Green was Viet Nam’s first colour. Before the people, the culture, the languages, the cities; there was a green covered land. Alive and bright with the vegetation and botantic scents. It was a colour of renewal and regrowth.
That changed soon enough and the colour green came to symbolise more.
Two hundred Vietnamese solders and I visited Ho Chi Minh’s Mausoleum one day. I might have stood out slightly.
A vibrant green of a banana (chuối) plantation, nestled in a mountain valley. The landscape was as beautiful and serene as I was hot and sweaty. The ideal growing conditions for bananas are not the ideal conditions for a hike.
Getting covered in vines and moss is just part of getting older for Viet Nam’s ancient buildings.
Rice waiting to be harvested. I was waiting for the rain and cool change promised by the clouds.
I ordered this drink because it was called Cóc* and I childish thought it would be funny to order. The joke was on me. It was just terrible, undrinkable. The radioactive green colour should have been my first warning.
Eventually the vegetation will take what was once their’s. There are already some temples that are succumbing.
*This is a drink called Nước Cóc. Nước means ‘water’ or ‘juice,’ while Cóc means ‘frog.’ A Cóc is also a small green fruit that is the same size, shape and colour as a tree frog. This drink was made with fake Cóc, as always, real Cóc is best.
Some nights there is no sleep to be found in my restless city; sometimes it is the heat and humidity, occasionally it is the flashing neon lights. But usually it is the noise. Most of the sounds are familiar to me now, but that doesn’t mean they don’t have the power to keep me from falling asleep. The sleeplessness gives my mind time to wander and compose childhood inspired verses.
I’m not the best person to hear tourists’ “I saw the craziest thing on the road today” stories. For one thing I probably see the same thing or more disastrous almost daily and I don’t feign surprise or interest well. And worse, I’ll probably share one of my own inconceivable stories that comes from a solid year on the Sai Gon streets. Either way, I’ve robbed their ‘four people on a bike’ story of its magic. I don’t like this part of my personality and I’m really trying to work on it.
To purge myself, I’m sharing some of my best/worst photos of overladen vehicles and improbable cargos. These photos are a simultaneous testament to people’s ingenuity, pragmatism, craziness, and desperation. Generally these people and their cargo are trying to make a living or just getting from one place to another; just stand back with your faces set to stunned.
An entire pottery shop on a bicycle.
A lot of people train their dogs to ride on their bikes with them; small mixed breeds, terriers, pugs, etc. This guy gets his Great Dane to squeeze itself in front of him. I ran down the street after them.
Another mobile shop; if you can’t find the basket that you want here, then it probably doesn’t exist.
So many plants on this mobile nursery, that I couldn’t see the rider.
I think it is only sheer willpower and good intentions that is keeping this motorbike and cargo together. Maybe some rope too…
Tourist cyclos (most tourists call them tuk tuks) do double duty taking cargo around town. Saigonese people are daring and skilled motorcycle riders, but not ‘four queen-sized mattresses’ talented.
These are light, plastic containers but the size of this cargo alone makes riding extremely difficult.
Sadly, this is the best example I have of long poles being transported on a motorcycle. I never seem to have a camera when I’ve seen full-length street lights being transported this way; one on either side of the bike for balance. Maybe one day.
Almost colliding with 30kgs of water spinach is a typical, early morning event near a traditional open-air market.
This is my best/worst photo of an overloaded Saigonese vehicle. He could barely reach the throttle to start moving and his riding looked pretty wobbly. Even the Saigonese native standing next to me couldn’t believe what we witnessed. This is why your stories don’t impress me.
Cargo witnessed, but not photographically recorded.
Lobster tanks with water oxygen system – fixed to the back of a motorbike.
Small refrigerator – held by a motorcycle pillion passenger.
Box of live tree snakes – fixed to the back of a motorbike.
Small mahogany armoire – held by a motorcycle pillion passenger.
60 live gold fish in bags – hung from frame on motorbike.
1.5 metre, potted mandarin tree – strapped to back of motorbike.
Live, baby black bear – dragged in a cage behind a motorbike to advertise a circus during Vietnamese New Year traffic (the worst, craziest and loudest of Vietnamese traffic). I’ve never seen a more terrorised and frightened creature in my life.
Blue is one of the more subtle colours in Viet Nam. It is not the colour of splendid imperial palaces or monuments to faith; rather the tone of nature, calm domesticity and simple pleasures.
Blue skies during the monsoon are a welcome relief from the rain, but also the signal of punishing heat during the dry season. You’ll see shades of blue from the azure waters of the coast and the blue-grey haze over the Central Highland mountains.
There are the blue-tinted scents and flavours of home; the soft blue smoke that snakes from beneath soup pots, warm purple taro and buttery blue duck eggs. Indigo and cobalt are the colours of household doors and walls, tiles under foot, and traditional pottery.
The longer I live in Viet Nam, the better I am at interpreting what I see. I’ve discovered that colours have layers of meaning; black is associated with darkness, evil and filth, while white is indicates purity, death and finality. Yellow or gold are linked to prosperity, royalty, joy and change. And red is associated with happiness, love, good fortune and celebration.
Scarlets and crimsons indicate auspicious happenings. Red envelopes filled with Lucky Money are exchanged at Tết (Vietnamese New Year). Rosy tones are the best colours for wedding dresses and dancing dragons. Vermilion and magenta are the right choice for temples and mausoleums. Sunny gold is the reserve of might and power, saffron indicates faith and salvation.
Every special event requires large flower arrangements and you’ll often find yourself in traffic next to a florist’s worth of flowers on the back of a motorbike. Red and yellow are always popular colours.
A boat carrying ‘Chôm Chôm’ (Rambutans) from the an Orchard in the Mekong Delta to Sai Gon. Not only are they delicious, their colouring make them great offerings ancestors at the family altar or temples.
Lanterns come in all colours, but red ones are the most popular by far.
The happiest fish I’ve found in Viet Nam. They are the ornamental Koi Carp in the moat of the Imperial Citadel in Hue, the ancient Imperial Capital. They have kilometres of waterways to swim in but they’re pushing together to be fed.
If I had to choose a place for my spirit to be venerated – it would probably look something like this.
Red and gold doesn’t discriminate over religion. These are the temple doors leading to a Buddhist temple.
Opening a bank absolutely requires Dragons of red, orange and gold… and drums and loud speakers and a Master of Ceremonies and techno music and flower arrangements and a ribbon cutting ceremony and what I think was a dancing Prosperity Deity. There was a lot going on.
I can’t remember seeing an important traditional building that wasn’t some shade of red, orange or gold. You don’t want to be an innovator when it comes to showing respect to your ancestors or your God – stick to what has worked for millennia.
Potted Bougainvillea, usually found in temple courtyards all through the year and everywhere else during Tết.
It is always red, whether you are coming or going.
Oh, and yeah… the Vietnamese Flag.
Language note – The word for colour, ‘màu’, can be added before the other colour words to make it clear that you are talking about colours. If it is clear from the context, there’s no need to use it, except in the case of gold (vàng) and yellow (màu vàng).