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Revelers happy to put tough year behind them

Dazzling fireworks lit up Australia's Sydney Harbor, communist Vietnam held a rare, Western-style countdown to the new year, and Japanese revelers released balloons carrying notes with people's hopes and dreams as the world ushered in 2011.

In Europe, Greeks, Irish and Spaniards planned to party through the night to help put a year of economic woe behind them. And in New York, nearly a million New Year's Eve revelers were expected to cram into Times Square to watch the midnight ball drop, just days after the city got clobbered by a blizzard.

As rain clouds cleared, thousands of people, many sporting large, brightly colored wigs, gathered in Madrid's central Puerta del Sol square to take part in "Las Uvas," or "The Grapes," a tradition in which people eat a grape for each of the 12 chimes of midnight.

2010 was a grim year for the European Union, with Greece and Ireland needing bailouts and countries such as Spain and Portugal finding themselves in financial trouble as well. Athens, Paris and London have all seen unrest in the streets.

"Before, we used to go out, celebrate in a restaurant, but the last two years we have had to stay at home," said Madrid florist Ernestina Blasco, 48. She said her husband, a construction worker, is out of work.

In Greece, thousands spent the last day of 2010 standing in line at tax offices to pay their road tax or sign up for tax amnesty. "We can see that the quality of life is being degraded every day. What can I say? I don't see the light at the end of the tunnel," said Giorgos Karantzos of Athens. New Zealanders and South Pacific island nations were among the first to celebrate at midnight. In New Zealand's Auckland, explosions of red, gold and white burst over the Sky Tower, while tens of thousands danced and sang in the streets below.

In Christchurch, partyers shrugged off a minor 3.3 earthquake that struck just before 10 p.m.

Multicolored star bursts and gigantic sparklers lit the midnight sky over Sydney Harbor in a pyrotechnics show witnessed by 1.5 million spectators. "This has got to be the best place to be in the world tonight," said Marc Wilson, 41.

Hundreds of thousands of people gathered along Hong Kong's Victoria Harbor to watch fireworks explode from the roofs of 10 of the city's most famous buildings.

In Vietnam's capital, Hanoi, an estimated 55,000 people packed a square in front of the city's elegant French colonial-style opera house for their first New Year's countdown blowout, complete with dizzying strobe lights and thumping techno music spun by international DJs.

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