Friday, 8 February 2008


Couvent des Oiseaux
Outside Hanoi

On the heights of Đà Lạt

The house of an eccentric woman, Đà Lạt

On the road to Đà Lạt

The streets of Saigon

I have never eaten so much than during the past couple of days. Lunar New Year oblige! 
My cousin has prepared this speciality called bánh chưng, a square cake made of glutinous rice, yellow bean and pork wrapped in a banana leaf. She made more than fifty of them and had to spend two whole nights of labour on them, if not more. I was in Đà Lạt and missed the chance to watch the preparation.
The result couldn’t have been more delicious. Even if this cake can now be found the whole year long in any Asian store, it is to me the symbol of the new year. During my glorious times as a boy scout,  I learned about the origins of this much loved cake: according to an old Vietnamese legend, an ageing king was eager to find the right heir among his four sons. Since he was unable to make a decision, he gave them the task to bring him something extraordinary. Such task is found in so many tales, when one thinks of it. The three eldest sons travelled the world and came back with precious stones, gold and gems, extremely rare birds and animals. The youngest didn’t go anywhere and still had nothing for his father, thus causing his brothers to spitefully  laugh at him.
He only had one day left before the presentation. During the night, he was visited by a vision. A square cake made of the main essential ingredients used by the people: glutinous rice, yellow bean and pork, wrapped in a banana leaf. The universe, the sky, and the earth. I don’t remember everything exactly.
At first the king was very doubtful. Even if he loved this youngest son very dearly and preferred him to his arrogant brothers, he thought his son had lost his mind when he appeared with this square cake. However, once the son explained to him what it symbolized, the king recognized the extreme wisdom of this youngest son and chose his as his heir.
And we had to stage a little play for the lunar new year ceremony, with props and costume. Needles to say, we wouldn’t have earned any award for that. But at least, I know the story when so many people stuff themselves to death - the banh chung is the exact opposite of a mousse, without realizing wha it symbolizes.
Well, how many people know about the meaning of the Christmas pudding????
Don’t ask me.

It was an excellent idea to go out and have a walk, experience the effervescence of a city on the eve of a new year. All the temples were packed - mostly the elderly, while the younger ones would be out, whether on their bikes or strolling along the Flower Road that had been set up for the occasion. I saw it taking shape day after day for the past ten days. It can be a very pleasurable promenade if one is able to remain oblivious of the millions of people shouting and laughing all around.
And of course, the firework to mark the passage to the year of the Rat. Strangely, it was launched on the side, behind tall buildings, when everybody expected on the main road. People started shouting and yelling while craning to catch a glimpse of it. Finally, the real show started to everyone’s glee.

That was my first new year outside of France. Is this a dream? Everything seems to unreal, so impossibly perfect to be true.

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