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. 2016 is the year of the monkey. 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 symbolises fertility. In the north 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 colours 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, symbolises Heaven. With these two cakes, bánh chưng and bánh dầy, Vietnamese pay homage to 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 colour – red symbolises 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’. Sources: platvietnam.com, www.baroude.com
Photo by: flickr
Mekong Plus: Making a Difference with Bamboo Bikes
Vietnam and Cambodia are undoubtedly among the most beautiful countries in the world, complete with vibrant cultures and long, interesting histories. However, it’s also undoubtedly true that there’s a lot of room for development. In many of the small villages dotting the countryside, lives are often hard and fraught with anxieties about health and money. In some instances, villagers will subsist on just around .32¢ a day on average.
The Mekong Plus Association, an NGO founded in 1994 by Bernard Kervyn and two friends, Gilberte Do-Huu and Robert Eberhardt, is working to change this statistic. In its 20 years of operation, Mekong Plus has supported a number of projects in over 800 villages spread across three provinces in Vietnam and Cambodia. These projects are ambitious and cover issues as far-reaching as developing village economies, health, hygiene, agriculture and education. So far, Mekong Plus has enjoyed tremendous success, affecting over 200,000 people each year.
Of course, these initiatives do need money to do well, and Mekong Plus has gotten creative with their fundraising efforts. While people can donate on the Mekong Plus website or volunteer their time, one of the most ingenious ways Mekong Plus has been making money has been with their Bamboo Bike tours. For the past four years, this incredible organization has been putting together tours through Vietnam and Cambodia, focusing on the Mekong River Valley. By donating around $100 per day plus living expenses, bikers can tour the many projects Mekong Plus has set in motion, and work with the villagers to produce real sustainable results.
As co-founder Bernard Kervyn said, one of the best parts of these bike tours is the fact that they’re customisable. He knows that not everybody who wants to explore the Vietnamese and Cambodian countrysides will enter the Tour de France, and Mekong Plus has prepared for this accordingly. Depending on experience levels, there are four different routes bikers can sign up for: the Mekong Flowers (a 10-day journey); the Mekong Shoots option, which is best for families; the Mekong Mission, ideal for school groups; and the Mekong Trophy, designed for sporty bikers. Check out these different options here.
While all of these bike tours vary in terms of duration and length, they all provide a stunning tour of the Mekong River Valley and let participants make a difference in Mekong Plus’ developmental projects. And while one might think that participants need to be young and athletic to join a bike tour and make a difference, this is absolutely not the case. Many of the participants have been retired individuals looking for an alternative way to vacation abroad. Bernard also mentioned that a nine-month-old baby was also part of a recent expedition and fared quite well and comfortably on the bike journey. One thing is definitely clear: if you’re looking for a way to support a fantastic NGO while getting personally involved, the Bamboo Bike tours are certainly a great option.
Not the most original idea in the world, but still worth a visit. Although these tunnels have been slightly repurposed to fit larger frames, you’ll get a closer look at the everyday living conditions of thousands of people during the American War.
How to get there: About 40km from the city centre, there are a few options: take one of the many tours offered through just about every travel agency in Pham Ngu Lao, or do it yourself by motorbike (it’ll take around two hours).
Image source: huracars.com
Cruise the Mekong Delta
The Region is more than 40,000 sq km, so you’ll have to make a choice or two about where to go and what to do. For a relaxing bike ride and a leisurely nap in a hammock, check Ben Tre, My Tho and An Binh Island. For small-town city life, there’s no better place than Can Tho.
How to get there: We recommend the Phuong Trang bus line or, for the scenic route, pick a river cruise with the typical Mekong Delta tour package: the floating market, coconut candy factory and set lunch.
Image source: baolau.com
Monkey Island (Can Gio)
An underrated spot definitely worth a day visit. About 75km from HCMC, this is doable if you’re confident on your bike; be sure to have some small change on you, as it does involve a ferry ride to Can Gio. The main point of interest here is definitely the mangrove island, which features a recreation of a Viet Minh army station and hundreds of incredibly social monkeys, just waiting to snatch your sunglasses.
How to get there: If a motorbike is not for you, there are several tour companies for about US$50 for the day.
Image source: citypassguide.com
Experience Giang Dien Waterfall
Great for a family day with the little ones. Hidden away in Dong Nai, not many people know about this hidden gem. Here you can swim (or wade with a life jacket), kayak, bike, camp, lounge and generally just enjoy life.
How to get there: About 50km from HCMC, it’ll take about an hour-and-a-half by car, two-and-a-half hours by bike. Be sure to save the directions on Google maps, as a lot of the drive is in the countryside, with limited reception.
Image source: visavietnam.net.vn
Have fun at a water park
HCMC has water parks aplenty. Head to Binh Duong to enjoy the sun at Dai Nam Van Hien, or slip and slide in District 11 at Dam Sen Water Park. In District 9, check The BCR Club, which features a large pool and a paintball and archery shooting range, or Suoi Tien Park, probably the most established amusement park in the city.
Image source: vietnamtravel.co
Give Back to the Community
OK, not strictly an outdoor activity, but admirable nonetheless. Several organisations and institutions are always looking for help; although it certainly helps if you speak Vietnamese, for many it’s not a requirement. Here are some of our top choices:
All the way out in District 12, gives orphaned children the love and care they need. About 60 children, most with severe disabilities, reside here, and Sister Kim, the organiser, is always looking for people to spend time with them. See their website for more information.
Animal Rescue Service
In District 2 holds two daily dog walks, and would love you to take part! With a morning walk and an afternoon walk, you can play with a pooch and get outside at the same time. Maybe you’ll even find the canine companion of your dreams.
Their faces speak to another time and place. Some ancient, lines so deeply engraved in their skin that they’ve become a map of their hard-working years. Other faces unmarked by age and geographical area, youthful and grinning as if caught mid-play. They are the H’Mong, and Ha Nhi, Cao Lan and La Chi among others, the tribes that populate the minority regions of Vietnam captured through the lens of Réhahn, a photographer who has made it his life’s work to shoot all 54 of the ethnic minorities in Vietnam.
Image source: vietnamtravelblog.info
Most of these tribes speak their own dialects rather than Vietnamese and do not read or write the national language. As a result of this and a complicated history with French colonialism, the American war and current discrimination, people from these tribes have historically remained disconnected from the rest of Vietnam. Minority areas have a high degree of poverty and illiteracy, yet despite their daily struggles they maintain their rich cultural identity, which attracts tourists seeking experiential travel.
Heritage = High Yield
Sapa is the hub of this type of tourism and travellers flock there at sometimes alarming rates for the otherworldly vistas, the chance to have an experience in Vietnam that feels ‘authentic’, and the Fansipan Legend cable car. The Sapa Statistical Office reports that in 2017, close to 1 million tourists visited Sapa, while the number of official residents in Sapa District comes in at just under 60,000. Ethnic minorities from six hill tribes make up around 82 percent of that number.
However, it is important to note that the vast majority of these tourists are domestic travellers who are more interested in the cable car than trekking to visit minority cultures. Visitors who do come for cultural tourism coalesce in four main villages while the other 89 hardly get any footfall at all.
“Heritage tourists are one of the highest yield tourism groups.” They tend to spend 38 percent more per day than traditional travellers. In addition, they stay longer.
As a result of this profitability the minority regions around Sapa in northern Vietnam have exploded with packaged tours. Yet, a debate about ethics arose when it became apparent that the major beneficiaries of these tours are the companies, and that the minorities are often badly paid or, in the case of homestays, not paid at all.
At the time this article was written, Réhahn had photographed and documented 49 tribes. Réhahn’s images manage to depict not just the faces but also the spirit of the people and their heritage.
The subjects dressed in their handmade finery, their hands often stained with the deep indigo colour they use to dye their garments, gaze out from the prints as if inviting the viewer to come and get to know them, to experience a different style of life through them.
Image source: dulichmucangchai.com.vn
Réhahn recently opened the Precious Heritage Museum in Hoi An, which displays his photographic work as well as the traditional costumes and intangible histories of each tribe. For Réhahn the museum is a way to both pay homage to his subjects as well as to bring awareness of their cultural identity before their ancient traditions are effaced by modern society. Réhahn has been published in every major international photography and travel journal but he says that photography is not his real obsession.
“I’m not interested in talking about what type of camera I use because it is just a tool”, Réhahn said. “What brought me to this project is that I love people. I love culture. I love history and I want to understand. Photography is just a means to be able to approach [the minority tribes].”
Réhahn is not the only one to have this compulsion to connect with these rapidly disappearing cultures. Travellers come to Vietnam from all over the world to make the trek up into Sapa to see the H’Mong and the Red Dao, in particular, and to marvel at the intricate embroidery, tassels and colours of their traditional dress. Réhahn says that tourists are often looking for an experience with ‘the exotic’. When they go into a village and see people living in wooden houses, wearing beautiful costumes or silver jewellery made from French coins, they are able to witness something new.
“It is maybe a cliche”, Réhahn says, “but they seem to be happy. Happy with less. So I think tourists are trying to find some adrenaline, some type of emotion. They are trying to find out if they’re on the right path.”
Image source: rehahnphotographer.com
Cultural Curiosities and Human Zoos
Ethnic, cultural, minority or heritage tourism has gained in popularity since the 1970s, when tourism marketers realized that some people sought out travel experiences primarily so that they could gain a deeper comprehension of cultures dissimilar to their own. Yet, in all actuality, people have been attracted to the ‘other’ since the dawn of nationalism. In 1493, Christopher Columbus sailed back from the Americas with indigenous peoples to show them to the Spanish court. By the 1800s, ‘human zoos’ were à la mode across Europe and people were removed from their home countries to be presented in what were called “ethnographic museums”, a name that was chosen to give these exhibitions intellectual weight.
‘Native’ villages were reconstructed at World Fairs and populated with actual people whose humanity blurred into specimen. Visitors came to gape at what were then considered ‘primitive cultures’ by the thousands.
This dark history is at the source of the ethical debate about minority tourism. Phrases such as cultural appropriation and cultural voyeurism sprang from the guilt associated with this past and are often used to disparage businesses that are seen to profit from people’s inherent interest in people from different cultures.
New Hope and Tourism with Dignity
According to the South Dakota State Historical Society, a governmental organisation dedicated to preserving cultural heritage in the US, heritage tourism done well “creates jobs, new business opportunities, and strengthens local economies. It protects natural and cultural resources, which improve the quality of life for residents and travellers who participate in the services and attractions.”
This is the ideology behind Ethos - Spirit of the Community, a “social enterprise that strives to offer experiential adventures”. Ethos is located in Sapa town, which is the starting point for most ethnic tourism in Vietnam. Ethos mainly employs people from the H’Mong tribe to act as tour guides as well as offering homestays, textile and cooking classes and trekking.
Video source: ETHOS - Spirit of the Community
Phil Hoolihan, the managing director of Ethos, said that “all trips work on real conversations. I feel that any ethical experiences should be about positive exchanges. We all learn from each other. What that means is guests and local minority people discuss and converse dynamically.”
Hoolihan said that locals who are employed in standard tours are often paid a pittance and are unable to continue their traditional way of life. Full time guides have no time for rice planting, farming, embroidering or any of their other traditional daily life tasks. There is irony in the fact that in order to create income and attempt to preserve their cultural heritage these guides must completely remove themselves from their culture. Ethos’ team is bigger than necessary so that each guide can continue his/her regular way of life alongside receiving compensation for their work. The money that Ethos receives from tours is then returned to the communities by way of projects achieved in unison with the Sapa District Women’s Union that are centred around healthcare, education and literacy, human trafficking prevention and health and hygiene.
According to the National Trust for Historic Preservation in the US: “The keys to a successful cultural heritage program include five principals: 1) Collaborate 2) Find the fit between a community and tourism 3) Make sites and programs come alive 4) Focus on quality and authenticity 5) Preserve and protect resources.”
Unfortunately, the current state of tourism in Sapa is far from these ideals. Package tours guide travellers towards prefabricated ‘handicraft’ shops in which crafts traditional to the region are copied and sold at much cheaper rates. There is no comparison for a hand-stitched H’Mong blanket that may have taken one year to make, but tourists that are uneducated about the difference and the damage that buying knock-offs can have for the local population can easily fall into the trap. To make matters worse, authorities have posted signs asking tourists not to buy from the villages and to buy from the shops in Sapa town instead.
As a result, though the villages around Sapa are crowded with tourists, the locals make very little money from the influx. Hoolihan puts it this way: “When you are simply surviving, you can’t dream. Most people here are going through the motions and unless they gain specifically from tourism, they get the inconveniences—litter in the villages, cameras in their faces etc., without the positives.”
Artists like Réhahn who try to bring awareness, respect and preservation to the minority cultures, and companies like Ethos, Sapa O Chau, and Sapa Sisters whose aim is less financial than social, are scarce but there is hope in the fact that they are out there trying to shift the status quo.
“If there was no tourism [in Sapa] the culture might have disappeared already”, Réhahn said. “Villagers might have to send their kids to Sapa town and become a housekeeper in a hotel or home there. Tourism can help to build up the village rather than dispersing the people to other towns to get income.”
Ker, a young H’Mong woman who works as a guide for Ethos, talked about the opportunities properly managed tourism have brought to her, “Tourism is good for me because it helps me a lot for the future. I can have a better house and a better shower room and it has also allowed me to travel.”
Image source: assets.community.lomography.com
The experience for her has been mutual. She said that she enjoys working as a guide because it gives her the opportunity to learn about other people’s cultures in the same way that they learn about hers.
Both Hoolihan and Réhahn emphasise that despite the influx of tourism Sapa is still a magical place for those interested in stepping off the beaten path and experiencing genuine cultural tourism.
For more information about the diverse minorities residing in Vietnam, download the Precious Heritage app, which includes Réhahn’s photographs, the story of each tribe and recordings of their traditional music. Or go to Ethos’ website to learn more about the history of Sapa.
The rapid move to mobile research and bookings means travelers require easier ways to access content. In 2014, approximately 40% of leisure travelers and 35% of business travelers will use mobile search engines to find hotels, and this number will only grow, with 72% of travelers worldwide saying that the ability to book via mobile device is useful.
Placeable has recently conducted a survey where they surveyed 1,000 consumers to find out about how they research and find businesses before and during their travels. Read the FULL ARTICLE for key findings and nicely illustrated infographic.
CITY PASS GUIDE INCREASES ITS DISTRIBUTION NETWORK
Julien Robellet, Distribution Manager at City Pass Guide, talks about the quick and high increase of the distribution network.
Aiming to reach a larger number of readers and provide useful and meaningful information to travellers and residents, City Pass team has done a great effort on its distribution channels. READ FULL STORY
CityPass Guide is a proud sponsor of the 1st Inter-Company Football Tournament, organized by BBGV. The event will bring 16 teams together to compete for the Championship title. Colleagues, families, sponsors, associates and volunteers will support and cheer on the football teams throughout the day.
Date: Saturday 19th July 2014 Time: 08:30 to 17:30 Where: RMIT University, 702 Nguyen Van Linh, District 7, HCMC
Fun and games for adults and children
All proceeds go to support local charities in Vietnam
Kitesurfing equipment has become safer and more durable over the last years. Still, it’s quite possible to damage the kite or the board. During the high season in Mui Ne, waves can reach two meters height and the wind is strong with 25 knots. In these conditions, a kite falling into the water might get damaged by the energy from the ocean or the wind.
When the kite crashes in the water, the fabric may stretch to the point where the seams break. This is an easy repair, and usually this is done with a old-fashioned sewing machine and special repair tape, called rip-stop. A kite repaired by a professional, will fly like new.
Sometimes, the “bladder” (inner tube) which holds the air to stabilize the kite, may have problems. Sometimes bladders leak air due to a small puncture. This can be fixed with repair tape, not unlike fixing a flat tire on the bicycle.
Other times, the bladder might have more damage, it can even explode when it’s pumped to hard. There, the only solution is to replace the bladder, and good kite-repair shops will have bladders in many sizes in stock.
The lines and the bar which is used to steer the kite, can also get damaged. Lines can stretch from, for example, jumping, or simply due to the power of the wind, or they even can break. Experienced kite-repairers are able to shorten stretched lines, but broken lines have to be replaced. Other parts of the equipment, like the bar or the “pulleys” (which is the attachment between the lines and the kite) may break, in particular given the salty water in Mui Ne. In those cases, it’s best to just replace the damaged equipment.
Kiteboards are rarely broken. In Mui Ne, there are no stones or corals which present a danger for the boards. The only exception may be “surfboards”, which may break due to high jumps. Depending on the amount of damage, surfboards may not be suitable for repair.
In Mui Ne, there are a number of specialized kite repair shops. One of the more established kite-repairers is Frenchman Christian Bouillon who works at the Kitesurf Ananda Shop. Christian is probably the most experienced in this profession: in his his native France a professional sailmaker. There are also a number of local kitesurfers who have the necessary skills to repair kites. They usually work at any of the many kiteschools during the day. It turns out that most damage is done by novices of kitesurfing, and kiteschools are probably the biggest customer of any kite repair shop.
The best prevention for any damage that may occur is to take good care of the equipment (rinse the bar and lines and the board with fresh water after a kite session, for example), and not to leave the kite on the beach in the wind and sun during the entire day, and to be be careful in high waves.