the decorations of tết: red, red, red

Symbolizing good luck and happiness, the colour red can be found just about everywhere right now in Hanoi, and most notably on Hang Mã street. Some friends took me there the other night and we walked around as they told me all about their Tết traditions.

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Even before this night, I would have said that Hang Mã street was one of my favourite places to walk around in Hanoi. It is always filled with decorations to suit the season and is full of activity. Seeing the street covered in red for Tết made me love it even more!

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tết trees and flowers

With Tết comes many decorations, each symbolizing luck, prosperity or something similar. One major component of Tết decorations are the trees and flowers.

Sometimes referred to as Tết trees, kumquat trees are used to decorate homes and offices to brighten things up! The fruits represent prosperity which the family hopes will come in the new year. The more fruit on the tree the better!

kumquat trees hoan kiem

Peach blossoms have quickly become my favourite Tết decoration. The vibrant pink of the papery petals adds so much colour to the city! Like kumquat trees, they are said to bring luck to the family.

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Both trees play a similar role to a Christmas tree, and greeting cards and good luck symbols such as this one are often hung from them.

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This peach blossom tree is the first thing I see every morning when I walk into work at the Vietnam Women’s Union.

VWU peach blossom tree

So hooray for Tết trees and flowers brightening up the city and bringing warm weather with them!

it’s beginning to look a lot like Tết

Over the past few weeks, the streets of Hanoi, particularly in the Old Quarter, have been beautifully decorated to prepare for the New Year.

Here’s a glimpse at what it looks like!

hoan kiem tet night Hoan Kiem Tet hoan kiem bridge hoan kiem lake hoan kiem lake tet hoan kiem flowers

This area has been full of activity with friends and families walking around, stopping to take pictures, and simply celebrating the coming of the New Year. I myself have spent every night this week here, walking around and enjoying the atmosphere.

the best thing since choco-pies

Lemon crackers. Of all the unusual snacks that I have found in Vietnam, this is certainly the best one that I have found recently. They are so good! Lemon flavoured anything is automatically delicious in my books and this is no exception.

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and in case you are unfamiliar with a choco-pie, here it is:

chocopie

(I took this picture on my 21st birthday to send to my grandma. For my birthday, my grandma would put a candle in a jos louis and turn it into a birthday cake.)

Choco-pies are basically just a knock-off jos louis, although every bit as wonderful as the real thing.

celebrating the new year: round one

Once winter hit Hanoi, I decided to hit the tarmac and fly to southern Vietnam. Some friends and I travelled to Mũi Né and Ho Chi Minh City to ring in the New Year. Now that I am gearing up to celebrate New Years for a second time (Vietnamese New Year which goes according to the lunar calendar), I wanted to remind myself of how wonderful it was the first time around. 

We started our trip in Mũi Né where we enjoyed squishing sand between our toes and cooling off with a swim in the refreshing sea. 

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We visited a fishing village, full of activity and vibrant colours that stood out so beautifully against the water in the morning sun.

Fishing Village 2

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We drove along the coast, enjoying the view and every breath of fresh air that we don’t have in Hanoi.

drive to sand dunes

And then we ended up here.

Mui Ne white sand dunes

These are the white sand dunes (we also went to the red sand dunes later the same day). It was truly like we stumbled upon a desert. We spent a good amount of time just walking across the dunes, in awe that something like this could exist naturally there. After a visit to the Fairy Springs we were on our way to Ho Chi Minh City.

We spent New Year’s Eve and New Year’s Day in Ho Chi Minh City. HCMC is so incredibly different from Hanoi. Where Hanoi is very traditional, HCMC is modern and somehow even more full of activity. And, it is home to a Baskin-Robbins so that certainly won me over. We walked around the city at night on New Year’s Eve, enjoying the elaborate decorations, and then headed back to our snazzy hotel to countdown to the New Year.

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We made grilled cheese and KD—a perfect way to start the new year!

For Vietnamese New Year I will be traveling to Thailand and Bali! Although I am sad to be missing the first days of the New Year in Vietnam and all the celebrations (I didn’t think at the time that I would have Vietnamese friends to spend the holidays with!) I am certainly excited to spend the time exploring more of the world.

Happiness is all around

The Vietnamese New Year, known as Tết, is fast approaching. I can feel the energy of Hanoi changing as people prepare for this very special time. At the Peace House Shelter (one of the places where I am interning), residents and staff gathered together to celebrate the coming of the new year. As with any good celebration, lots of delicious food was eaten and well wishes for the new year were exchanged.

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The residents and their children sang beautiful songs, and a few of the women shared very moving personal accounts of their experiences with the Peace House, and the positive impact that it is had on their lives.

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I can’t help but get into the spirit of the season when surrounded by all this love and happiness!

Where do we go from here?

Last week I had the opportunity to travel to Bắc Giang province to meet with persons with mobility disabilities receiving wheelchairs donated to them through a particular humanitarian project.

Before going on this trip, I read and edited a report for the Vietnam Women’s Union on the experiences and self-identified needs of persons living with disabilities in Vietnam in the areas of education, employment, healthcare, and stigma/discrimination. I was able to learn a lot from this report about some of the unique and most difficult challenges faced by persons living with disabilities in Vietnam.

During my visit to Bắc Giang, I saw some of these challenges firsthand. I visited the house of an 80-year-old woman who had received a donated wheelchair. The walk to her house was down a typical narrow alleyway, full of bumps, potholes, and just generally uneven ground. The inside of her house was small, with little foreseeable room to maneuver a wheelchair.

Bac Giang 2Moving to a community center where six more people would receive wheelchairs, I noticed another challenge. In order to enter the building to receive the wheelchair, each person with a mobility disability had to be lifted in by a family member (sometimes several). Even after receiving the wheelchair, they had to be carried out of the building because there were no ramps that would make it accessible.

Everyone who received a wheelchair was thankful and conveyed their gratitude. They expressed that it would make their lives easier. Could this possibly be true? During the trip back to Hanoi I kept wondering how. How would they be able to use this wheelchair in a way that would truly give them independence or greater freedom to travel? Vietnam, charactertised by tall buildings with many flights of stairs (and seldom an elevator), chaotic streets, and narrow alleyways, is not exactly a picture of accessibility. If the places visited and routes taken daily by these people aren’t adapted to accommodate the use of a wheelchair, what benefit does it really have? But then again, how do you begin to accomplish this?

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Nevertheless, I was grateful for the experience to travel outside of Hanoi and meet some remarkable people with great strength, wonderful stories, and welcoming smiles.

Included below are some excerpts from interviews conducted with persons living with a disability in the report I read that I found to be particularly moving:

I do not like to go out because I feel inferior to my peers, and as such I have a difficult time making friends. For example, after school other students go out with friends, but when I finish school I go home and do not go out.” (18-year-old woman from Dong Nai)

“To be honest, selling lottery sometimes makes us burst into tears. We must face so many difficulties every day, such as being deceived or cheated, and being unaware of traffic, ditches or holes.” (A person living and working with a visual impairment selling lottery tickets in Ho Chi Minh City)

“In the beginning, I was faced with many difficulties. The cafeteria is far from the working place. I would leave for lunch at the same time as the others, but when I arrived at the cafeteria, everybody had already finished their lunch. Sometimes I was left with nothing to eat.” (Female worker living and working with a mobility disability in Dong Nai)

“At school, for example, my learning capacity was so bad that learning no longer became my main objective. I went to school to socialize. With my teachers only feeling pity for me and not providing me with extra help, my grades stayed poor and had no chance of improving.” (53-year-old man living with a mobility impairment in Dong Nai)

I couldn’t have described this any better myself. Since Christian and I live together, these sounds are all relevant to my daily life in Hanoi.

Venturing Vietnam

When I have told stories here, I have realized that I have not been engaging the senses of readers as much as I could or should be. Vietnam is a visually, auditory, and stimulatory complex and engaging place, with a wide variety of pleasant and unpleasant sights, smells, sounds, feelings, tastes, temperatures, walking surfaces, and places to visit. From this point forward, I will be consciously attempting to include much more painted accounts of these realities in my blog posts, in order to offer a more complete visual of each experience and better represent the stories that I choose to share.

However, I am not going to paint a perfect picture for the senses and how they represent Hanoi in this particular post. I am instead going to focus on just one – sound – and joke around about some of the things about this sense that never fail to…

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Ha Long Bay!

I, along with the Vietnam INDEVOURS and some new friends, visited Ha Long Bay, one of the 7 new natural wonders of the world. It is a truly breathtaking place that everyone should visit at some point in their life if they have the chance.

Leaving early Saturday morning, we arrived in Ha Long Bay some three hours later. I was instantly blown away by the unspoiled natural landscape and its perfect blend of blue, green, and grey. Our boat slowly made its way across the bay, allowing me to take in every square inch of the beauty that lies within its hundreds of small islands.

I got to explore a limestone cave that I totally geeked out about (I used to study rocks and had a pretty sweet rock collection, so needless to say, it was amazing to see the rock formations up close!). We also got to go kayaking and swimming.

While floating in the bay, I watched the sun set over the pristine island seascape. At that moment life could not have been any more perfect. Everything was so peaceful. A pretty big change from the past month I have spent living in Hanoi.

It all felt so surreal. Sometimes when I wake up in the morning and venture out I still can’t believe I’m actually here! I am so thankful for the amazing opportunity that I have to be in Vietnam, and I want to spend more weekends like this exploring all that it has to offer.

standing out

In Hanoi, I am a visible minority. Walking around the city I get stared at intensely, I am pointed at, and I am the recipient of numerous comments or the topic of many street side discussions.

It’s hard to remain unnoticed here, especially as a foreign woman. I’ve watched foreign men walking maybe 10 feet in front of me be largely ignored by locals. As soon as I pass by though I get hounded by xe om drivers, or anyone with a motorbike really, asking me if I want a ride. Most days I don’t mind saying a simple no thank you to xe om drivers and I can mostly ignore the curious stares of street vendors and shop owners. I know that I’ve probably unintentionally stared at people here that interest me. But some days it just gets to me. Sometimes I honestly dread walking to wherever it is I need to go because I don’t want to deal with the unwanted attention.

Unlike minority groups in Canada or the United States though, my minority status in Vietnam does not significantly disadvantage me, in fact, in many ways it probably grants me privileges. Realizing this makes me feel awful for complaining about stares and comments, but even still it can’t erase my feelings of being out of place.

Sometimes sticking out does have its advantages. It can be a great conversation starter. I have had taxi drivers and security guards make small talk with me in a mix of Vietnamese and English. Children have passed by me excited to say hello, and share whatever other English words they know. Restaurant staff will take extra time to help me with my pronunciation so I can order more clearly the next time. Interactions like these make everything else seem insignificant.

Sometimes though, I still really wish I could blend in.