throne and make Tiet-Lieu the new emperor. All the other princes bowed to show respect and congratulated the new emperor.
SAIGON INSPIRATION CULTURE WHY I LOVE VIETNAMESE PEOPLE
By Patrick Gaveau
Vietnamese people are their country’s greatest asset.
Having lived in South Vietnam for 10 years, I know that most have warm hearts. You only have to get down the streets to know this – just walk and count how many open, honest smiles you share with strangers before you reach your destination.
Vietnamese people are generous. My local family hosts us too often, and they love doing it. When we eat, I am often served first. They will offer me the best piece – the nicest cut of meat, the freshest vegetables, the thickest rolled spring roll.
With generosity comes hope, and for most Vietnamese life is better now and it will get even better soon. There is hope in the eyes of every Saigonese parent and child we meet. This buoyant optimism is contagious, and those who don’t feel it won’t survive long in this country.
“Always look on the bright side of life. Otherwise, it’ll be too dark to read.” - Unknown
For so many, life is hard in Vietnam, and without optimism, life can be impossible. Hard work is a part of everyday life here – in the lives of the young and the old, the farmers and street vendors, and those who work 14/7 shifts to feed their families. Or in the lives of the many who travel south a thousand kilometers to find work so they can send money back home.
Education is central for the Vietnamese. People of all ages often choose to pursue their education further. My sister-in-law began her Ph.D. at 40 and her husband, soon to be 44, just graduated with a master’s degree. Both have full-time jobs and there are no complaints about their lack of time off.
“If you think education is expensive, try ignorance.” - Derek Bok
People here work hard, are driven, and tend not to complain. In fact, I can only recall a few occasions where direct criticism and complaints were openly voiced; it is a blessing to live in such an environment. Such calm behavior is common during interactions with foreigners. I’m not sure if it applies amongst themselves, but fortunately, on the outside, it looks that way.
The Vietnamese have an inner strength and lots of resilience. They have been invaded by some of the most powerful civilisations in history, from the Mongols and the Chinese to the French and the Americans. They have been colonised, squashed, their sovereignty has been threatened again and again, and every time they have come out as victors. Yet they are humble and magnanimous about it.
Perhaps this attitude can be attributed to culture. The core of Vietnamese society is family values, an intrinsic part of Vietnamese philosophy. It was in Vietnam that I discovered the true meaning of this. The family is the roots that nourish the tree and its branches, which in time produce fruits in variety and abundance. The fruits become the seeds for the next generation, and with new roots, the tree continues to flourish.
“Family is not an important thing, it’s everything.” - Michael J. Fox
Though all family is respected and none so much as the elders, Vietnam is in fact a young country. Youth below 25 years of age represent 44.48% of the population. This is an asset that few countries have. Some 97.3% of the population is literate and the education system is improving.
Those who have never settled in Ho Chi Minh City may believe that their freedom will be restricted. But for me, it is the one place on earth where freedom actually means something. Be as you choose to, act as you choose to, dress as you see fit, and please let others be. It is the essence of freedom in Vietnam.
The Vietnamese have an inner strength and lots of resilience. They have been invaded by some of the most powerful civilisations in history, from the Mongols and the Chinese to the French and the Americans. They have been colonized, and squashed, their sovereignty has been threatened again and again, and every time they have come out as victors. Yet they are humble and magnanimous about it.
Perhaps this attitude can be attributed to culture. The core of Vietnamese society is family values, an intrinsic part of Vietnamese philosophy. It was in Vietnam that I discovered the true meaning of this. Family is the roots that nourish the tree and its branches, which in time produce fruits in variety and abundance. The fruits become the seeds for the next generation, and with new roots, the tree continues to flourish.
“Family is not an important thing, it’s everything.” - Michael J. Fox
Though all family is respected and none so much as the elders, Vietnam is in fact a young country. Youth below 25 years of age represent 44.48% of the population. This is an asset that few countries have. Some 97.3% of the population is literate and the education system is improving.
Those who have never settled in Ho Chi Minh City may believe that their freedom will be restricted. But for me, it is the one place on earth where freedom actually means something. Be as you choose to, act as you choose to, dress as you see fit, and please let others be. It is the essence of freedom in Vietnam.
SAIGON Inspiration CULTURE NGHE ĐI: OUR PICK OF THREE PODCASTS ABOUT VIETNAM
What podcasts shall you consider while in Vietnam
Saigon’s lengthy commutes and the inevitable downtime in a taxi provide a handsome nugget of free time. What to do with it? You could pick up that knitting habit again (seems messy) or you could read the big book that’s always been on your list (seems hard). Wait: you’ve got earbuds? A phone? Perfect, let’s just listen to a podcast.
“Podcast” là gì?
In case you’ve recently been unfrozen from a centuries-long cryogenic sleep and don’t know what a podcast is, the gist is this: it’s a piece of audio that centres on speech and dialogue to explain something or tell a story. Some podcasts are interviews, some are fictional dramas and some are serious historical analyses of overlooked chapters about the ancient human record. All feature the voice as the primary actor.
At last count, there were over 50,000 podcasts listed on Apple’s servers. That means there’s a podcast for almost anything you can think of. There are podcasts about alternative medicine and ones about the paranormal. There aren’t many about Vietnam, around 20 at the time of writing. Many of them are US-centred retellings of the American War. But a few are about Vietnam in a much broader sense and feature local stories and homegrown creatives telling the country’s story through audio.
Below is a small selection.
When many people think of a podcast, they think of something serious and well-crafted at the intersection of educational and entertaining. They think of something like “Loa”.
Named for the Vietnamese word for “speaker”, “Loa” is a deep dive into the culture of Vietnam often exploring current and live issues through a historical context. In its most recent episode, it discussed the role of the Vietnamese flag within a broader theme of color.
In the same episode, the “Loa” producers explained the significance of white in the Vietnamese funeral tradition, and how it’s derived from the traditional Chinese association of white with sadness and grief. These are the kinds of stories you get through a team of Vietnamese journalists like those at “Loa”.
The flag episode appeared as the nation prepared to celebrate Reunification Day on April 30, the historical day that the country was united under a common flag. The sense of loss that some Vietnamese still feel today about the altered flag colors and more importantly the regime change is discussed during the episode.
This is a show that doesn’t shy away from controversial topics. One of their episodes featured an interview with democracy activist Dang Xuan Dieu as he was exiled to France. Another of their episodes featured a young blogger who was discussing sensitive issues like pornography in front of her Vietnamese audience. Some podcasts are funny and stupid, this is not one of them.
How long is it?
The show’s 80-plus episodes are around 30 minutes apiece, perfect for your next commute.
At a Table
As Seinfeld was once famously described by its creators as being about nothing, the “At a Table” podcast doesn’t seem to be about anything. The show is made in Ho Chi Minh City by these two Saigon entertainers, but they let their curiosities wander in its creation. The show’s descriptions read like a narration of someone’s disjointed drunken thoughts: Vietnamese chess, the gay world, pug puppies, and penis transplants.
Occasionally, “At A Table” does incorporate a local figure or phenomenon, like the time the two brought in visiting comic Lars Callieou for an interview. The show’s cast of guests sometimes includes Vietnamese people who’ve participated in comedy projects with Betterby through his comedian community project Comedy Saigon. There’s also an entire episode about swearing in Vietnamese, most of which is unpublishable. But don’t worry, we’ve linked to it here.
How long is it?
Some episodes are around 15 minutes, short by podcast standards. That’s the length of your walk to go get coffee next door. Nghe đi! (“Listen!”)
The latest episode of the “Saigoneer Podcast” is an extended look into Japan Town, the area within the easternmost part of District 1 that’s noted for its wealth of Japanese cuisine as well as its friendly-seeming, well-dressed women who appear very eager to engage in conversation with strangers. The last part is alluded to only in passing by Saigoneer Content Manager Khoi Pham. “The night scene can be a little …. sordid,” he said, tiptoeing around the area’s abundance of sex workers.
As the conversation goes on, Pham and his colleagues discuss how the area once was dedicated housing for Vietnamese soldiers. Originally, the area was closed off to all outsiders including the police. The podcast’s hosts said that the area was once “self-policing”.
“I think it still is,” Pham said, laughing with his hosts.
Seventeen episodes in and the “Saigoneer Podcast” is stylistically like a lot of podcasts on the market: production that feels homespun, freewheeling conversations that chase whatever seems interesting and smart people just allowed to be smart around one another in an unmediated way.
Like its sister webzine Saigoneer, the podcast is an exploration of a range of current issues within Saigon like #MeToo, the universally loved U23 soccer team, and the Grab/Uber debacle.
The tone is learned but not clinical or overly scholarly. The creators clearly know their stuff and present a hard-won understanding of the local scene through their expertise and guests, like Saigon artist and Fulbright recipient Quynh Lam. It’s refreshingly knowledgeable in a media ecosystem that tends to go for volume over value like Saigon’s.
How long is it?
Podcasts are around 45 minutes long. This is your next long walk. Go for a quiet part of town though. This is a conversation-heavy show and you’ll want to be able to hear what they’re saying.
SAIGON INSPIRATION CULTURE WHY VIETNAM DRIVES ME CRAZY
By Patrick Gaveau
The Vietnamese have many traits that we can aspire to – which is why I wrote Why I Love Vietnamese.
But alongside those traits are a few that, for their inconvenience, immorality, or cultural strangeness, irritate me as not only a foreigner but also a long-term resident in this country. Here are 22 things that I don’t like about the Vietnamese and the way this country functions. Not everyone might agree with them. I’m open to being convinced otherwise.
1. Trash goes on the street
Pollution and trash in the streets of Ho Chi Minh City are common, as long as it is not in front of someone’s door. Most Vietnamese do not tolerate trash in their vicinity, however, and when people throw it on the streets here it’s not, for example, the same as when the trash is thrown in India. Largely because the trash is not left there! People are actually employed to clean the nearby pavements, and tenants or shop owners will often sweep outside their property every morning. Nevertheless, throwing soft drinks cans outside the window while driving is considered normal, as is dumping a plastic bag full of waste on the street side. Most Westerners like myself cannot deal with this, but it’s good to remember that, at the end of the day, the streets of Saigon are actually fairly clean. Let’s see it as another system of waste disposal.
2. Allow 10 extra hours for all official processes
If you need official paperwork done in Vietnam, take a day off work to apply, prepare yourself mentally, and if needed bring several bars of chocolate and your favorite cuddly toy to relieve your stress when absolutely nothing goes right. You may wait in line for hours with a number in your hand in a hot, crowded room before reaching the administration desk. When you can finally communicate, too often you hear that something is missing. Please come back tomorrow. Then, the next day you come and the same scenario goes on and on until you figure out that a small but nice gift is necessary to grease the wheel – something to keep in mind for the next office run.
3. The streets become rivers
Floods are very common here during the monsoon. The streets of Ho Chi Minh City, for example, are simply not made to handle masses of water at once and they very often become waterways when a storm or heavy rain hits. As a resident, you may very well find yourself driving home slowly from work, your knees up to your chest to protect what is left of your brand new leather shoes and your motorbike spluttering as the water level rises… only to suddenly feel the engine stop, teeter for a second, and plunge your poor leather shoes knee-deep into Saigon’s flood to keep your motorbike steady. It’s at times like these when you’ve got to laugh at how ridiculous life in Ho Chi Minh City can be, and invest in a pair of cheap plastic sandals.
4. “On time” means “Come at some point”
Being on time is a relative notion for many Vietnamese, and it is common for some service providers to show up one to four hours late if they show up at all. Imagine how it feels when you have no water/gas/electricity at home and have taken the next morning off work to get it fixed, but the service provider you’ve scheduled to meet with does not show up. Sometimes I wonder how anybody here makes any money! Perhaps the answer is to become your own expert plumber, phone serviceman, or Wi-Fi technician, or simply to relax and accept that when you say 12 p.m. in Vietnam what you really mean is “some time after noon and possibly tomorrow”. There is definitely certain freedom in not being bound by a schedule.
5. The language is impossible
If you try to speak Vietnamese, you will certainly fail at first because, let’s be honest, the language is just so darn hard. That being said, I suppose this kind of initial failure is normal for anyone who wants to learn a new language. The difference is that in Vietnam many people continue failing no matter how hard they try! When you fail at learning a new language in most other countries, the local people are sympathetic to your difficulties. Here, the Vietnamese will burst out loud with laughter or look at you like you’re insane. We foreigners tend to be incapable of pronouncing the six tones of the Vietnamese language properly. If you are a decent singer you may be able to catch on faster than others.
6. “It’s that way” means “I have no idea”
Asking for directions here is fun because it is all about figuring out if the directions you’re then given are valid or not. People will sometimes give you some sort of answer, and will usually smile as they do so, and in some rare cases, the route they send you off on could even be correct! Why is this? Probably because the city street names across this country are for the most part all the same, and the numbering systems are somehow… illogical. Language barriers can be another big issue. Many locals will just smile, nod, and point while they haven’t even understand where you want to go. Perhaps your most reliable guide to Saigon would be Google Maps, but even on Maps, there is still the issue of the city’s street numbering system. So maybe we should all just expect to get lost!
7. “Yes” means “No, but I don’t want to admit it”
Linked to this is the fact that many Vietnamese do not want to lose face in any situation. Many locals will give you false directions rather than tell you that they do not know where you want to go, simply because they want to save appearances. Seriously! In fact, the Vietnamese are willing to go above and beyond expectations to make sure that both sides save face and as a result, they will choose to say “yes” even if they mean “no”.
“Yes, I know where you want to go”, “Yes, I will do that this afternoon”, “Yes, I know how to fix that for you”, etc. As a result, you may need to adjust your expectations when working with local people. Expect to clarify, re-clarify, and then re-clarify again, and always be precise. Be very precise! Vietnamese are anything but incompetent, it’s just that they work in a different way and to be successful when working with them you must adjust to that system and keep an open and patient mind.
8. There is no such thing as private space
Private space is a foreign concept for most Vietnamese: the more the merrier! Often a family will all live under one roof; rent is made cheaper with six or seven people room-shares; parents of four will cram everyone into one room and rent the rest of their house out, and if you are visiting a friend you will bring all family members in the near vicinity with you. When my phone rings at 6:30 a.m. on a Sunday I am expecting something major! But it’s just my “loving” brother-in-law calling from the street outside, waiting to invite me for breakfast. Um… no?
9. There is no such thing as fast internet
Internet is everywhere, but it is rarely fast and usually unreliable, so patience is still often a prerequisite when trying to stay connected. Especially sharks keep chewing through our main Internet sea cable, linking Vietnam to Singapore! Strange but true – the sharks seem to have it in for Vietnam. Or at least that is what we are being told. Fortunately, the whole internet system in Vietnam is changing and we shall have better speed… soon enough.
10. Language barriers…
Communication with any member of any foreign country is difficult when you do not speak their language. In most countries, you’ll use gestures and signs. Here in Vietnam, you may choose to point at an object saying you want this one, and simply because they are afraid of misunderstanding, they may wave their hands rapidly from right to left or vice versa saying “khong”, which means “no” or “I am not interested in communicating with you”. In these cases, there is no solution for you. Just accept it, keep walking, and try again with someone else. Some might also say that, if you live here, you should learn to speak Vietnamese instead of expecting everyone to speak English with you. Well, yeah… touché.
11. Life is always noisy
This is especially true for Saigon, where the city never truly sleeps. If you live here, you will become very used to sudden bursts of noise in the streets, in restaurants, at the cinema, and sometimes even at home! I’m talking motorbike horns, local celebrations, moving food carts, street brawls, etc… but the best one is that lovely karaoke bar a few blocks away from your home that plays loud music all day long and at night as well. Vietnamese love noise; they actually feel uncomfortable when silence reigns. The simplest solution is to invest in a nice pair of earplugs! Which strangely, is hard to find…
12. US$10 for you but VND10,000 for him
The double standard price policy is gradually diminishing in Vietnam, depending on where you are and whom you deal with, but it is still an issue, especially for foreigners. This may seem unfair to most, but the Vietnamese believe that you deserve to be taken advantage of because you’re a foreigner, so potentially rich! – If you’re Vietnamese but look wealthy you may find yourself paying a higher price, too. Learn not to be fooled, be firm but diplomatic, and smile always if you aim to get what you want. But do take it lightly when you are given the double standard and make sure you laugh about it; that is the way to be respected.
13. “A detailed job” means “Just get it done ASAP”
Unfortunately for the many who love things to be done well, attention to detail is not a widespread concept in Vietnam. For example, for construction or renovation work, workers will often begin to do the job before planning it properly, and when it is “completed” you will decide to start over at your own expense because what has been done is not to a quality, long-lasting standard. In this case, perhaps the blame is actually on you. When you engage someone to do a job for you, no matter what field the work is in, make sure you carefully select the right workers, and the right specialty, be very specific with your instructions and be on-site to supervise the process as much as possible.
14. Saigon’s rivers are brown, not blue
Saigon’s numerous rivers and canals are so nice to see from afar and from above, but from their banks, they are far less beautiful. These waterways are often used as domestic or even professional sewage systems and are too often sticky and visibly dirty, even smelly at times. These rivers are not healthy for all those who live along their shores and further downstream, but this does not seem to bother local residents too much. The fish that live and propagate in those dark waters are eaten with the same passion as “clean” sea fish!
15. Do not drink the water
Have you ever tried drinking tap water here in Vietnam? Please don’t, it tastes like metal, goodness knows what is living inside it (especially given the above-mentioned waterways in this city), and it may make you feel really awful or even dizzy. Unfortunately, despite the occasional promising news, it doesn’t seem likely that this crazy metropolis will invest in a clean, safe water-filtration system any time soon, so you’ll either have to fork out and install your own private system or just buy mounds of plastic bottles like the rest of us.
16. The police
I think most of us can read between the lines here. In most countries, the role of the policeman is to protect the people, and society and to make sure the rules of law are applied. Here in Vietnam this, like many other aspects of society, is very much blurred. A lot of locals and ex-pats alike will tell you that the police here in fact do the opposite! But there’s not much anyone can do about it. In general, your best protection in this society is your network of friends and family, and your ability to give nice tips.
17. Animals are like products
In Vietnam, animals are most often treated with no respect at all – like they are commodities. Like they are not alive. Many dogs are kept in cages or tied up near their owner with a short string 24/7. Birds are either eaten or put in cages all day long to sing. Most other animals are simply made good use of, as food or as a tool for work. For example, buffalo is a real necessity for farming families. Animals just aren’t treated with the same attitude in Vietnam as they are treated in the pet-loving West. That being said, at least nothing goes to waste. Unlike in the West where we tend to only eat certain animals and even then only certain parts of those animals, the Vietnamese eat most parts of most animals! From barbecued snails to grilled chicken gizzards and dried squid…
18. The “China” paradox
On the one hand, the Vietnamese don’t like China, and on the other hand half, of the products in their electronic and utility sector are goods from China. The best example of this is Apple products. The Vietnamese are so keen to own one of Apple’s many sleek gadgets, phones, laptops, etc., but the funny thing is that most Apple phones and products sold in Vietnam are made in China! In general, there is a strong stance among the Vietnamese against China due to unresolved strategic, geographic, cultural, historical, and political issues. But then, without China, it would be rather difficult for this country to sustain any growth.
19. The sky throws tantrums
For a good part of the year, the monsoon is very much alive here in Vietnam. And since no one can afford to drop everything and stay inside for six months, the people who live here simply have to accept that bucketloads of water could drop from the sky at any time, and continue about their daily lives. You can imagine how it feels when you are driving home on your motorbike, having forgotten your raincoat, and are suddenly soaked to the bone with fat drops of water slapping your face. It hurts! Everyone here eventually learns to carry a raincoat with them everywhere during the wet season, and some even bring glasses if they don’t have a protective shield set on their helmet.
20. Electricity is temperamental
Power cuts have decreased substantially here, but they still happen and especially during the monsoon period. The power lines in this city are insane – they weave around each other in an impossible tangle, and it’s honestly a wonder that anyone could ever manage to work with them. How could anyone begin to fix such a bird’s nest of wire? The technicians here must all be geniuses. From the perspective of someone who has had his own share of power-cuts halfway through writing an unsaved five thousand-word essay or has slept all night without AC or a fan… learn to save your work as you go and get used to being hot and sticky!
21. Phone lines are like balls of yarn
Have you ever tried to knit? The phone and electrical wires that power this city reminds me of a bundle of knitting yarn, all tangled together and impossibly twisted. Apart from being dangerous, they are a disturbance. Many are deadlines that do not function, they cannot be removed simply because it is too difficult to identify which one is working and which is not. So when a line is broken technicians tend to just add a new line over the top, adding to the bulge of ugly black plastic that already lines your street and threatens to explode at any second.
22. Child beggars
With poverty being what it is in Vietnam, many rural children, especially from the Mekong Delta, reach the cities with no real education, parents or future. Children beg for money as the only solution remaining. They are mostly found at traffic lights or street corners in the poorer districts. The worst thing is that many of these children are actually exploited by the Cambodian mafia. You’ll see kids as young as five years old or below carrying their one year old brother or sister in their arms to encourage your pity and your generosity. This is hard to digest, and fortunately there are some NGO’s who strive to protect some of them to the best of their abilities. But it’s like fighting a fire with water pistols.
SAIGON Inspiration CULTURE DISCOVER YOUR INNER ANIMAL
Nobody knows which country started the animal zodiac, though the Chinese can certainly lay claim to being one of the first.
The 12 symbols of the Chinese zodiac, which of course is the one used here in Vietnam, probably have their origins in the Han Dynasty, which ruled from 206 BC until 220 AD. Legend says that the ruler of the Chinese heavens, the Jade Emperor, asked the animals (including the dragon) to participate in a race in honor of his birthday. This fell on the ninth day of the first lunar month. The first 12 animals to arrive would represent a place in the calendar in the order in which they finished, but the tale is full of subplots.
Characteristics of the Zodiac Animals
Each of the 12 animals is linked to one of the five elements, is compatible with two other animals, and has certain personality traits.
Compatible with: Dragon and Monkey
Traits: Intelligent, artistic, quick-witted, adaptable, charming, and sociable
The rat is first on the list because during the race, it got a ride on the ox’s back across a swollen river. However, the cunning rat stayed on the ox throughout the race, jumping off just before the winning post. Its place at the head of the calendar was thus assured.
Compatible with: Snake and Rooster
Traits: Strong, loyal, reliable, thorough, reasonable, steady, and determined
The ox was asked by the farmer to take a message to the Emperor, but also to sow seeds en route, as the land was barren. It had to sow a handful of seeds every three steps. It misunderstood and sowed three handfuls every step. As a consequence, it was instructed only to eat grass and weeds forever. Being diligent has stuck to this.
Compatible with: Horse and Dog
Traits: Enthusiastic, confident, courageous, ambitious, charismatic, and a good leader
Originally the Jade Emperor chose the lion as a Zodiac animal, but it proved to be too aggressive. He had heard of the tiger’s bravery and ordered it into heaven. Defeating the old guardians of heaven, the tiger became the new guardian. It was sent back to earth to restore order when the animals down there had become unruly. It succeeded, and the Jade Emperor replaced the lion with the tiger in the zodiac.
Compatible with: Sheep and Pig
Traits: Trustworthy, sociable, empathic, modest, diplomatic, sincere, and a good caretaker
The rabbit and the ox were once friendly neighbors. One day the rabbit bragged about his prowess as a long-distance runner. “I have a slim body”, he declared, “but you are stout, you cannot run fast.” The ox practised and improved. They declared that they would run to heaven when they heard the cock crow. The rabbit raced ahead, but soon got tired and fell asleep. The ox, however, never rested and forged ahead. The tiger ran by the rabbit and for safety the rabbit stayed behind him, eventually finishing fourth.
Compatible with: Rat and Monkey
Traits: Artistic, imaginative, lucky, flexible, eccentric, spiritual, and charismatic
Originally hornless, the dragon wanted to be king of the zodiac animals. Not wanting to be regarded as lower than the tiger, it asked its brother, the chilopod (centipede), for advice. The chilopod suggested borrowing the rooster’s beautiful horns. The dragon did and guaranteed the rooster that they would be returned. With its new horns, the dragon was immensely powerful and impressed the Jade Emperor, becoming a zodiac sign.
Compatible with: Rooster and Ox
Traits: Intelligent, philosophical, organized, intuitive, elegant, attentive, and decisive
In days gone by, the snake had four legs, while the frog was legless but worked hard catching insects for humans. The snake was lazy and disliked, making it angry and prone to biting people. Hearing this, the Jade Emperor ordered the Divine Soldier to cut off the snake’s legs and reward them to the frog. The snake was full of remorse, caught insects for humans, helped control the water and when it died, donated its body as medicine to the people. Upon hearing this, the Jade Emperor awarded it zodiac status.
Compatible with: Dog and Tiger
Traits: Intelligent, adventurous, strong, adaptable, loyal, courageous, and ambitious
Originally winged, the horse could run, fly and swim. As a royal horse for the Jade Emperor, it became arrogant and decided to attack the Dragon Palace in the East Sea. The holy turtle, supported by shrimp soldiers and crab generals, fought it off, but the horse kicked the turtle to death. The Emperor ordered its wings removed and for it to be buried for 300 years in Kulen Mountain. Rescued by a human, the horse worked for him out of gratitude. Recognizing the horse’s remorse, the Jade Emperor awarded it zodiac status.
Compatible with: Boar and Rabbit
Traits: Crafty, warm, elegant, charming, intuitive, sensitive, calm, and possessing good taste
Long ago, the grain only grew in heaven – the Jade Emperor would not give it to humans. The sheep then smuggled holy grain from heaven in its mouth and gave it to those on earth. The Emperor was furious and ordered the sheep to be slaughtered and eaten. At the site where it was killed beautiful crops grew every year. Lambs were born and provided meat and milk. The humans insisted that the sheep be included in the zodiac, and so the Emperor obliged.
Compatible with: Dragon and Rat
Traits: Intelligent, lively, quick-witted, charming, lucky, adaptable, bright, and versatile
The all-conquering tiger had power but was lonely. One day it fell into a hunter’s net. The monkey climbed down from the trees and set it free. The tiger was perplexed to be saved by such a lowly creature but vowed to pay it back one day. When the Jade Emperor was choosing the animals, the monkey asked the tiger to speak on its behalf, and so the monkey was chosen.
Compatible with: Snake and Ox
Traits: Confident, honest, energetic, intelligent, flamboyant, flexible, and diverse
The rooster always caused trouble for the humans so they didn’t recommend it to the Jade Emperor. Frustrated, the rooster asked the horse why. The horse said that the rooster had to learn to provide a service for the humans – perhaps the rooster’s voice could help. The rooster started waking people up at daybreak. As a reward, the Jade Emperor plucked a red flower and placed it on the rooster’s head, and gave it a place in heaven.
Compatible with: Tiger and Horse
Traits: Sociable, lively, loyal, courageous, diligent, steady, adaptable, and intelligent
The Jade Emperor asked the cat and the dog what they did for humans and how much they ate. The dog answered truthfully that he guarded the house and ate a bowl of food. The cat lied, saying that it chanted scriptures, caught rats and ate little. The Emperor believed the cat and rewarded it, causing the dog to chase the cat into hiding. Although angered, the dog went on to participate in the zodiac race, earning its place among the 12 animals.
Compatible with: Sheep and Rabbit
Traits: Sociable, honorable, determined, philanthropic, optimistic, and sincere
A rich, childless farmer finally had a son when he was 60 years old. A fortune teller predicted that the child would be successful. However, the son was lazy and after the parents died, he did nothing and the farm went to ruin. Upon his death he asked why he had not been blessed, and the Jade Emperor said, “You had good fortune but were too lazy. I will change you into a pig which eats chaff as punishment.” The officer in Heaven mistook this as an order to make the pig a zodiac sign, and from then on the pig became one of the 12 animals.
SAIGON INSPIRATION CULTURE WHAT TO EXPECT IN THE YEAR OF THE DOG
Welcome the new Lunar New Year, and the Year of the Dog.
To be honest, the past two haven’t been our years. We’re two years removed from 2016, the Year of the Monkey, but it may be hard to believe that much time has passed since the death of both David Bowie and Harambe, and the mass public enslavement to Pokemon GO in Vietnam, which prompted government action. Recall if you will the words the masses typed in exasperated all caps on the internet: 2016 HAVE YOU NO MERCY.
Yet we moved into 2017, the Year of the Rooster, and it seemed the vestiges of 2016 were still with us: a shark ate our internet (again) and Ariana Grande canceled her August appearance in Ho Chi Minh City hours before the show. Via Instagram. Not cool.
What gives? Are the stars out of alignment?
Well, sort of.
According to the Chinese Zodiac—in addition to assigning each year an animal also assigns them one of five elements—2016, the 4,713th year in the calendar, was the Year of the Fire Monkey. These are two elements that don’t belong together. For the Chinese Zodiac calendar’s 4,714th year, 2017, the element remained the same with a new beast: the Year of the Fire Rooster. In a manner of speaking, our bird was cooked that year.
But What About 2018?
The coming Lunar Year is the Year of the Dog. The 4,715th year’s element is the earth, a strong element directionally oriented to the center. Think balance and strength. If you want a visual representation of this year, think of Vietnam’s soccer team goalkeeper Bui Tien Dung shutting down the Qatar team during the semi-finals of the Asia Football Confederation game, and then shirtless and fierce in the post-game victory celebrations.
The Earth Dog’s characteristics are strength and steadiness, according to feng shui and Chinese astrology expert Ceren Sakin of the Turkish-Chinese Cultural Association. Remarking on the upcoming year, Sakin likened the Earth Dog to a mountain and called it a “tumbler”.
“No matter how big the blow, the person never falls, and he is strong and determined enough to get back up again,” Sakin said in an interview. Since it’s a solid year, this is the year to work on something you’d like to last: your career, your bond with your family, or your leaderboard score on Xbox.
Dragons, Goats, Roosters: Take a Seat
As stated before, the zodiac operates across a range of symbols that combined create harmonies and disharmonies. You’re assigned an animal by birth year, as the placemat on your Chinese restaurant has often told you. Those born in the Year of the Goat (1979 or 1991), the Year of the Dragon (1988, 2000), and the Year of the Rooster (1993) ought to expect to have a more difficult time adjusting to the new Lunar Year.
Interestingly, those born in the year of the dog (1982, 1994) are also not expected to do well in the coming year. Maybe it’s not that interesting: it’s always bad luck when your year comes around. The issue is with the God of Age, according to Chinese astrology. The best way to avoid bad luck during this year is by wearing something red given by an elder: a bracelet, a scarf or a “Make America Great Again” hat ought to do.
Wondering about your own birth animal? Find out below.
Rabbit, Tiger, Horse: Your Moment Has Come
If you were born in 1987, 1998, 1990, or any of the other Rabbit, Tiger or Horse zodiac years, get ready to bathe in riches, to change the proverbial game. Year of the Rabbit: the dog is your guardian. Expect to be nurtured and protected in your endeavors. The zodiac reading says this is the time to expand your territory, so maybe now is the time to explore a previously unknown part of your city or learn a new skill. Rabbit, a protection spell has been cast on you this year. Like a trust fund child, you can do no wrong now.
Year of the Tiger: where this year tends to be at the inception of big, broad efforts (for example, starting a business) the dog symbolizes an ability to make it last (for example, maintaining that business). Those born in the year of the tiger need their space and tend to demand a lot of resources, but the Tiger will enjoy good fortune in the Year of the Dog like a kid on a snow day (never mind that snow days don’t happen often in Vietnam).
Year of the Horse: those born in this year are naturally inclined to be leaders and playmakers. This is an animal that thrives in competition and always finds itself hungry to be in the winner’s circle. Horses welcome the Year of the Dog’s foundation for strong, static things in your efforts to build something both big and amazing. This is the year you finally “wow” us like that video of a dog driving a motorcycle.
How To Prepare
Like all Lunar New Year preparations, yours should involve cleaning your house, and giving red envelopes to children—the basic stuff. But because this is the Year of the Dog, make sure you buy Tet decorations that feature dog imagery, like a red lantern featuring dog iconography. If you need more guidance than this, check out our coverage on Tet preparations.
Wait … Isn’t This All B.S.?
The Year of the Dog is very real, my friend, from the giant dogs on Ho Chi Minh City’s walking street Nguyen Hue to the canine-shaped fruits cropping up at your local Vietnamese market. In another part of the world, this may be a more secular and depressing part of the year. New Year’s Day over and people are getting ready either their best date (or their chagrin) for Valentine’s Day. In Asia, we’re celebrating the Lunar New Year with our dogs.
You may be asking a more pointed question about whether this is real as, say, your rent is due. To this, we’d say that embracing the idea of the Zodiac could add some richness to your life. Level with us: being a person is hard and there are often few instructions and little guidance. You might not be harmed by seeing yourself as an important character in great narrative thousands of years old. You might benefit, even. That is unless you were born in the Year of the Dragon and don’t own anything red.
SAIGON Inspiration CULTURE BEAUTIFUL VIETNAMESE WOMEN IN ‘AO DAI’
Watching an elegant Vietnamese woman wearing an Ao Dai, Vietnam’s traditional attire is magical.
If you are traveling to Vietnam and only staying in Hanoi or Ho Chi Minh City, you may still see some on particular days. They will manage to make you forget about the traffic and the pollution. For me, this only compares beauty with the traditional clothes worn by Balinese men and women when they attend ceremonies.
We would like to bring to you a collection of photos illustrating just how beautiful Vietnamese women are when wearing an Ao Dai. It seems that Vietnamese women bring beauty to anything they do, whether they’re working, shopping or simply walking to school. These are not sexy pictures of Vietnamese girls: They show that beauty can take many forms and that it can also last though times.
Buying an Ao Dai is one of the best gifts and souvenirs you can buy in Vietnam. If you need some advices on where to buy one, you can visit the following pages: Ao Dai Vietnam. We listed several shops and specialized tailors.
SAIGON INSPIRATION CULTURE Can I recycle in Ho Chi Minh City?
Asia is known to be one of the biggest pollutants in the ocean. We are not particularly proud of this fact which is why there have been various movements to reduce the use of plastic over the past few years, and more and more individuals are doing their part to help this cause all over Vietnam and Ho Chi Minh City. If you’re a foreigner or an expat who’s in the process of moving to Vietnam, you might think that Vietnamese and other Asians are weird for having plastics under the sink or for reusing their disposables, but these simple acts can make a big difference. If you’re starting to channel the eco activist in you, then you’re very much aware that the modern world that offers us so many options to help us go zero waste.
Many Saigonese households welcome the opportunity to supplement their meager earnings through selling recyclable materials. Instead of throwing away your plastic and glass bottles, old shoes, and worn clothes, sell them to the ve chai lady or give them to your cleaning lady – they will make good use of them. Cardboard is particularly valuable, so make an effort to give it to someone who will benefit.
For information on recycling go to Rethink Plastic: a Seminar to Challenge Plastic Waste in Vietnam
SAIGON Inspiration CULTURE 7 SAIGON BLOGGERS YOU MUST BOOKMARK NOW
Exclusive access to local blogger’s insight on Saigon
Saigon’s tourism scene is stuck on a plateau. Unlike other popular destinations like Bangkok, New York, Paris, etc., all is not revealed – secrets remain and an air of mystery still permeates even rudimentary tasks like going to a doctor and understanding traffic patterns. There’s a severe lack of official documentation and foreign language support that grants Ho Chi Minh City an air of impenetrability at times. Some times, to the point of utter frustration.
Our only hope, it seems, are the bloggers who brave the alien terrains of shouting ladies and incomprehensible signs to discover, transcribe and inform the confused community of expats and visitors. To save us all from bashing our heads against the wall when we order sautéed beef and get an avocado smoothie instead, we present a motley group of Content Heroes who provide us with the ins and outs necessary to experience the oohs and ahhs, without as much of the ughs and pffts.
Cool stuff about Mark’s blog:
• A one-man powerhouse who produces consistent quality content on HCMC and around
• Well-structured website makes navigation easy
• Great pictures
• Observations are candid and nuanced
Rusty Compass features the lovable shiny-head Mark Bowyer, an Asia explorer since 1988. Mark has some cool guides for Vietnam and Cambodia, but his blog section is where his personality really sparkles. You get articles carefully eyeing the good and the bad of Saigon’s idiosyncrasies, with sensitive issues like the Cu Chi tunnel’s firing range and a potentially bland future for the city brought to light and discussed in Mark’s signature erudite manner.
Mark also takes excellent photos. Standout article: The Last President’s Driver
Cool stuff about the AF duo:
● Best layout/presentation of the bunch
● Content is broken down by topics
● Cool pictures
● Content is both practical (who ex-pats date in the city) and related to experiencing the city (restaurants, bars, clubs, etc.)
The cleanest, most well-laid-out site on the list, Adventure Faktory is a sexy travel blog with quality photos and a simple writing style that’s easy to get into. Written by world travelers Mitch and Thuymi, the blog is broken down into simple categories like “Travel,” “Sports & Adventure,” “Lifestyle” and more. Articles are practical and for the most part focused on venues and experiences (like “Fashion Boutiques in Saigon,” “Oktoberfest in Saigon” and “Ho Chi Minh City’s Coffee Culture”), and are chock full of cool Instagram-worthy shots.
Standout article: The Ultimate Saigon Cafes List
Cool stuff about Elka:
● Tends to focus on short pieces targeted at the day-to-day goings-on
● Includes nice photos and interesting stories – even a dash of humor thrown in
● Great writing
Elka Ray is a storyteller, and thus provides a more personal account of her daily life in Vietnam. Author and illustrator, Elka moved to the country in 1996 and has since started a family. The blog rotates around her family life at home, daily observations and insights, and random musings. It’s a much different tone than others on the list, and the information leans more towards musings rather than practical advice, although there are some venue profiles. Entries are fun, very well-written and a great read for anyone living in and experiencing the ups and downs of Vietnam.
Standout article: Scraps of history
Cool stuff about HS:
● Articles tend to focus on reviews of different attractions, hotels, and venues around the city
● Site is streamlined and mobile-friendly – tons of pictures and short-form content
● Does a lot of work with food discussions and where the best places to eat are
● Blogger is active and a regular poster
Hello Saigon boasts a constant stream of entries on Ho Chi Minh City’s active scene, including venues, events, food trips and travels to other cities. This is the most streamlined site of the bunch and consists of a continuous river of bite-sized articles broken up by relevant pictures (1-2 sentences + picture, 1-2 sentences + picture, repeat). It’s really freaking easy to read, is fun to scroll through, and is quite practical, especially with the flood of photos. The writing is simple and light-hearted, and the content is very snug on mobiles.
Standout article: A Relaxing Stay at Salinda Resort
Cool stuff about City Pass:
• Self-explanatory (kidding)
• Large back catalog of blogs from a diverse team of writers and guest bloggers
• Long-form content may put off the ADD crowd, but articles are informative and delve deep into their subject matter
• Interview with experts on various destinations
• Blogs cover tourism industry, various lists, events and more
We CityPassGuide.com is known around town as the free guidebook distributed at fancy schmancy resorts and hotels. Their online counterpart is focused on venue listings, but there is a dedicated blog section that is quite useful if you want to dive deeper into Vietnam’s tourism market, learn about grand opening, unique events, or scroll through various lists (ex. top 5 Vietnamese love sayings, top 7 honeymoon resorts, etc.). Articles are written by staff writers or guests from various industries, are relatively lengthy but go well with a glass of pinot noir and a bag of Poca chips.
Standout article: The Declining State of Tourism in Vietnam – And How We Can Help
Cool stuff about Zoe:
● The blog features creative sketches of Saigon’s life and locals
● Zoe’s gonzo, down-to-earth observations are fun to read
● Blogs are both informative and very well written
Like Wix-using Andy above, Zoe hardly needs anything more than a free WordPress blog to suck in readers with surreal sketches, disarmingly honest prose and a gonzo wit about her observations. Blogs detail living on a severely limited budget (eggs, baguettes and VND 10,000 drinks every day? No problem), unspoken rules of the road, living in a shack on Phu Quoc for a week, children helping administer heroine to their mothers (yep…) and many more gems.
Standout article: Saigon’s Darkest Secrets
SAIGON INSPIRATION CULTURE FOOTBALL: BRINGING JOY AND SORROW TO VIETNAMESE FANS
For Vietnamese football fans, the national football team is their joy, pride and hope. And sometimes, their biggest fear.
When Vietnam’s national football team entered the 2017 Southeast Asian Games, a biennial multi-sport event involving participants from the 11 countries of Southeast Asia, they got the support of the whole country. The Vietnamese team have never achieved the SEA Games gold medal before. Since 1991 when they first joined the games, the best achievement they ever mustered was the silver medal in 2003, 2005 and 2009. Vietnamese fans have been longing for the day that the team would get the highest honour.
However, the team’s performance at the 29th SEA Games 2017 in Malaysia with three wins, a draw and a loss failed to secure a place for Vietnam at the semifinals. And it was Thailand that beat Vietnam in a pivotal match on August 24. Huu Thang, the coach of the team, resigned right after the match ended. He told the press prior to the SEA Games 2017 that they were determined to reach the highest podium finish and bring fans quality matches. They had been drawn in Group B, considered as the “group of death”, along with Thailand, Indonesia, Cambodia, Timor Leste, and the Philippines.
Support from the Vietnamese population
The Vietnam football team has always received huge support from Vietnamese fans. A hundred Vietnamese singers, actors, TV hosts and models recorded a song together to cheer on the team at the region’s biggest sports event. Những Ngôi Sao Sân Cỏ (Football Stars) delivered a message from Vietnamese fans encouraging the players to play well and bring home the gold medal, local media reported.
“I believe the song will help our players relax and motivate them to win the gold at this year’s SEA Games,” said Wang Tran, who has been DJing for 15 years and won several international prizes. He launched his first world tour through 20 countries in May.
Thousands of Vietnamese fans have flocked to stadiums in Malaysia to watch Vietnam’s group stage matches. Vietnamese fans also took to social media to encourage the team before the games. A Facebook user wrote: “The Vietnam team are warriors and artists on the field. And the football field is just a playground, so let’s forget about past sorrows and move forward. Play with a warm heart and a cold head. Devote yourself. Winning or losing doesn’t matter. The Vietnam team is always in the heart of Vietnamese fans!”
Another wrote: “I strongly believe that Vietnam will become the champion. I can say that when I see the way that the Vietnamese team players played.”
It’s hard to describe the sorrow and disappointment of Vietnamese fans after the Vietnam-Thailand match. Social media was flooded with fans’ comments and reactions. The loss to Thailand was also the topic of discussion among Vietnamese people in street coffee stalls. Also on August 24, Vietnam’s female football team beat the Thais in the final to clinch the gold medal.
Over the years the male football team have always stolen the spotlight from the female football team. The female team have been reported to be struggling with financial difficulties due to a lack of funding and sponsorship despite their good performances, unlike the male team. This SEA Games has raised the question whether it is high time for the Vietnamese public to pay more attention to the female football team and give them the recognition they deserve.
Vietnamese Football Fans
Vietnamese people have an undoubted love for football, which is the most popular sport in Vietnam. There are big celebrations when Vietnam wins, or even when they score a goal. The Vietnamese national team has a decent record against other teams in the region — it generally beats teams from Myanmar, Indonesia, Laos and Malaysia but tends to lose to Thailand, which is regarded the best team in Southeast Asia. However, Vietnam does not do so well in international competitions outside the region.
Other than its national team’s exploits in the Asian Games and Southeast Asian games, Vietnamese football fans are also ardent followers of Vietnam’s premier domestic football competition: the V-League.
But it’s the World Cup that heats up the country the most. At the beginning of the World Cup in 2002 – held for the first time in Asia, in Japan and South Korea – Xinhua reported: “The football atmosphere is becoming hotter in Vietnam as the World Cup recently kicked-off… In beer pubs and coffee shops, at homes, fanatics of varying degrees have been going berserk (over the spills and thrills of the games). Vietnamese people are really crazy football fans.
The first thing people talk every day is about football matches during the month the World Cup happens. The interesting matches over the last 13 days has had millions of Vietnamese glued to football matches on television.” The Vietnamese national team have never qualified for FIFA World Cup. Imagine what the country would look like if they did.
SAIGON Inspiration CULTURE WHEN IT COMES TO LITTER, VIETNAMESE KNOW LITTLE
Vietnam’s culture and habits regarding waist management is weak, to say the list
Several days ago a Facebook user complained that he saw dozens of money withdrawal receipts scattered on the ground inside a Vietcombank’s ATM booth in Phu My Hung. He took a photo of the scene with a caption: “Here is what happened at one of the richest, most civilized and high-end urban areas of the country”.
And this is just a common scene in Vietnam, where litter is dropped right in front of rubbish bins in public places as if people don’t bother moving their fingers to put them in the bins. The scenario is worse at road junctions or in front of red lights where hired people distribute leaflets to motorists and cyclists waiting at intersections. Many road users have a quick look at the advertisements and then throw them right on the ground.
The streets quickly become covered with white paper pieces and when it rains the papers dissolve, making the streets very dirty. Littering has become an epidemic in Vietnam. People litter on the streets, in parks, on beaches, in pagodas, everywhere. When did Vietnamese people adopt the habit of littering, and why does it still run deep in the society today, even as mass media talks about raising awareness about public hygiene?
An Established Habit
There are no official documents that state when Vietnamese people started littering. But according to historians, Vietnamese people traditionally lived in small communities, such as rural villages, so there probably weren’t many areas to discard trash responsibly.
They usually buried or burned trash when it piled up.
Gradually people allegedly got used to throwing rubbish wherever it was convenient for them — until the French colonial rule. In Dumb Luck (Số đỏ), a 1936 novel by Vu Trong Phung which satirised the late-colonial Vietnamese middle classes, one scene depicted two French policemen mourning “10 years ago”, when they earned a lot of money by fining Vietnamese people for public hygiene violations.
The policemen complained that they haven’t earned much since Vietnamese people became better aware of public hygiene code thanks to the press and strict fines. Unfortunately, it did not last forever.
How To Break The Habit
I can easily list some reasons why Vietnamese people litter: a lack of rubbish bins; limited public awareness about public hygiene; a lack of consistently enforced strict fines; and a lack of law enforcement in public places. There is quite a lack of dust bins and public toilets on the streets, which lead to littering and public urination. But you also don’t see many rubbish bins on the streets of Seoul and Tokyo, yet the streets are still clean.
In Tokyo, people have a compartment in their bags where they store trash to throw away when they get homeSingapore is a good example of heavy enforcement to those who litter. But it is best if we can prevent people who are about to litter, rather than fine those who already have. The most important task is to change people’s mindset. It comes from education. Vietnam’s textbooks should mention public hygiene issues more often, with pictures and detailed information about fines and comparisons with other countries.
Awareness-raising campaigns should be done regularly and at a grassroots level, informing everyone from family members to office workers, from street vendors to children.
It must be noted that many Vietnamese people litter because of crowd psychology. When they see others litter, they litter. They’re afraid that other people will think of them as weirdos or show-offs if they hold litter in their hands rather than dropping it where convenient. So if one person, and then two, change their littering habits, the rest may change too. Children will not litter if they see their parents putting trash in a bin.
Nowadays social media is an effective tool to raise awareness about public problems. Two years ago Kyo York, a popular American Facebooker in Vietnam, was brave enough to criticize the littering habit of many locals. He posted a photo of a pile of trash on a Vietnamese street on Facebook, asking people to stop dumping trash in public, especially in front of pagodas.
He commented, in near-perfect Vietnamese, that “most people seem to be saving their cultured sides just for the social networks”.
He was praised by many for telling the truth, but some others were offended by his criticism and insulted him in the post’s comment section. If more people would take to social media networks to raise public awareness like York, many Vietnamese people will realise littering is not acceptable any longer and they might think twice before tossing a candy wrapper on the ground.