It's 6.30 in the morning and the streets of Kon Tum are already bustling with life. The ever present rumble of engines and blare of horns fills the air as motorbikes cruise around, some stopping to fill their attached baskets, others stopping to sell their baskets' contents. It's not just big woven panniers fixed to the back of the bikes, though: a few have a thick bamboo pole sticking out on either side, from which bunches of hens are strung by the feet, wiggling their heads in apparent confusion. I take a photo of one such arrangement to the puzzlement of the bike owner, who obviously can't see anything photo-worthy in such a commonplace sight. Other goods are being transported on
bicycles and then there are the old-fashioned baskets hanging from poles across the bearer's shoulder. I see an old woman slip hers on to the ground as she stops to chat with a friend and then she deftly repositions it and, with superb balance, she's off down the lane again. Then I watch as a crooked-backed elderly man empties his load of pineapples and artfully arranges them in a neat triangular tower, ready for sale, and lowers himself to the ground beside them with a satisfied sigh.
The market 'stalls' line the main road, women and a few men sitting on the ground with their wares laid out before them: flat round baskets of vegetables, wire cages of chickens and geese, trays of dried fish and bowls of live crabs, piles of intestines alongside lumps of meat, bundles of sticky rice wrapped in leaves, tall tribal baskets full of dark green bamboo leaves, mounds of papaya and mango, whole branches of bananas, and mountains of bright yellow crysanthemums. I observe the dealings and the banter and stop to ask if I may take photos. The kids say hello and wave, while the older women, in their conical hats, rattle away in their native tongue at me and laugh raucously but are delighted to see their picture on the digital display screen. They tug my sleeve and point at their friends,
indicating the camera, and burst into wild laughter as I follow their wishes and continue clicking, their mates hurrying over to see themselves captured on screen. I'm astonished at how good natured they are to a pesky tourist with a camera! But it's clear they don't see many so are not sick of us yet, and as a result, I get some of my best shots yet. One old woman is keen to sell me a chicken and when I stammer 'com chay' ('vegetarian food') and point to myself, I think she's going to wet herself as she laughs so long and hard. I'm not sure if it's the offer of a chicken to a veggie that's so funny, or simply the fact of being
a veggie, but we're both enjoying the exchange, anyway. Maybe I got the tones wrong and inadvertently told her I'm a lizard, or I only eat blue striped chickens... who knows?
It's not just the market that's doing a brisk trade. After sitting at a street stall for my first thick, dark coffee of the day, I dander along and look into the shops where I see cellophane wrapped gift hampers selling well, women being 'done' for the holiday in the hair salons, and children choosing celebration balloons. I'm surprised to see several dental surgeries with their doors open and patients on display, all men, lying back in chairs, heads spotlighted and the dentists clutching a fistful of instruments as they lean over them... and then I realise they are not dentists but ear cleaners... got to start the new year with clean everything, I guess.
It's the day before Tet, the Vietnamese New Year, and the whole town seems to be out and about, making frenzied preparations, creating a sense of anticipation and excitement. Tet is the major national celebration, the first day of the lunar year, and the period around it is one of great enthusiasm and activity as families reunite to perform traditional rituals: people visit cemeteries to worship their ancestors and invite their spirits home for the festival; houses are cleaned from top to bottom so the new year will begin in a clean state; homes are decorated with kumquat and fruit blossom trees to ward off evil spirits; gifts are given; and house altars are laden with fruit and flowers as offerings to the kitchen gods, who fly to the heavens to report to the Jade Emperor on the past year's events, before returning to Earth at midnight on New Year's Eve. It also acts as the national birthday and everyone becomes a year older on the first of the year. As my guidebook says, it's Christmas, New Year and birthdays all rolled into one, hence the massive preparations. It does feel a bit like Christmas Eve at home...only without the stress, the rain, the gaudy decorations and the tacky music...