Twisted trees, meat on sticks, and wooden cobras

Hoi Hoa Xuan at Cao Tan Park

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Just a few steps from my hotel was Cao Tan Park, a massive park in the heart of District 3 in HCMC. It was all sealed off for the holiday celebrations, and for 20,000 VND (about 85 cents US), an admission ticket was all mine. I started with the Lion & Dragon Dance, which was just starting. Children riding on their parents shoulders watched in the swelling crowds. It was fascinating to watch both the Lion and the Dragon balance on stilted poles, hopping with great agility from one to the other.

From there, I walked further into the expansive park and explored all of the various exhibitions. They ranged from mineral cutting and buffing, driftwood sculptures. bonsai, yellow and pink flowering trees, fish, underwater scenery, and so much more. I was amazed by the flower displays and the sheer volume of things to look at and consider. I wasn’t sure if the displays were some sort of participatory contest as all of them were tagged with a number, or if they were just meant for display. I was just as fascinated by some of pieces as the kids were!

After wandering aimlessly for some time, I came upon the bandshell and food stalls. At one food stall I stood back and watched the vendors and consumers pack up Styrofoam containers with uncooked tidbits on sticks and then, they paid, and the container was handed over to the sweaty frycook behind the massive food display. They fried up your treats-on-a-stick and handed it back to you. For sauce, there was a sweeter soy sauce and a mild orangey chili sauce.

Tentatively, as most items were labeled in Vietnamese, a language of which I knew no words in, I selected four or five skewers for frying. I could at least identify the protein and veg on them, so I figured those were a safe enough bet. The vendors spoke very good English and were able to help me with the process, so I handed it over to the cook and waited at the other side of the tent.

It was flash-fried and handed over, the skewers so hot that they melted some of the Styrofoam container’s corners. I grabbed a bit of the soy sauce and chili sauce and retreated to a quieter, less populated part of the park to sit among a graveyard of water bottles and spiky skewers left behind by other eaters. My skewers were hot beyond hot, but the meat and veg melted off into the chili sauce and seemed like the perfect nightcap to my trip into HCMC.

After eating, I did a bit of shopping, bargaining with a honey seller to get a large bottle of really tasty and flowery honey, and she threw in a small bottle for free since there was no way I could fit the buy-3-get-one-free deal into my suitcase. Satisfied with my honey purchase, I found a vendor selling ice cream and toppings in a half-coconut shell. It was a cooling treat on a warm, humid evening.

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I nibbled out the bits of coconut as I looked at oddball fish swimming around in small aquariums and marveled at moving underwater scenes that were quite artistic in their mastery of moving parts, plants, and little objects that moved sand around like waterfalls.

By this point in the night, I was quite exhausted from traveling all day, so I decided to call it quits and head back to my hotel. It was a brilliant way to spend the night exploring the local customs and holiday celebrations. I may not have understood everything I was seeing and hearing, but the joviality of the holiday, the expectation of amazing and wonderful things, was felt in the humid night’s air – or maybe it was just the mega-speakers on the bandstand pumping loud pop classics.

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