Tag Archives: Chinese New Year

Vietnam for CNY – Tunnels and Beach

Getting off the plane in Saigon/Ho Chi Minh City, I was very nervous again, especially when I saw a sign with my name on once we got off the plane. The man took my passport and paperwork and told me to take a seat. The rest of our group went off to get their visas processed.  This was a very worrying time for me as I thought I was about to be put on a plane back!  It was a long process of waiting for the officials to get all the paperwork done.  Eventually we made it through and our driver with our minibus was waiting to take us to the hotel.  We stayed at the Renaissance in down town Ho Chi Minh City which has a fabulous pool on its rooftop!

Renaissance Riverside Hotel

Renaissance Riverside Hotel

View from the rooftop pool area - across down town HCMC!

View from the rooftop pool area – across down town HCMC!

And looking the opposite way - down the Saigon River.

And looking the opposite way – down the Saigon River.

Fabulous rooftop pool at the Renaissance Riverside Hotel.

Fabulous rooftop pool at the Renaissance Riverside Hotel.

"Happy New Year" in Vietnamese

“Happy New Year” in Vietnamese – Year of the Snake

Beautiful flower display in the hotel lobby.  With 2 beautiful children!

Beautiful flower display in the hotel lobby. With 2 beautiful children!

We all enjoyed a delicious lunch at the hotel – I love Vietnamese Pho, which is a noodle/bean sprout/beef soup that is divine.  I think I will be living on that for the week!   The best thing about Pho is that you can have it in so many different ways and you control the flavor.  It is usually served quite simply with the rice noodles submerged in special meat broth with your choice of meat on top.  A separate side plate allows you to add as many or as little of the bean sprouts, onions, basil leaves, lemon, chilli and coriander to your liking.

Delicious and yummy Vietnamese Pho.

Delicious and yummy Vietnamese Pho.

Off to explore the city in the afternoon – we walked from the hotel around alot of the streets and into the main Lunar New Year display (can’t call it Chinese New Year in Vietnam!!).  Of course, many places were closed because of this celebration, but everywhere had beautiful flower displays and therefore, good photo opportunities.

All of the streets had colourful entrances.

All of the streets had colourful entrances.

Isabelle, Dan, Oliver and Luke

Isabelle, Dan, Oliver and Luke

Beautiful flowers and displays to celebrate Lunar New Year.

Beautiful flowers and displays to celebrate Lunar New Year.

Kids by the flowers

Kids by the flowers

Isabelle pointing to a rice field display.  This is how rice grows!!

Isabelle pointing to a rice field display. This is how rice grows!!

A boat!!

A boat!!  We had many tourists behind us taking photos of these lovely children!

The Happy New Year signs for welcoming the Year of the Snake.

The Happy New Year signs for welcoming the Year of the Snake.

An arty photo by me as I took this myself!  Cool tall mirror reflection made for a good shot of me with Isabelle.

An arty photo by me as I took this myself! Cool tall mirror reflection made for a good shot of me with Isabelle.

So colourful.

So colourful.

Snuggles and huggles with the kids.

Snuggles and huggles with the kids.

Local Vietnamese playing games out on the street.

Local Vietnamese playing games out on the street.

This lady was trying to get us to buy her wares.  She looks so fragile and the buckets look so heavy.  No wonder she is sitting.

This lady was trying to get us to buy her wares. She looks so fragile and the buckets look so heavy. No wonder she is sitting.

Balloon Man.

Balloon Man.

New year decorations are just like our christmas lights but with flowers, corn, and other symbols to highlight the start of spring.  It was wonderful to see everything lit up – it really does extend the holiday season!  It is very hot in Vietnam and the kids had had enough after 2 hours so it was back to the hotel to take advantage of the roof top swimming pool.  All 4 children had plenty of fun here – they are all water babies.  The hotel recommended a restaurant for dinner for us and it was very good.  We ordered a lot of dishes that we could all share and everything was delicious.  Isabelle and Oliver were adventurous and tried some new things too!  We were even entertained by a local playing on a musical instrument.

Our musical entertainment over dinner.

Our musical entertainment over dinner.

Night time lights.

Night time lights.  Check out all those scooters.

The following morning, our driver picked us up to start our 90 minute drive to the north of HCMC to visit the tunnels at Cu Chi.  It was a bumpy ride as the roads are terrible!  One of my over-whelming memories of Vietnam will definitely be the scooters and motorcycles.  They outnumber any other vehicle by at least 20-1 and they crowd the roads loaded with everything from huge packages of toilet paper, plants to live animals to families of four with joyful toddlers and sleeping babies who manage to stay on these 2 wheeled vehicles with apparent ease.   I was very happy to see that 95% of all riders were wearing helmets.  Many of these were also wearing masks or had wrapped their heads in towels or sheets too!

Family of 4 travelling around.

Family of 4 travelling around.  I love the high heels on the Mum, matching outfits and helmets for the girls, plus all the masks.  I was quite pleased with this photo as it was taken from our moving car!!

My memory of the 2 wheeled vehicles that dominate the roads in Vietnam!  They are everywhere and in such huge volume.

My memory of the 2 wheeled vehicles that dominate the roads in Vietnam! They are everywhere and in such huge volume.

The tunnels of Cu Chi are a network of connecting underground tunnels located in a district to the north of Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon) and are part of a much larger network of tunnels that span across the country.  It is rumoured that the tunnel network is over 250KM.  The Cu Chi tunnels were the location of many military campaigns during the Vietnam War (the locals call it the American War) and were the Viet Cong’s base of operations for the Tet Offensive in 1968.  The tunnels were used by the Viet Cong as hiding spots during combat, as well as serving as communication and supply routes, hospitals, food and weapon caches and living quarters for numerous guerrilla fighters.  The tunnel systems were of great importance to the Viet Cong in their resistance to American forces, and helped achieve ultimate military success.  For the Viet Cong and Vietnamese locals, life in the tunnels was difficult.  Air, food and water were scarce and the tunnels were infested with ants, poisonous centipedes, scorpions, spiders and vermin.  Most of the time, Vietnamese soldiers and fighters would spend the day in the tunnels working or resting and only come out at night to scavenge for supplies, tend their crops or engage the enemy in battle.  Sometimes, during periods of heavy bombing or American troop movement, they would be forced to remain underground for many days at a time.  Sickness was rampant among the people living in the tunnels, especially malaria, which was the second largest cause of death next to battle wounds.

This was an incredibly moving experience.  I could not believe the engineering, architectural miracle that was created over many years.  In some places, the tunnels are 4 levels deep and include deep fresh water wells, cooking, sleeping, and even hospital set ups.   The secret tunnels, which joined village to village and often passed beneath American bases, were not only fortifications for Viet Cong guerillas, but were also the center of community life. Hidden beneath the destroyed villages were underground schools and public spaces where couples were married and private places where lovers met.  There were even theaters inside the tunnels where performers entertained with song and dance and traditional stories.   Having previously held the belief that these tunnels were created during the Vietnam War, it was eye opening to discover that the network was actually started decades earlier during the French occupation of Vietnam.  The tunnels were extended and built out during the conflict in the 1960’s.  Even more amazing to me was the fact that this complex system was built with bare hands and bamboo shovels.

An example of the tunnel network.  4 levels with ingenious ways to get fresh water, cook and live.

An example of the tunnel network. 4 levels with ingenious ways to get air into the system, fresh water, cook and live.

It was horrendous to see the traps that were set for the enemy – so evil with lots of bamboo sticks, covered pits and nasty ways of trapping people.  Having lived in America for so long and interacted with many US Vets of this war, it was also interesting to hear the other side.  As in any situation there are always 3 versions – his story, her story and the truth, which is usually somewhere in the middle.  In summary (in my humble opinion), this was a horrific period in time with no real winners, a tremendous loss of life and has left a lasting impression on both sides of the world.  Even in times of peace, the tunnels continue to serve as an enduring tribute to the sheer human will to live and Vietnamese peasants’ wartime ingenuity.

One of the trap doors into the tunnel system.  You can see the size of the opening compared with Isabelle’s shoes.

Going into the tunnels.  Oliver is behind me to go next......

Going into the tunnels. Oliver is behind me to go next……

I am way too cool for these tunnels.

I am way too cool for these tunnels.

Isabelle popping up at the end of one tunnel.

Isabelle popping up at the end of one tunnel.

A restored tunnel as a tourist attraction.

A restored tunnel as a tourist attraction.

Isabelle standing by a termite hill.  Except, this is actually a clever disguise of a lookout for a tunnel.

Isabelle standing by a termite hill. Except, this is actually a clever disguise of a lookout for a tunnel.

Coming out from the "banquet" tunnel.  We were so close to many bats - the kids thought that was really cool!

Coming out from the “banquet” tunnel. We were so close to many bats – the kids thought that was really cool!

The experience of crawling through these tunnels was unforgettable.  Even though the tunnels at Cu Chi have been “westernized” – made larger for western people to get through and with low level lights installed, it was still a heart thumping, stomach churning adventure.  Oliver did one tunnel run and then did not want to go back down.  Isabelle and I (along with Jenny, Dan and Luke) went down as many as our guide showed us.  Some of them were long, dark and required getting on hands and knees.  It was claustrophobic, dirty, dark, dusty and muddy.  I highly recommend it!

The tourist propaganda on the walk through the jungle to the tunnel entrances.

The tourist propaganda on the walk through the jungle to the tunnel entrances.

Displays of bombs and missiles!

Displays of bombs and missiles!

I hope they all un-armed!

I hope they are all un-armed!

Trying out the medical hammock!

Trying out the medical hammock!

Engaging with the

Having fun with the kids by pretending to “chat” to the Vietnamese

The "souvenirs" that are available for the tourists to buy.

The “souvenirs” that are available for the tourists to buy.

One of the nasty traps that is on display.  It is camouflaged so well in the Jungle with leaves and dirt.

One of the nasty traps that is on display. It is camouflaged so well in the Jungle with leaves and dirt.

When you step on the trap it flips up and you slip onto the sharpened bamboo sticks.  If you are lucky it will kill you, otherwise it is a slow, painful death.

When you step on the trap it flips up and you slip onto the sharpened bamboo sticks. If you are lucky it will kill you, otherwise it is a slow, painful death.

Examples of the many different types of traps that the Viet Cong used in the war.

Examples of the many different types of traps that the Viet Cong used in the war.

A bombed out cave.

A bombed out cave.

After the tunnel adventure it was time to wander back through the jungle to meet our driver.  Along the way we had the opportunity to see a local making flip flops out of discarded tyres!  We could also try some of the simple food that was eaten during the War.  All of the kids loved the fresh coconuts here!

Next stop was at the Firing Range (a very short drive from the tunnels).  We wanted to have a go at firing AK47’s.  It costs about $1 per bullet to fire and so we bought 8 bullets to share among us.  Oliver was too small to reach and John did not want to go.  That left the ladies, Dan, Luke and Owen.  As Owen had fired many of these when he was in the Army, he was very helpful in setting everything up for us.  It was very loud!!

At the firing range.

At the firing range.  Putting ear plugs in to wear underneath the defenders.  Even so, the shots were very loud!

Fire!

Fire!

Our hotel had recommended and booked a restaurant for us to have lunch at.  This was about 30 minutes from the tunnels on the way back to the hotel in HCMC.  Our van pulled up into an idyllic place and we were very excited about more local food.  Especially me, as I cannot get enough Pho!!  We were a little suspicious that there were no cars or people around.  True enough, once we walked over the bridge to the restaurant, a man came out and told us he was shut because of Lunar New Year.  Our driver tried to explain that we had a reservation that had just been made that morning, but it was obvious that we were not going to eat there that day!

A fantastic location for the lunch that never happened!

A fantastic location for the lunch that never happened!

We decided to go back to the hotel for a very late lunch and more pool time to relax.

Oliver is getting used to chopsticks and is getting quite good with them!

Oliver is getting used to chopsticks and is getting quite good with them!

A New Year money tree.  You see these all over China, Hong Kong and Vietnam at the Lunar New Year time.  I am sure that most of Asia  that celebrates this new year does the same thing.

A New Year money tree. You see these all over China, Hong Kong and Vietnam at the Lunar New Year time. I am sure that most of Asia that celebrates this new year does the same thing.  Red is a lucky colour in this part of the world.

The next morning was the start of our relaxing break at the beach.  The only thing that stood between us and that was the long, boring 5 hour car journey.  It is only 114 miles (according to Google Maps) but because the roads are so bad, the entire trip was done at about 35 MPH at top speed!  We had considered taking the train, but colleagues of mine who have travelled extensively in ASIA, advised against this in Vietnam.  Apparently, the local kids all throw stones and rocks at the passing trains so all the windows are boarded up.  You cannot see out and you are stuck for an equal length of time to a car journey with many other people.  At least, when we had a driver we could stop at our request and also see some of the beautiful scenery of this lovely Country.

There are rest areas set up at regular intervals along the road.  Each of these has a shady hammock sleeping area.

A rest area on the side of the road with hammocks for sleeping.  Another photo taken from our moving car!

A rest area on the side of the road with hammocks for sleeping. Another photo taken from our moving car!

Our driver was constantly on the horn – beep, beep, beep, beep, beep, every time we overtook a scooter/motorcycle.  As I already said that these outnumber cars by 20 to 1, the horn feels non-stop and became quite irritating.  We stopped for lunch where I had …….. Pho!!

Eventually we got closer to the ocean and passed through some lovely little villages.  There is much evidence of a land trying to re-invent itself and compete in the 21st century.  It is obviously still a very poor nation and it is hard to see so much of that on the sides of the roads.  But, the Vietnamese people are wonderful – very friendly, always smiling and a warm, welcoming race.

Evidence of the Vietnam war is everywhere.  You would think it was more recent than over 40 years ago.

Evidence of the Vietnam war is everywhere. You would think it was more recent than over 40 years ago.

Beautiful Vietnamese boats on the River

Beautiful Vietnamese boats on the River

The things you see on the road are amazing!  This is why a 114 mile journey takes over 5 hours!

The things you see on the road are amazing! This is why a 114 mile journey takes over 5 hours!

We arrived in Mui Ne on the coast in the late afternoon and met the owner of “Villa Panda” who showed us all the facilities of this lovely Villa on a golf course by the ocean.  This would be our home for the next 5 days.  He also took John and I shopping to buy some staples to keep us going.  He kept a running commentary going with restaurant and bar recommendations, shopping and beach access.  Once back at the Villa we quickly unpacked and settled in.  Time to explore!

Tourism has transformed Mui Ne into a resort destination since 1995, when many visited to view the total solar eclipse in 1995.  It has many resorts on the beach, as well as restaurants, bars and cafes.  Mui Ne is a popular destination for Russian tourists, and many of the restaurants and resorts are Russian-owned.  The strong sea breezes make this the kite surfing capital of the world.  None of the beaches are crowded and I love that feeling of space when you are relaxing.

Kite surfers galore

Kite surfers galore

Tranquil beach.  So peaceful to just chill and watch the surfers.

Tranquil beach. So peaceful to just chill and watch the surfers.

The town has a Florida feel to my mind.  It is very casual and relaxed.  Our villa is lovely – 4 double bedrooms, so perfect for our 2 families of 4.  The kitchen and living room are spacious and open.  We could walk to the beach but it would be a long uphill return and it is only a 5 minute car journey.

The sunset view from our back patio.

The sunset view from our back patio.

The golf course has a 5 star hotel which has a luxury recreational area with a pool system of 5 interconnecting pools.  Our next few days were spent alternating between the beach and these pools.  It was very relaxing.

Burying each other in the sand at the beach.

Burying each other in the sand at the beach.

Dan buried Oliver up to his neck!  And, he loved it!

Dan buried Oliver up to his neck! And, he loved it!

Fun in the sand

Fun in the sand

Jenny and I bought some boogie boards for the kids.  These were a big hit and not only with the children.  All the adults couldn’t resist either.  The waves were perfect for this – large enough for fun for all, without being too rough for our littlest man!

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Luke, Isabelle, Dan and Owen catching a wave.

Oliver riding his wave.

Oliver riding his wave.

Owen riding a wave.

Owen riding a wave.

My turn to drink the ocean!

My turn to drink the ocean!

My 3 favourite people - watch the wave behind them......

My 3 favourite people – watch the wave behind them……

.....And Splash!

…..And Splash!

Love this one!

Love this one!

And this one!

And this one!

The hammocks were all over the resort - not just at rest stops along the road.

The hammocks were all over the resort – not just at rest stops along the road.

Nighttime swimming was a first for Isabelle and Oliver and they loved it.

Nighttime swimming was a first for Isabelle and Oliver and they loved it.

The slides were fun for everyone.

The slides were fun for everyone.

Good sharing of the hammock.

Good sharing of the hammock.

When Mr John was "checking the fishes" Oliver pushed him in.  He loved this and thought it was hilarious.

When Mr John was “checking the fishes” Oliver pushed him in. He loved this and thought it was hilarious.

"I am getting the sand out of my swim shorts!"

“I am getting the sand out of my swim shorts!”

Oliver,  Dan, Luke, Jenny Isabelle and Sara.  Great Italian dinner in Mui Ne.

Oliver, Dan, Luke, Jenny Isabelle and Sara. Great Italian dinner in Mui Ne.

Final night in Mui Ne and we went to a lovely restaurant.  All the boys here.

Final night in Mui Ne and we went to a lovely restaurant. All the boys here.

All the girls.

All the girls.

After a very relaxing stay in Villa Panda in Mui Ne, it was time to return back to HCMC for our flight to Hong Kong.  John & Jenny and their kids were an absolute delight to be away with and I can’t wait for our next adventure!

It was another horrendous 5 hour trip in the car, but this time we started it at 4.30am to make our flight time.  It was lovely to watch the sun come up and see so many people going to church at 5:00am – they were packed.  I was very surprised to see so many Christian churches – I guess that is the consequence of prolonged European influence.  The French baguettes in Vietnam were also some of the best I have tasted!  We passed field after field of dragon fruit growing.  I thought this was marijuana as all the plants had lights around them!  In stopping for the toilet on the way back, it also is apparent that squat toilets are not unique to China!

A fantastic Chinese New Year for all us!

Hong Kong for CNY

With my passport woes behind me and Owen back from the UK, it was time to get excited about our trip to Hong Kong and Vietnam.

As Owen had just arrived back from the UK early morning on Saturday feb 9th, it was a mad rush to get him unpacked and repacked for our CNY (Chinese New Year) break away.  We made it to the airport for a relaxing check in and drink before taking off to Hong Kong.  We did this trip with John and Jenny Horsfield and their 2 boys, Dan who is 13 and Luke who is 9.

We actually took off on time (rare for China Eastern!) and landed in HK at around 8.30.  I made it through immigration here (I was nervous because of the emergency passport situation). We dumped bags in our room and immediately went to the hotel restaurant to enjoy the buffet selection.  It was very late by the time we all got to bed, but we needed to get up early in the morning so we could take advantage of our only full day in HK.  The Horsfields headed off to a theme park, while we decided to do a junk boat tour of the harbour.  Except, it is CNY and everything is closed!  So, we had to come up with a plan B really quickly.  We decided to do a tram ride and got on a west bound tram to the Western Market.  After 30-40  mins on this we had reached the end.

Family Jones on the Cable Car

Family Jones on the Cable Car

We took the MTR train from Western Market to City Gate.  We then decided to take the cable car up to the top of the mountain.    Ngong Ping 360 is a stunning 5.7km cable car journey with a cultural themed village and easy access to the Tian Tan Buddha Statue, the world’s largest, seated, outdoor, bronze Buddha statue.  We made the wise decision to buy the “crystal” car tickets – glass bottom!  I say wise, because when we got to the cable car station the queue for the normal cars was very long compared to our 10 minute wait for the crystal car.  In between buying tickets and our travel time we took a walk around the shopping mall and grabbed a quick bite to eat for lunch.  The cable car ride was fantastic!  Much longer than we thought it would be with a couple of 90 degree turns and climbs over water.  We all loved being able to see below us!

Family Jones feet!  Looking through the bottom of our cable car to the ocean below.

Family Jones feet! Looking through the bottom of our cable car to the ocean below.

When we got off, we saw that there was about to be a show of some sort, so we waited a few minutes.  It was a spectacular dragon dance to both traditional Chinese music (with drums) and modern – gangnam style!!  Unfortunately, it was an overcast day so the views were not as good as I expect they are on a clear day. Still, much warmer than Shanghai!  We had a walk around the village at the top – and admired the huge Buddha on the top. And bought a Starbucks!  (Is there a place left on the planet where there is no Starbucks!)  And, of course, had to buy our obligatory fridge magnets…..

The Big Buddha on the top of the mountain.

The Big Buddha on the top of the mountain.

Big Buddha in the background!

Big Buddha in the background!

One of the photo option displays at the top of the mountain!

One of the photo option displays at the top of the mountain!  “Gateway to Lantau Island”

The fantastic Chinese show with a mix of traditional songs and the most up-to-date - Gangnam style!

The fantastic Chinese show with a mix of traditional songs and the most up-to-date – Gangnam style!

Isabelle and Oliver trying out the local mode of transport!

Isabelle and Oliver trying out the local mode of transport!

Being silly with Starbucks holders......

Being silly with Starbucks holders……

Beautiful flowers everywhere.

Beautiful flowers everywhere.

There was a display of cable cars representing different Countries.

There was a display of cable cars representing different Countries.  This is the Chinese one.

Posing by the wishing tree.

Posing by the wishing tree.

Fantastic cable car experience - even with the stops and backwards ride!

Fantastic cable car experience – even with the stops and backwards ride!

The cable car ride back down was interesting with several stops and even a backwards stint.  We took the MTR all the way back to hotel and as we had got back so late, we decided to eat in the restaurant again (we had planned to try one of HK fabulous eateries….).

I was so proud of my 2 children who tried all sorts of different food at the buffet – very adventurous.  Oliver even tried octopus:

"Look Mum - I just ate octopus!"

“Look Mum – I just ate octopus!”

Up very early the next morning to our flight to Ho Chi Minh city in Vietnam.  (Separate post on Vietnam portion!)

After our fantastic Vietnam holiday, we spent another 24 hours in Hong Kong.  We arrived early afternoon at the Mini Hotel at Causeway Bay.  Owen had found this lovely boutique hotel on line.  It described itself as a family hotel and indeed, the room had 3 proper beds – so absolutely perfect for a family of 4!  The bathroom was small – bit of a squeeze, but the rest of the room was spacious, clean and nicely decorated.  I wish more hotel rooms were set up like this.  It was ideal for a family on vacation.  Owen had also booked us a table at Nobu at the Intercontinental Hotel across the bay in Kowloon.

This was a fantastic ending to a brilliant holiday.  Nobu is located in a fabulous place with spectacular views.  The food was delicious, pricy, expensive, but delicious!  We enjoyed a variety of dishes of this Japanese fusion menu and nothing disappointed!  The chef uses fresh ingredients in innovative combinations and all the dishes complimented each other.

Fantastic delicious meal at Nobu

Fantastic delicious meal at Nobu

The views from Nobu restaurant in the Intercontinental Hotel, Kowloon, Hong Kong

The views from Nobu restaurant in the Intercontinental Hotel, Kowloon, Hong Kong

More spectacular views!

More spectacular views!

The end of a wonderful family Chinese New Year.

The end of a wonderful family Chinese New Year.

Me with my little chicks!!

Me with my little chicks!!

Beautiful Hong Kong skyline

Beautiful Hong Kong skyline

The next day we flew back to Shanghai and back to the real world!  More memories locked away.

Chinese New Year celebrations – Welcome to the year of the Snake 蛇 Shé

Chinese New Year is the most important and, at 15 days, the longest holiday in China.  Chinese New Year begins on the first day of the lunar calendar, so it is also called Lunar New Year, and it is considered the beginning of spring, so it is also called Spring Festival.  Chinese New Year is the most important of the traditional Chinese holidays.  Regional customs and traditions concerning the celebration of the Chinese New Year vary widely.  The Chinese New Year celebrations ended on Sunday February 24th.  We heard hours and hours of firecrackers and fireworks going off until the early hours!  We also lit 2 Chinese lanterns and sent them soaring into the sky.

The Chinese New Year, or Spring Festival as it’s been called since the 20th century, remains the most important social and economic holiday in China.  It is also a time to bring family together for feasting.  With the adoption in China of the Western calendar in 1912, the Chinese joined in celebrating January 1 as New Year’s Day.  However, they continue to celebrate the traditional Chinese New Year, although in a shorter version with a new name–the Spring Festival.   (Significantly, younger generations of Chinese now observe the holiday in a very different manner from their ancestors. For some young people, the holiday has evolved from an opportunity to renew family ties to a chance for relaxation from work.)

Some of the traditions at this time include: each family to thoroughly cleanse the house, in order to sweep away any ill-fortune and to make way for good incoming luck.  Windows and doors are often decorated with red colour paper cut-outs with themes of “good fortune”, “happiness”, “wealth” and “longevity”.  Other activities include lighting firecrackers (to frighten evil spirits) and giving money in red paper envelopes – red is very lucky colour in China!   People post scrolls printed with lucky messages on household gates and elders give out money to children. In fact, many of the rites carried out during this period are meant to bring good luck to the household and long life to the family–particularly to the parents.

The Chinese calendar is a complex timepiece.  Its parameters are set according to the lunar phases as well as the solar solstices and equinoxes. Yin and yang, the opposing but complementary principles that make up a harmonious world, also ruled the calendar, as do the Chinese zodiac, the twelve “signs” along the apparent path of the sun through the cosmos.  Each new year is marked by the characteristics of one of the 12 zodiacal animals: the rat, ox, tiger, rabbit, dragon, snake, horse, sheep, monkey (me), rooster (Owen and Isabelle), dog and pig (Oliver).

Most important is the feasting. On New Year’s Eve, the extended family joins around the table for a meal that includes as the last course a fish that is symbolic of abundance and therefore not meant to be eaten.  In the first five days of the New Year, people eat long noodles to symbolize long life.  On the 15th and final day of the New Year, round dumplings shaped like the full moon are shared as a sign of the family unit and of perfection.  It is a time for family get together, cooking and celebrating!

The Friday before New Year (February 7th) BISS finished the week of Chinese celebrations with the opportunity for the children to dress up in traditional dress.  Isabelle and Ava were suitably attired:

Chinese New Year celebrations at BISS.  Isabelle and Ava dressed in traditional Chinese dresses.

Chinese New Year celebrations at BISS. Isabelle and Ava dressed in traditional Chinese dresses.

Oliver is born under the sign of the Pig, specifically the Fire Pig, and those born in the year of the Fire Pig are supposed to be enthusiastic, extroverted, rebellious, passionate, brave and valiant; however, they can also be hot-tempered, snappy, uncontrollable and short-tempered.

Isabelle and Owen are born under the sign of the Rooster who is supposed to have a very flamboyant and expressive personality, very talkative, an extrovert who loves to showoff.  The Rooster is a trustworthy, hardworking and confident individual.  Brave, romantic, motivated, proud, blunt, resentful and boastful.  Isabelle is a Wood Rooster who likes the company of others and is a good friend.

Chinese New Year (CNY) is also the time for companies to hold their annual parties to celebrate and recognize their employees.  My company is no different and on Tuesday February 5th we were all at a posh hotel for dinner.  We all signed a huge board on our way in:

Signing the board (bottom left)

Signing the board (bottom left)

I walked into the Ballroom that had a stage set up and lots of tables.  I was asked to sit at the center table.  (This meant that I had lots of toasts to keep up with the Chinese Baijiu wine, which is lethal!!!!)  This consequently meant a pounding head on Wednesday.  🙂

The "Red" table - many courses over the evening and many toasts!

The “Red” table – many courses over the evening and many toasts!

Throughout the dinner, the employees were engaged in the entertainment.  I was amazed to see displays of karaoke, drinking games and dancing.  The first show was a flamboyant dance to Abba’s Dancing Queen:

"Dancing Queen"

“Dancing Queen”

"Sales" and "Operations" singing about their love/hate relationship!

“Sales” and “Operations” singing about their love/hate relationship!

This drinking game involved a large glass of Baijiu and glasses of water.  The goal was to guess who was drinking the alcohol!

This drinking game involved a large glass of Baijiu and glasses of water. The goal was to guess who was drinking the alcohol!

A fantastic voice singing a lovely song!

A fantastic voice singing a lovely song!

I got "volunteered" for a game on the stage.  This involved getting a pretzel stick to the shortest length possible with your partner.

I got “volunteered” for a game on the stage. This involved getting a pretzel stick to the shortest length possible with your partner.

In many ways, all the games were a throwback to my youth!  It was all unexpected at a business function, but everyone is actively participating.

Speeches and flowers to the support staff.

Speeches and flowers to the support staff.

The final song of the night.

The final song of the night.

My first Chinese New Year celebration was fun (very alcoholic!) and an unforgettable experience.

Celebrating the end of the Chinese New year festivities with the lanterns:

Lighting the lantern - it took several minutes to fill with warm air.

Lighting the lantern – it took several minutes to fill with warm air.

Kids letting it go.......

Kids letting it go…….

Up, up and away.  We watched it soar so high - it was still flying and alight by the time it was out of sight!

Up, up and away. We watched it soar so high – it was still flying and alight by the time it was out of sight!

Passport Woes

The Chinese New Year is the biggest travel time within China.  It is the equivalent of the Western Christmas/New Year celebrations or Thanksgiving.  Many people travel back to their home towns and cities for extended celebrations with their families.  Most Ex-pats leave the Country!  (Shops are closed, drivers are with families, Ayi’s are with families, so it is difficult to stay).  We had decided to book a trip to anywhere that we could get flights to.  All our Emerald friends had told us that getting out of China would be difficult at this time of year, and they were right.  Owen and John (friends who we would be travelling with), spent almost a day with a travel agent working out an itinerary that would work for us all.

Having decided on Vietnam and because of long layovers on flight connections, we decided to extend our time in Hong Kong at both ends of the trip.  January 8th and our trip is booked, signed and paid for!!  I am in Beijing while all this is being done.  The following week I am in Singapore and Owen then calls me in a panic because he has been researching the Visa requirements for Vietnam and sees that they require 6 months validity on passports to issue the visa.  I have 4 months left on mine!  Uh-oh……

It is 3 weeks to go before we depart and it looks like I will not be able to get a Visa.  I research a fast passport renewal process when you are out of the UK and am told that I can do an expedited service (2 weeks) through Hong Kong (mainland China no longer allows UK passport services).  However, my Residence Permit is in my “old” (current) passport and I will need that to get back into China.  The Chinese Government also require you to carry your passport at all times, so the renewal process is unique in that you do not send your old passport in with the application.

I took a colour photocopy of my passport, complete the application form, take copies of our travel itinerary, rush to get photo’s done and DHL the packet to Hong Kong on January 25th – exactly 2 weeks and 1 day before travel day.   I check my UK bank account and see that the expedite passport service fee has been deducted from my account on January 31st, which means that the UK has received the application and is processing it.  Yippee, I think!  Then I wait and wait.

Wednesday February 6th and now I getting nervous as I still have no passport.  I have processed Vietnam Visa-on-Arrival paperwork for the rest of the family so they are good to go.  Owen is in the UK and says that he can collect my passport from the UK office if it is there.  I phone the helpline to see if this can be done and am told that there is no way I will be getting my passport before Saturday February 9th and there is no way that Owen can collect it.  HELP – what is a girl to do?  The helpline is actually helpful and I am told that if I visit the British Consulate in Shanghai they may be able to issue me an Emergency Passport.  Now, the new research starts……  will Hong Kong and Vietnam allow entry with an Emergency passport?  Can I get a Visa in time?  Will I be allowed back into China on a cancelled passport with a valid residents permit AND an emergency passport?  Will the Consulate even process an Emergency Passport for these reasons?

Thursday morning dawns and I am waiting for the Consulate to open to get answers to all these questions!  Eventually, they phone me back at noon to let me know the answer to all the questions is YES, YES, MAYBE, YES and YES!  Again, YIPPEE, I think!  The only problem may be in getting a Vietnam visa as it is Lunar New Year celebrations across Asia and many Government agencies are already closed.  I rush down to the Consulate with photos and paperwork and they tell me to come back first thing in the morning to collect my Emergency Passport.

I am waiting outside the Consulate doors on Friday morning for opening time!  2 minutes later and I have a passport in hand – valid for 7 months for 1 trip only – to Vietnam via Hong Kong!!  Now, to get the Visa.  I find a company online that will process it for me – for an astronomical fee, of course!

Friday afternoon and I have the emergency passport and Visa-on-Arrival approval!  Less than 24 hours before travel time!

Friday afternoon and I have the emergency passport and Vietnam Visa-on-Arrival approval! Less than 24 hours before travel time!

For any British people living in Shanghai – the Consulate is awesome.  Very helpful, calm and patient people working there.  They went above and beyond to help me out at short notice.  This is very handy to know 🙂

I am so glad that I phoned the UK passport helpline – they immediately had visibility into my application process and could give me the information that enabled me to work on a Plan B.  I have Marie, Lin and Emma to thank for that advice!  It was becoming the morning bus stop conversation – the ongoing saga of Sara’s passport!!  Everyone was nervous for me.  I had offers to spend Chinese New Year with the only set of friends staying in Shanghai!

I was so nervous travelling on this document, but I had no problems with any immigration.  Just a few funny looks and intelligent comments like: “this is an emergency passport” and, “did you know that this is an emergency travel document”.

February 20th – I still do not have my full passport back from the UK.  So much for an expedited process!