September 30, 2009

Mid-Autumn Children's Festival, Vietnam

Mid-Autumn Children's Festival or Tet Trung Thu is a wonderful time to visit Vietnam. The festivities last for several days and there is singing and shouting. Children wear masks, parade happily in the streets and bang their drums. Parents buy lanterns and toys for their children and prepare their favorite dishes. Special cakes are made and exchanged, and fruits are plentiful.

Full-moon festival in Halong Bay, Vietnam

The festival is celebrated on the fifteenth day of the eighth lunar month, the day of the first full moon closest to the autumn equinox when the moon is at its fullest. The autumn equinox always falls on September 23. This year, the Children's Festival will occur on October 8. At the spring and autumn equinoxes the duration of day and night is equal and the sun appears directly overhead at noon at the equator. After September 23 the days become shorter and the nights grow longer.

During the Children's Mid-Autumn Festival, although the moon is then at its greatest distance from the earth, it appears larger than at any time of the year and takes on a reddish glow. In the West, this large, full autumn moon is called a harvest moon. In its partial phases, the moon represents the incompleteness of life and potential for completeness, fullness and prosperity. The Mid-Autumn celebration is then a celebration and a prayer for the fullness and completeness of life.

In many ancient agricultural cultures, when the nights got longer and the light and heat from the sun decreased, there were prayers and ceremonies urging the sun not to forget to rise again the next year. The theme of light after darkness is a key to understanding fall festivals. In ancient times in northern Europe farmers held a great festival with bonfires and they rolled firewheels down hills to recall the descent of the sun and then to invoke its ascent and return. The lanterns which Vietnamese children play with on this festival day recall the wish for the return of the sun's warmth and light. There are several different shapes of lanterns including the five-star lantern representing the sun and the frog-shape representing the moon. There are lanterns which spin around when a candle is placed inside, symbolizing the seasonal spinning of the earth around the sun.

During the festival, children wear paper-mache masks of Ra Hu who looks somewhat like a tiger. According to the myth, during the creation of the world the gods stirred up the sea to activate the ambrosia of immortality. The demon Ra Hu, lord of the nine planets and ruler of the gods of the nine planets, stole it and the sun god punished him by cutting off his head. The myth also says that Ra Hu ate pieces of the full moon and that is why it has phases and eclipses. Children wear the masks and growl like tigers to frighten Ra Hu so he will not gobble up the entire moon. Nowadays there are also many kinds of plastic masks, including Mickey Mouse and Superman, to frighten off the monster.

The masks, lanterns, toys, decorations and drums are sold on Hang Ma Street in the commercial quarter of Hanoi. Days before the fifteenth of the month the street is crowded with children and their parents. In the evening, pagodas and temples, especially those temples dedicated to goddesses, are open for worshippers to light incense and make offerings of flowers and fruit and to pray.

Several types of special cakes called banh trung thu are eaten at the festival time and are sold all over town. Some cakes take on the shape of a carp. In Vietnamese tradition the carp represents the soul of the moon. Other cakes are round and white and still others are square and golden brown. The brown ones represent the yang elements, or the sun, and the white ones are the moon. Most of the children don't know the symbolism but just enjoy the taste. We see a yin and yang aspect to many of Vietnam's seasonal festivals. In the balance of the female and male elements of the universe, the fall festival represents the ascendancy of the female powers over the male, the prominence of the moon over the sun's influence.

Banh trung thu are not raised like Western cakes. They are filled with lotus seeds, orange peel, ground beans, and sometimes egg and pork fat for flavor. It is traditional that one offers a box of these special cakes to someone that you want to please or owe a favor, like your landlord or the local police. In addition to cakes, fruits are plentiful during this time, especially watermelon and grapefruit. Grapefruit sections can be transformed into animal shapes like the rabbit of the moon, who according to legend pounds the ambrosia of immortality at the foot of a cassia tree. In addition to the rabbit, there are other mythical inhabitants of the moon. One is the three-legged toad, an incarnation of the moon maiden who stole the elixir of immortality from her husband. And the old man who, as a punishment for displeasing a revengeful god, is forever cutting down cinnamon trees which regrow as soon as his ax chops them.

The dragon dance is an important aspect of many festivals including the Mid-Autumn Children's Festival. The dragon dance expresses the duality of Vietnamese festivals. The dragon dance is a re-enactment of the earth and sky duality, the yin and yang of the world. The Lord Earth, called Ong Dia in Vietnamese, is the dancer who dances around the dragon, urging it on. Ong Dia has a very round, happy smiling moon-face. He represents the wealth or fullness of the earth.

The meaning of the Mid-Autumn Festival has been transformed over time. Originally it was not specifically for children. The Vietnamese people believe that only when one is innocent and pure can they get close to the natural and sacred world. So by becoming like children, they can acquire attributes of the gods. Because of its interesting legends and customs, and because the weather is mild, the Mid-Autumn Festival is a special time to see Vietnam.

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September 29, 2009

How to prepare for a trip to Vietnam

When mentioning about Vietnam , people usually think of its famous battles in the past. Throughout a long period of time fighting against invaders, Vietnam, at last, proclaimed its independence in 1945 and united all regions in 1975 to found the Socialist Republic of Vietnam. For more than 20 years of renovation, Vietnam has been changing a lot in terms of all aspects. A number of visitors have come to visit Vietnam with curiosity to see what it is like after the horrible wars and surprised at the rapid development of this small country. In this article, I am going to give you some steps to prepare for a trip to Vietnam. In other word, after thinking of traveling to Vietnam, please follow these following steps.

Ethnic market on Northwest of Vietnam

Step 1: Think of the TIME TO GO

Autumn from August to November will be good time for travelers as the weather is rather cool and sunny together with sudden torrential downpours in the North. You will find it romantic when walking along streets. From then, Hanoi will be chilly in the Winter which will lasts from December to March (due to globalization, the cold seems to come later). Temperature in the South is much warmer with much sunshine. There is also no winter there.

The Lunar New Year (Tet) happens in February may not be suitable time for travelers unless they stay with a Vietnamese family. This is the most busy time when businesses close and people return to their homes to celebrate the Tet with family.

Step 2: Decide to go on tour or not on tour

Using experienced travel agencies can help you avoid costly mistakes. For the most part there is no extra cost for using a travel agency since they are paid by the airlines, hotels and sightseeing firms they work with.

Needless to say, business travelers will be wasting their money on escorted tours. However, some travel agencies offer package deals that are convenient to book and save a bit of money. Normally, these include accommodations, round-trip transportation between the airport and the hotel, and an introductory sightseeing excursion.

Vietnam is finally finding its way into many Orient ‘‘grand tour’’ itineraries, and a few tour operators are offering extensive Vietnam tours. If you are traveling for pleasure, have two weeks or more, and want to venture beyond Saigon or Hanoi, it may be worth looking into organized tours. For most first-time vacationers, however, it is best to use a knowledgeable travel agency to book the basics and nothing more.

Local guides are available through Vietnam tourism, a state-operated tour operator . Virtually all hotels can arrange for these guides, who charge about US$25 for the day, not including transportation or meals. Most guides are trained at the government tour guide school and are well worth the modest fees they charge.

Step 3: Ordering passports and visas

This is the one of the most important things that you should be well-prepared. Valid visas and passports are required to enter Vietnam. You can go to Vietnamese embassies located in your country to ask for visas – it may take quite much of your time. Another way, you can order Visa online via some reliable websites like Vietnam Visa. It is faster and cheaper than the first way.

Step 4: How much for your trip

Vietnam’s official currency is Dong. 1$=17,429 Dong. To buy things in markets and some places, you should exchange dollars into Dong for convenience.

Vietnam’s unofficial currency is the United States Dollar. At major shopping areas, hotels and restaurants in Ho Chi Minh City and Hanoi, you can use Dollars and Dong interchangeably and in practically any combination. For foreigners there is no black market for currency.

You can exchange foreign currency and travelers checks at banks throughout Vietnam, though some banks charge a commission of as much as four percent. Most merchants and hotels will not accept travelers checks at all. Cash can be exchanged at hotels and some shops, particularly jewelry stores. You will get a better exchange rate with a clean $100 bill than a worn $5 bill. If bills are damaged or worn they may not be acceptable for exchange.

Vietnam’s first ATM appeared in 1996 at the Hong Kong Bank branch in HCMC’s (Hi Chi Minh City’s) New World Hotel building. If your bank at home is part of the Plus or Star systems, you can withdraw from your ATM account at home in either Dong or Dollars. Vietnam’s only other ATM is outside the ANZ Bank in Ha Noi.

Step 5: Traveling within the country

While there is an extensive network of trains and busses within Vietnam, it is easier and more comfortable to fly. Vietnam Airlines and Pacific Air serve just about every major city between Ho Chi Minh City and Hanoi, including Nha Trang, Dalat, and Hue.
It is cheaper to buy domestic air tickets once you arrive in Vietnam. For example, airfare between Ho Chi Minh City and Hanoi is about $230 if purchased abroad or $160 in Vietnam (although Vietnamese pay only $40.) The grueling 40+ hour train trip is about the same price. If your travel agency specializes in Southeast Asia you may be able to find an excursion or ‘‘circle trip’’ fare which costs even less.

Things you’ll need:

• Photocopies of your passport and visa
• Cash in US $20’s and $100’s.
• A folding umbrella if you plan to visit during the rainy season. The wettest months are July and August.
• Zip locks bags. They are cheap, disposable, and keep all kinds of things fresh and dry.
• Business Cards. You will discover that practically everyone in Vietnam has a calling card of some kind. The proper way to offer your card is to hold it by the corners with both hands.
• Photo film. While 35mm print film is widely available, it may not always be fresh or properly stored. Slide film may be difficult or impossible to find.
• Money belt or fanny pack. As you will soon read, cash and small personal items are attractive to pickpockets. Leg wallets are uncomfortable.

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September 28, 2009

Cu Lao Cham island, Vietnam - The Vietnamese Hawaii

The winds roar and the waves surge, as our boat departs Cua Dai port in Hoi An Town. A few anxious passengers ask if it might be wise to return, others are thirsty for an adventure to a remote island.

Cu Lao Cham island, Da Nang, Vietnam

Our fearless guide stands firm on the bow and tells us about the islands 20 kilometres away off the shores of Cua Dai beach.

“You might say, the archipelago is the Hawaii of Vietnam,” Dinh Cong Trung, a 27-year-old tourist guide of the Hoi An Sports and Tourism Centre, says with a smile. “Scientific surveys show Cu Lao Cham’s waters have the same clarity and salinity as Hawaii.”

Of course, on such a grey morning, it’s hard to picture this scene in the Pacific Ocean but Trung insists on comparisons. Cu Lao Cham is home to eight islands and Hawaii has the same number, he tells us.

Nearly two centuries ago, Cu Lao Cham almost became a Hong Kong-style colony. Historian Nguyen Van Xuan said early in the 19th century, the British asked the Nguyen Dynasty rulers for the right to build up a trade base on the islands so as to have better access to China’s Guangzhou province and other countries in the region.

After the Opium War took place from 1839-1842, the British colonised Hong Kong, thus diverting attention from the Vietnamese archipelago. That partly reduced traffic in the waters from Cu Lao Cham to Hoi An, which during the 16th and 17th centuries had been one of Vietnam’s busiest trade centres.

As our boat edges closer to Lao Island, the biggest of the Cham islands, we see red and green forests set off beneath a grey sky. We are lucky, as in July only, thousands of the ngo dong trees (sterculia platanifola) are in bloom across the island.

On the island, a tourist promotion called “Cu Lao Cham and valuables from the seabed” is on. Pottery objects salvaged from wrecked ships on display reveal the beauty of an illustrious past.

There is also an introduction to the fauna and flora of the archipelago. According to the figures of the Cu Lao Cham Nature Preserve Project, which started in 2003, there are about 200 coral species, 202 fish species, five lobster species and 84 mollusc species in Cu Lao Cham.

The cua da (the Stone Crab) is particularly special as Cu Lao Cham is the only region in Vietnam where these creatures with violet and orange coloured shells are found. They live under stones in the forests, eat only medical herbs but reproduce in the sea. At a nearby fishing village, some of the locals are selling the crabs for only VND45,000 (nearly $3) per kilogramme.

The islands’ population is now nearly 3,000. Despite the islands’ rich potential for tourism the locals still lead a poor life. Cu Lao Cham has a temple where the tradition for worshipping the whale in Vietnam’s central coastal areas began in the 19th century. The story goes, Nguyen Anh, the first King of the Nguyen Dynasty was rescued by whales at Cu Lao Cham while being chased by the soldiers of Tay Son. So he built a temple to worship these huge mammals and even made them honorary officials at his court.

At Hai Tang Tu we find a small but beautiful pagoda for worshipping the Sea Deity. Constructed three hundreds years ago, it looks like an ancient house in Hoi An with two “house eyes” on the main door.

To my surprise, in the small room behind its main room, there is an altar with a statue for worshipping Dat Ma, a Buddhist monk, who crossed the sea to China and set up a Zen cult there. I wonder if Dat Ma visited Cu Lao Cham on his slow boat to China.

At the pagoda, the custodians offer us packs of herbal medical called “Nuoc la Lao”. With around 10 medical herbs collected from the islands’ forests, the water is said to be very good for digestion and boosting the body’s immune system.So, reinvigorated by the potion we take two small boats down to Lao Island’s southeastern shores. The weather is calm and peaceful, blue waters are opening up. Coral reefs can be seen beneath the boat.

Unlike diving in Nha Trang, Phu Quoc or Con Dao, you can enjoy the coral world in Cu Lao Cham with only a snorkel. So one by one we plunge into the sea, carefully watched by Trung, who tells us he once swam 22 km from Lao Island to Cua Dai Port in a competition held with Japanese participants. This precious unspoilt island must also be watched with a careful eye.

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