goodbye water snake…hello wood horse

Today, January 31st in the Gregorian calendar, is the first and most important day of the Lunar New Year or Tết. This biggest-holiday-in-Vietnam  is spent with close and extended family, where time is enjoyed together and blessings for the future are made.

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2014 is the Year of the Wooden Horse, a symbol of energy, intelligence and success.  This year is considered a time for fast victories, unexpected adventure, and surprising romance. It is also an excellent year for travel (gotta love that!), and the further off the beaten path, the better.

I started this auspicious day off right…with a yummy cà phê sữa đá! Click here if you want to learn how make this famous Vietnamese iced milk coffee at home!

Refreshing Vietnamese iced coffee at Continental Hotel

Refreshing Vietnamese iced coffee at Continental Hotel

After breakfast at the historic Continental Hotel, I took a stroll around Nguyen Hue St. and soaked in a little of the first day of Tết festivities.

Beautiful girl in ao day with Tết flowers

Pretty girl in ao dai dress and traditional Tết flowers

Families were in full swing, sporting new clothes and posing in front of an abundance of vivid Tết decorations and flowers.

This cutie caught my eye!

This cutie caught my eye!

During Tết, the city is so much quieter, with many gone to their hometowns to celebrate the new year. So many fewer motos, but I did catch this one…

Moto Tết girl

Moto Tết girl

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Cool cat!

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Lovely mother and daughter enjoying flower festival

Vietnamese people believe that a lion dance performance on the first day of the Lunar New Year will make the year a prosperous one. It is very often mistaken (I’m guilty!) for a dragon dance. In a lion dance, you do not normally see the performer’s face as they are inside the lion and it is most often performed by two people. In a dragon dance, there can be many performers and you see their faces as the dragon is held on poles. The lion dance is accompanied by synchronized drums, cymbals and gongs. I found these lions prancing outside our apartment building! Here is a tiny snippet of their dance so that you, too, can have a lucky year:

 

To think of Tết simply as a New Year celebration would miss the mark completely. It is a very special occasion lasting officially for four days (although many celebrate for two weeks!) that are filled with tradition and special family time. It is also a time when the Vietnamese people celebrate their culture and share a common goal of peace and love.

Saigon LOVE and Chúc Mừng Năm Mới to you and yours, Lisa

mountain high

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Nestled in the mountains of northern Vietnam near the border with China, lies the incredibly picturesque village of Sa Pa, Vietnam. After a long 9 hour overnight train ride from Hanoi to Lao Cai and a one hour van ride up the mountains, BFF Tien and I found ourselves 5,400 feet above sea level in a charming town famous for both its rugged scenery and exotic cultural diversity.

Sa Pa was first settled in 1909 by French civilian residents who were attracted to the continental climate. Under the French colonial period, many hotels, villas and tennis courts were built and the region was transformed into a summer retreat. The mountainous landscape is filled with rice terraced fields, lush vegetation and the highest mountain peak (Fanispan) in Vietnam.  Conditions here are ideal for many crops and animals which allows locals to support themselves. This was very evident as Tien and I climbed up and down the mountains for three days. We ate tasty indigenous dishes and  observed locals making their own vibrant clothing from the indigo plants and hemp. They even have their own unique headache cure. We saw many people with round, red marks on their foreheads (you will notice a few in my video below). Our guide, Nhu, told us that the mark is created with the end of a buffalo horn that is heated with fire and then placed on forehead! So glad we have Tylenol.

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Tien with new friend!

There are five ethnic minority tribes living in Sa Pa region. Many migrated from China as early as the 13th century. The two dominant groups (H’mong and Dao) have their own branch minorities. Each group has its own culture, traditions and costumes. Each tribe also speaks their own language. Many have also learned Vietnamese in school and English from their interactions with tourists.

Young man headed to love market

Young man on his way to the LOVE Market

One tradition I was eager to explore is the famed Love Market where teens gather to find their mate. Unfortunately, this custom is now mostly a tourist attraction with young people now flocking to the event to learn English or sell their trinkets. Girls and boys marry as young as fifteen years old. Aside from the constant haranguing for your business, the ethnic minorities were absolutely mesmerizing to me. After you watch this slideshow, you will also fall in love!

Sa Pa is experiencing a big surge in tourism for obvious reasons. Tien and I will never forget our beautiful adventure and time together in this stunning and fascinating destination. Saigon LOVE to all, Lisa

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what is not art?

Anne and Paul with very artsy lantern backdrop in Hoi An

I could never be accused of being a detailed oriented person…but that fact was glaringly obvious during the visit of my artist sister-in-law, Anne. How eye-opening to see Saigon through her connoisseur eyes. How many times have I walked past the vertical garden on Hai Ba Trung without observing so many of its characteristics? Or how could I have passed a mural on countless occasions without ever knowing it existed? Every day of her visit, she admired something that I had not noticed before. Besides the traditional galleries and artists, Anne also discovered admirable art in gardens, architecture, massage, food, kite-making, silk worms and even geckos. Yours truly learned a few things along the way. I was even the beneficiary of a one-on-one Photoshop tutorial with this creative spirit!

We are surrounded by inspirational objets d’art in our everyday life. Time for me to slow down and take more notice:

On a personal note, it was terrific spending this amazing time with Anne. Although we have always clicked, being able to share fun and Vietnam with her was priceless. If you want to learn more about the art of Anne Boudreau, check out her ethereal mixed media sculptures and collages on her website.

But, when girlfriend put on her artist-designed moto mask, I knew it was time to send her home! Saigon LOVE to you, Annie!

xin chao, maria


My New Orleans friend, Maria Christina Cordero Stambaugh, made a birthday trip around the world, stopping in Vietnam for eight days. To say this woman has never met a stranger is a huge understatement! I had a fab time showing her all the wonderful things she has been reading about on this blog. We rode cyclos, ate scrumptious food, went to the Ben Thanh Market, Women’s Museum, a Buddhist Temple, toured Saigon After Dark on moto, attended the Coach Grand Opening of their Vietnam office, had massages, floated overnight on the Mekong River and for the grand finale…relaxed at the glorious beach resort of Six Senses on an island off the coast of Nha Trang.  Maria arrived as a good acquaintance and left as a dear friend.  Enjoy my little Maria flick:

Saigon LOVE and XIN CHAO to you, Maria!

heaven on earth

When describing how beautiful Halong Bay was to my daughter, Nina, she said “Mom, you say that about everywhere you go in Vietnam!”. I can’t help it…it is true.  Each destination seems to be more breathtaking than the one before.

Made the trip with my new travel buddy, Laura.  She was in Hanoi on business and I caught up with her on her last day. The next morning we made the three and a half hour drive to Halong Bay. We boarded the Paradise Luxury junk boat and began our three day tour.  Along the route, we stopped to visit floating villages, islands, caves and swimming locales. It didn’t matter if it was morning, evening, sunny or rainy, the view was always spectacular. And it was so special meeting locals and fellow travelers. But, none more so than the Starlin family from New Orleans. I spotted Drew’s (GOOD name!) Saints’ shirt and knew I had to make their acquaintance!

NOLA Starlin Family

I hope you find my Halong Bay film entertaining.  I know I enjoyed making it just for you!

This week, Laura and I are traveling to Nha Trang, said to be one of the most beautiful beaches in Vietnam. I am running out of superlatives to describe the beauty of Vietnam. Saigon Love to all, Lisa

love the middle

Whew! It’s been a crazy two weeks traveling. Lots to tell you starting with my trips to three cities in the middle of Vietnam a couple of weeks ago with my BFF, Tien.

Here we go!

This was a rare opportunity for a bird’s eye view of how Vietnamese families live as I stayed in the homes of Tien’s Grandmother and her Aunt. I was left with a new appreciation for Vietnamese people and their traditions but also for my own!

Part 1:  Danang 

Iconic Han River Bridge

We flew early in the morning to Tien’s family’s hometown of Danang. Both of her parents were born in Danang and she still has grandparents living there. We stayed with her maternal grandmother who could not have been more welcoming. Her grandmother’s house is like a little compound with lots of aunts, uncles and cousins living there. The happiest place to be is on the family bed, which is  a wide slat frame without a mattress. Instead of a sofa, this is where everyone congregates to visit, snack and catch up.  At night, her grandmother covers the slats with her sleeping mat. I love this photo of her grandmother:

Danang is a major port city on the China Sea and the largest city in Central Vietnam.  While there, I had some very tasty seafood and local delicacies, rode along the scenic beach and  climbed nearby Marble Mountain.  But, most enjoyable was getting to know Tien’s loving family.  I swear I don’t know how babies ever learn to walk.  They are so adored and their tiny feet never touch the ground!  It was also heartwarming to see Tien interact with her grandparents in such a caring and respectful way. Easy to see why I love her so much! Here is my video on our time in Danang:

Part 2:  Hue

Bridge Over the Perfume River

We did a four hour train ride from Danang to the Imperial City of Hue. Wall to wall people, livestock,  and very hot. Glad for the experience but not one I am anxious to repeat!  In Hue, we stayed with her very gracious aunt and uncle in their lovely home.

Here we are inside the Phong Nha Cave

The charming city of Hue sits on the banks of the beautiful Perfume River and at one time was the capital city of the Nguyen Dynasty.  It is famous for its monuments and architecture.  Tien brought me to Emporer Khai Dinh’s magnificent mausoleum. I also visited the Forbidden Purple City, cruised the Perfume River, made a four hour car (and boat) trek to visit the fabulous Phong Nha Cave and of course, ate lots of the “royal cuisine” Hue is famous for. Her aunt even showed me how to cook a spicy beef noodle soup called Bun Bo Hue, the most famous of Hue dishes! You can check it out in this little movie made just for you:

Part 3:  Hoi An

Chinese Bridge in Hoi An

We skipped the train and opted for a car ride back to Danang.  From there we made the one and half hour moto ride (read sore butt!) to the most ancient city of Hoi An for a day trip.  Unlike Hue, Hoi An’s buildings were spared by the Vietnam war.  This was the most beautiful stop in my Central Vietnam adventure and  I am very anxious to return for a longer visit.  Tien timed our visit with the “Hoi An Full Moon Night” when once a month in the Old Town section, the electric street lights are turned off and is lit only by lanterns….breathtaking!  Hoi An had all of my favorite things…delicious food, incredible shopping, enchanting ambiance and stunning scenery! See for yourself:

Although we butted heads a few times (that happens when you get two “wannabe-tour-dictators” in the same room!), I can say that at the end of the day, Tien and I are better friends than ever.  In fact, you could say BFF Forever!  Thank you, Tien, for a memorable trip that I will treasure always.

it’s raining so hard

Rainy season has begun. Saigon’s tropical climate is divided into two distinct seasons.  The rainy season averages about 70 inches of rain per year (about 150 rainy days) and begins in May ending late in November.  So far the showers I have experienced are short rains that clear quickly and cool down the temperature. The dry season lasts from December to April. You can’t really see the rain in this video I shot from my balcony (aka Miss Paul Movie Studio) the other night, but it does give you a feel for the season.

I plan on embracing the rainy season.  I mean why not swim my laps in the rain? I’m going to be wet anyway. And of course, I will be shopping for some cute rain gear to wear when splashing around!  I do feel for the motos in the rain, but they appear to accept it as a normal part of their life.

Here, my tour guide at the Reunification Palace, Ngoc, tells me why she and other young Vietnamese girls love the rainy season:

Think I will dry off now and soak up the Queen of Soul singing one of my favorites:

who is that masked woman?

One thing you notice right away in Vietnam are the masks.  Almost all of the women and some of the men wear them on their motorcycles and while outside. See for yourself:

There are several reason why masks are worn.  They are worn to keep from inhaling “bad air”, dust, bugs, and debris. But also worn to keep beautiful porcelain skin from tanning.

Many women also wear gloves to shield their skin from the sun even in scorching heat.

I have even seen whole families on a motorcycle with matching masks.  I have not captured this on my camera…yet!  The masks are sold everywhere. Some even come with carbon filters.  And some are pretty cute.  Here is one I picked up today for less that $1.00.

And here I am in my kitty mask blending in nicely with the locals at the Ben Thanh market:

Who is that masked woman?

moto life

I will probably be posting lots of motorcycle photos as I am so fascinated by them! Everything from cargo (including entire families and lumber) to moto fashion keeps my camera clicking!

Family outing…no problem!

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hanging at hanoi hilton…

…but not the one you might be thinking of! We just got back from three days in Hanoi and stayed at the beautiful Hanoi Hilton Opera. I was blown away by the graceful beauty of Hanoi. Very different vibe from Saigon. Lots of fabulous French colonial architecture and the Old Quarter which is one big outdoor market. Hanoi recently celebrated its 1,000th birthday and commemorated with an incredible 6 mile tile wall that runs along the banks of the Red River. The tiles scenes depicts different locales around the world and art projects from Hanoi residents. Here are a couple of samples:

Everything seems to revolve around the beautiful Hoan Kiem Lake famous for the huge tortoises that inhabit the murky water. The one pictured here weighed over 400 lbs. at death! It is considered very lucky if you spot one as they rarely surface. No such luck for me!

Here we are with new “friends” that wanted to take a picture with us. Hoan Kiem Lake and bridge to Jade Mountain Temple behind us.

I look forward to returning to Hanoi in drier weather. Rainy and a little chilly most of our time there. But that didn’t stop me from stopping at a street stall to have some roasted pork noodles ($1.50) with some friendly locals while Paul was at work.

And of course, I got back on the cyclo. This time price was pre-negotiated!

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