There is Life Outside Your Apartment!
After a whole day inside, sleeping and getting used to being All Alone, I was ready to gnaw my own arm off at the elbow this morning when I woke up. As I was strapping on my Chacos in preparation for the Big Hot Walk of the day, loud banging started up outside the house. That’s completely usual for this neighborhood, especially now that it’s Tet: there have been fireworks, a yapping dog symphony, motorbike revving competitions, and I think I’ve made my point about the karaoke machines. So when the drums started I didn’t really register them, but they didn’t stop. Realizing this as a possible interesting event, I walked out on the balcony and there right in front of our house was a troupe—a troupe!—of young guys dressed from head to toe in fire-engine red costumes, complete with red slippers and red headscarves, playing these huge golden drums and banging symbols and drawing a real crowd from the surrounding houses. Sweet! I filmed them from the balcony for a few minutes but before I realized what I was doing I was running downstairs and joining the crowd in the street.
It turned out that the party was for our neighbors, who (I’m guessing) were being honored by all the attention of the drumming troupe, who was playing directly in front of their door and a couple of teen boys were now doing a symbol dance on their stoop. The inhabitants of the chosen house were standing there in their front area (there aren’t really yards in front of the houses here, it’s more like a ground level patio where bikes are parked) just watching with proud expressions. At one point, two pre-teens put on a dual dragon suit (think of the old horse costume: one wears the head, the other wears the tail, and all you can see is their legs). They ran into the neighbor’s house and were in their for quite awhile, but none of us on the street peered in to see what was going on (they eventually came back out). The highlight of the two-person dragon was when the front guy jumped backwards onto the back guy’s shoulders. It looked like the dragon had reared up onto it’s hind legs. Wow.
The neighborhood kids were extremely worked up about the troupe, and when a dozen guys busted out a really long dancing dragon, the youngest kids were just beside themselves. The various dads, moms, and older relatives held up the littlest ones and the troupe made the dragon swoop down right in front of the kids—it was pee in your pants worthy, for sure. I have to admit, the dragon was just amazing. It whooshed around in this really fluid, snakelike whirl, way above our heads. I was floored. While the dragon was dancing, a few of the drummers went down the street to retrieve a really long metal pole, which they planted into a brace that kinda looked like an industrial strength christmas tree stand. They hoisted up the pole, which had to have been at least twenty feet high, and secured it into the brace. There was nothing at the top but a very short crossbar about two feet from the top, making the pole look a little like a crucifix with stumpy arms. The dragon folded itself away and the guys crowded around the base of the pole, the drums getting louder and more intricate, and one of the guys started to climb up the pole like a monkey. He was holding a giant dragon head, and I have no idea how he got up there with one arm, but when he was at the top he placed his feet onto the arms of the cross and sorta squeezed the top of the pole between his knees. The dragon head had a hinged mouth and he fit it over the top half of his body, with a long scale-covered tail hiding his legs. Then, to the beat of the drum, he began to dance.
This guy twisted and swirled and reached to all the directions—with his feet staying put on the beam and his arms inside the dragon head. It was like, Captain Torso time. I realized that another guy had gone inside the neighbor’s house and was on the second story balcony (which was closer to the ground than the dragon guy was) and was holding out a long decorated stick with what looked like a head of lettuce attached to the end. The guy reached; the dragon guy reached. Finally the dragon manages to bite onto the stick, which swung precariously around until he was able to bit it securely. Of course at this point the drummers were doing a suspenseful sort of drum roll. The people assembled in the street seemed tense and expectant—everyone’s necks were craned, and we were all shielding our eyes from the sun, which was right above the dragon guy. One of my street buddies was an elderly man wearing gorgeous silk blue pajamas and a hearing aid who asked me in French if I spoke French, then told me he spoke a little bit of English and that he was 82 years old. Next to us was a younger man in a wheelchair- his legs were twisted and shriveled but he was cheerful and excited to have me squat down next to him so that he could watch the show through the screen on my camera. He shook my hand and spoke Vietnamese. As we watched, the dragon guy made it look like the dragon was eating the lettuce, and shredded bits floated down to us. Finally, he dropped the stick and everyone applauded. The guy took off the dragon head, dropped it down, and then turned upside down and slid down the pole head first. It was amazing. Everyone cheered.
After the dragon guy came down a lot of the adults crowded around him and offered him cups of water and pats on the shoulders, and it seemed like they might have known him personally. He was sweating profusely and looked ready to keel over. The kids and I just stared at him with our mouths sort of open.
After that, the crowd dispersed and I walked on, passing latecomers who had obviously heard the noise from across the neighborhoods and had wandered over. And I felt incredibly lucky that that was happening right in front of my doorstep, and that I was around to have seen it.
The day only got better: there were so few people outside at high noon on the second day of Tet that I felt like I was in a sunny, tropical zombie movie (in one of those scenes where the hapless hero starts wondering where everybody went). I walked all the way across town and by the time I got to Ben Thanh Market I had my iPod on and was barely looking either direction before crossing the street. My plan was to walk down to my favorite haircutting place but I realized along the way that this was probably futile, so I changed directions and went to the park. Aha! So this is where everybody is. I was quite hot, so stopped to cool off on a park bench away from the crowds of over-excited kids and cranky looking parents. I was playing a game of iPod solitaire in the shade when all of a sudden a reeeally strung out looking guy was standing right in front of me. He looked angry. He stared at me and said in this really creepy flat voice “I lub yoo.” It was pretty apparent that he didn’t exactly know what that meant, so I said, “thank you, that’s very kind” and went back to my game, thinking that if I ignored him then he might go away (broken hearted, of course, but hey). Instead, he took a step closer to me and his eyes narrowed, and he repeated “I lub you” and I noticed that he was swaying and that his face was scraped up. I live in perpetual fear of being suddenly barfed on (I’m not kidding) so I said, “di, di, di!” with an angry face, but he did not di away. Now this is the weird part: this guy sort of stumbles out of his flip flops and starts walking stiff-legged in little circles around them. I’m not sure how it happened, or why, but his shoes were off and he wasn’t even looking at them, he was just staring into the middle distance as he stumbled around them, as if someone had said, “Hey Tuan, I bet you can’t get your feet back into your shoes without looking at them.” Now I really felt like I was in a zombie movie. One of his stumbling circles took him very, very close to me and I sort of leapt up and away before any contact could be made. It was creepy and weird. Plus, now I was benchless (not to mention unlubbed), so I walked on. [I noticed though, by glancing backwards, that as soon as I left he put his shoes on just fine. Weird.]
I was very pleased to see that the bubble tea place was open, and grinning like an idiot, I ordered one iced green tea with no milk and lots of bubbles (tapioca pearls, if you don’t know), and then realized that maybe the shiatsu place was open. I walked that way and it sure was. I know I’ve written about this place three zillion times, but I just gotta say again: I love it. I want to take it home with me. It is the very best place in the whole world, or at least this city. For a little over ten dollars I got to spend the rest of my afternoon in the shower, the steam bath, the sauna, and on the massage table. I even got my favorite therapist, number nine, without asking. She was just there.
I walked home, freshly scrubbed and rubbed and steamed, and sat down to eat this. I warmed up my leftover concoction of wild rice and vegetables and ate while singing along to the Ditty Bops.
Life can be pretty freaking grand when you’re All Alone during Tet.
[also-- the podcasts "Quick and Dirty Tips" are so clean cut they almost squeak, but they are quick and the tips (on grammar, money smarts, and practical legal advice) are pretty worth listening to. They're free on iTunes.]