There was a feeling of déjà vu in me, and at that moment I knew that I was going to love living in Vietnam. When I stepped outside the airport building, the sight of some wartime rusted plane hangars on the periphery of the runway reminded me of old articles I had read in the National Geographic. So far, that was the source and extent of my very basic knowledge of Vietnam.
My first day in Ho Chi Minh City was also my first introduction to the City’s traffic jam. As soon as I sat inside the taxi at Tan Son Nhat Airport, I was informed by the driver of a road block in the area where I was going. The Prime Minister of Vietnam was to inaugurate the broad Ben Chung Duong Street in District 1, and the apartment I was going to be living in was in Central Garden on Ben Chung Duong Street.
Fortunately, the inauguration ceremony was almost finishing when I was nearing my apartment, so the delay due to the road block was not for long. The Mailinh taxi that I took from the airport had one of the most patient drivers I had ever seen in the whole world!
Apart from reading some articles in the National Geographic, what I knew of Vietnam was mainly from snippets I had read while still in school, of the Vietnam war and its brutal atrocities. Photos published in ‘Life’ magazine of the My Lai Massacre are forever engrained in my memory. So I was preparing myself to see a war shocked country that was still rebuilding in the aftermath of bombings and insurmountable devastation. Needless to say, this impression was quickly dispelled within just a few days!
In the months following, as I began to settle into my work routine in Ho Chi Minh City, got used to the weather, food and the ubiquitous motorbike, I was better able to understand the ethos of the Vietnamese people, their quintessential nature, their way of life, and most importantly their strong beliefs in their traditions, custom, culture and their extremely close bond with their families. I saw how strong a bond family had on the psyche of a Vietnamese person and that all effort and work and daily life was focused on supporting and loving their family. This truly touched my very core and became the basis of my approach to work and all my activities while living in Vietnam.
Without a doubt, Vietnam’s greatest asset is its people. Ask any expat what they find most endearing about Vietnam, and the reply most likely will be the people. The Vietnamese people are like no other. Their soft spoken and gentle demeanor is to be experienced, not just written about. Their values, their priorities and their emotions rest deep within family life, a fact that many western nations would do well to emulate.
This became evident to me when soon after Christmas and New Year I saw Ho Chi Minh City begin to make preparations for the Tet Lunar New Year. I was struck by the enormity of this festival and the significance it held for not just Vietnam but also so many neighboring countries like China, Thailand, Indonesia, Malaysia, and the Philippines. For every Vietnamese I spoke with, the time during Tet Lunar New Year meant a focused time for a reunion with family and friends after a year of hard work. For them, going back to their hometowns during Tet was a profound celebration. Tet in Vietnam is a very family oriented holiday, and since a major part of the City population comes to work and study from small towns and villages across the country, it means that for atleast three weeks the City slows its pace with less traffic, many shuttered shops and a complete laid back atmosphere.
Tet is so much similar to Christmas and New Year in Europe, where for weeks there is a festive season with little or no work being done! For Vietnamese, Tet is the most important and biggest holiday of the year, and seeing them prepare for all the festivities is truly an awesome sight for a foreigner. Fresh flowers are such an important part of Tet, and the first time I visited Nguyen Hue Street in District 1 during this time, it was an incredible sight! It was almost unbelievable to see an entire street fully decorated with real fresh flowers! For the first three days when the “Flower Street”, as Nguyen Hue Street is known, opened to the public, I went every morning with my camera to click pictures of all the fresh flower decorations. It was also fascinating to learn that flowers are especially cultivated for an entire year in Dalat, a small hill town in south Vietnam, exclusively for the Tet Lunar New Year festival season.
Although I have never joined in any of the Tet festivities in a Vietnamese household, I lived my initial years in Ho Chi Minh City on the third floor of a sprawling house in Phu Nhuan district. The floors below were occupied by a huge Vietnamese joint family, with grandmother, father, stepmother, son and his family of four, daughter and her family of five, and two Chihuahua dogs! I watched as they cleaned and decorated their rooms, cooked unique dishes to serve and distribute, and even held serious card sessions every evening. Every day they would send an assortment of dishes for me to eat, but unfortunately I am a vegetarian and could accept only one or two items of food.
A very joyful and festive atmosphere permeates everywhere in Vietnam during Tet Lunar New Year, although within the confines of family members. For an expat living in Vietnam, this can prove to be a time when some planning is necessary on how best to utilize all the free time available during Tet, when almost all offices are shut and Ho Chi Minh City more or less grinds to a halt.