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  • Getting illustrated doesn’t have to be forever.

    Since ancient times, the henna plant has been used to make a special paste to colour hair, fingernails, and skin for women (and sometimes men) as well as leather, silk and wool. Henna tattoos are temporary skin designs made using henna paste products that resemble real tattoos and then fade away. Sometimes called mehndi , henna has a brown colour and lasts for two to four weeks after applying the dye, depending on how good the paste is and on the skin condition of the recipient. A mehndi may take from five to ten minutes to finish for a small area such as the palms, wrists, or feet. Henna is grown in both South Asia and Africa, although it’s most commonly associated with the culture of India, where henna tattoos are popular among girls – especially dancers who use it adorn themselves in celebrations and holidays. The tattoo is regarded as bringing blessings, luck, joy, and accentuating beauty. Henna is applied on a bride to wish her luck and happiness, and it’s believed that the longer that the henna remains visible, the happier the couple will be. It’s also used on pregnant women’s bellies to bless both mother and child. Henna is known to be longer lasting if well-preserved, usually best accomplished by avoiding direct contact with soap. A mixture of lemon essence and sugar will make it brighter and harder to fade. After the henna has been applied, let it dry naturally over a few hours (or ideally, through the night) and avoid using fans during that time. It has a dark brown or green-grey colour just after being applied, and becomes red-brown when it dries. Here in Saigon, the henna fashion was first imported by a small group of body painting enthusiasts who managed to kick off a trend within a year. As it causes no harm to the skin and doesn’t hurt at all, henna has attracted many locals, regardless of gender, to try it out.

  • All that goodness in a pumpkin shell.

    The pumpkin ( Cucurbita pepo ) has the singular distinction of being one of the world’s oldest cultivated vegetables. Although it originated in North America, it’s now widely grown here in Vietnam, where it’s known as bí ngô , bí đỏ or bí rợ – and there are two main varieties. The first variety, vàm răng , is heavy and rounded, and it’s grown in Kien Giang, Can Tho, and Soc Trang. These pumpkins look a little like a slightly-squashed football with a thick, green-grey skin and chunky orange flesh, weighing in at around 3-5 kg each. The other one is called the Ban Mê Thuột pumpkin, which has an oblong shape and is lighter at around 1-2 kg each. The skins can be greenish-yellow or fresh yellow, and either smooth or rough with light yellow flesh. Although the tastes of these varieties are very similar, the first has a softer flesh and is more popular. In addition to these two, there is a third variety that’s imported from Japan and has since been grown in Vietnam for the past several years, referred to casually as the Japanese pumpkin. To most Vietnamese people, eating ground pork and pumpkin soup is a part of their childhood. The rich nutrition inside pumpkins is the main reason why parents often try to feed it to their kids – a single pumpkin contains 85-91% water, 0.8-2 grams of protein, 0.1-0.5 g fat, 3.3-11 g of carbs, and many other vitamins and minerals such as calcium, carotene, and phosphorus. Vitamin A is good for the vision, maintaining integrity of the skin, and as an anti-oxidant. In the United States, pumpkins are synonymous with Halloween. Here in Vietnam, beyond cooking, pumpkins are only used in traditional medicines. Its role in cuisine, however, is paramount. It can be said that Vietnamese people are good at taking advantage of many parts of a vegetable for different purposes – in this case, not only is the pumpkin’s flesh used, but also the seeds, skins, and even flowers have their own roles. Flowers are usually wrapped or stir-fried with pork, or made into soup with pork ribs. During summer, sweet pumpkin soup and cakes are one of the more common snacks enjoyed to beat the heat.

  • Something in the Vietnamese psyche is let loose when the football team scores...

    Football’s not the only sport that Vietnamese people get passionate about, but it’s unquestionably the one that commands the most devotion amongst fans. There’s a very prosaic Vietnamese saying that covers it: Eat with football, stay awake with football, and sleep with football . If soccer is a worldwide disease, it’s an epidemic here. Locals get fairly hot under the collar over the AFF Cup and the Tiger Cup, but the event that causes the majority of the fuss and bother is the Southeast Asian Games. Vietnam couldn’t seriously hope to win the World Cup – and to be fair, they’ve never won the football event in the SEA Games either – but they’ve come close, and so many locals feel that Vietnam is in with a chance. The event is organised biannually, and is eagerly anticipated by local Vietnamese. Many refuse to miss the live coverage, rescheduling work hours to make sure they’ll be in front of the TV – and some have been reported to have quit their jobs altogether where unavoidable timing conflicts emerged. Most employers, however, are more sympathetic, and some companies will shut their doors to all business so that both management and staff alike can focus on the game. It’s not in the Vietnamese character to enjoy the sport alone at home on the couch, however – sports voyeurism is conducted outside, in cafes and bars and beer garden restaurants, so that the sheer number of interested onlookers will help to whip up the excitement. On the streets, people will be driving around in a particular frenzy, and the mantra on everyone’s lips will be the same: Vietnam Vo Dich – Go Vietnam. Although this kind of thing has been going on for decades, the peak was reached in the semifinals of the 2009 SEA Games during the match between Vietnam and their nemesis Thailand, which culminated in a Thai defeat. Victory celebrations lasted the entire night; people were out on the streets with their red T-shirts on, fervently waving the Vietnamese flag, pictures of Ho Chi Minh, and banging plastic cups, drums, pans, lids, pots, bottles, and anything else that would make a sound. Students fled their dormitories and congregated outside, making a huge cacophony. A procession of motorbikes formed spontaneously, snaking its way through the Saigon suburbs, all chanting “Vietnam is the champion”; they became a writhing mass of fire-engine red that locals simply referred to as a storm. Much beer was consumed and many newly-met drinking buddies swore lifelong friendship, and virtually no-one in the city slept.

  • Getting your tan in a can?

    It won’t be news to you that Vietnam is a country where being a little darker than average is a whole lot less likely to be considered beautiful by local standards. This is a place where the poorest of manual labourers are those who by force of necessity have to stand in the sunshine throughout the whole day, every day – making a deep tan a telltale sign of poverty. Those with enough leisure hours in their lives to wonder about getting a tan in Ho Chi Minh City are precisely those least likely to want to be branded with one, their lighter complexion the result of enjoying their comparatively good fortunes in the shade. Lily-skinned expats looking to get bronzed in this tropical country, however, won’t subscribe to that line of thinking – and while a heightened awareness of the dangers of UV radiation in the West has made tanning somewhat less popular than it used to be, there’s still plenty of good folks out there who would prefer to swan around Saigon suitably goldened rather than lobsterised by the Vietnamese sunshine. A tan, after all, is a sign of spending time outdoors in the fresh air rather than being closeted up in the shadows – so for many Westerners, it’s an emblem of health rather than economics. If you are in that subset of people here looking for a tan but not about to rely on the harsh equatorial solar rays to give you one, you will experience some frustrations in the hunt for a suitable service offering the skin colour you desire. It’s far more common to see skin whitening services at any spa or beauty salon, and if you ask for something in the opposite direction you’re more likely to strike frowns of confusion than you are anything else.

  • A quick, comprehensive guide to Vietnamese literature.

    Literature plays an important part in the development of any civilised culture, and this is certainly the case in Vietnam. Folk literature in particular played a very significant role in the preservation and development of the national language. Folk literary works were written in a wide range of genres, covering legends, epics, humorous stories, mythologies, fairy tales, proverbs, songs and poetry ( ca dao ) and so on. With all the different cultures of the various Vietnamese ethnic groups, folk literature was passed down orally from one generation to another, picking up many variations along the way. While the authors were pretty much always unknown, the main language was Vietnamese – and this served to bring a literary soul to the emerging regional lingua franca . Written literature , based on folk literature, was first seen here during the 10th century, and it underwent strong development from the 11th century right until today. For a millennium before that time, Vietnam had been dominated by China, and so the written works were deeply affected by Chinese literature, especially in the use of language. From the 10th-15th centuries, Chinese was used as the main language in almost all written works here, with poetry and prose expressing the Vietnamese soul and realities using Han Chinese words. This gave way to the use of the Nom script from the 16th to 20th centuries, which used Chinese characters to represent the sounds of Vietnamese. Many writers began to compose their works in Nom characters, especially during the 18th century, during which time the two forms of writing coexisted. Many famous female Nom poets appeared at this time, with the emergence of many satirical poets like Ho Xuan Huong, Doan Thi Diem, and Ba Huyen Thanh Quan. During this period, the most popular written works in Vietnamese were poems, especially long narrative poems in the form of stories, which were written based on the content of famous oral traditions in the classical language to create new and vibrant works.

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