Chris at Waterfall in Dalat

My Tết – a quick account of the holiday

I’ve spent three Tết holidays in Vietnam now, so I’ve become quite accustomed to all the goings-on. Before the holiday’s finally over (personally, I’ve still got a week to go), I thought I’d use the opportunity to give an overview of events from my own point of view here in Saigon (and keep in mind that there is no fixed way of doing things – other families no doubt do things a little differently.</p>

As I said in my previous article, this is by far the most important holiday in Vietnam, and with the holiday and the lead-up to it, it is a multi-week affair. You might compare it to Christmas in some ways, in that it’s all about bringing the family together and spending time with each other, and also that people are running around for weeks and weeks in the lead-up, panicking and preparing.

The weeks before Tết do get quite hectic. The decorations go up downtown, which are always nice, but cause the whole area to get jammed with motorbikes in the days before Tết (though to be fair, this also happens at Christmas, which is not nearly such a big thing here.) The big downtown street, Nguyễn Huệ. closes down to traffic for a flower show, which gets crowded with locals and tourists alike (and is always fun, but always watch your pockets!)

Stores start displaying boxes of canned beers and drinks, as people stock up on these things for the next few weeks – people will be visiting, and a steady supply of drinks is needed, but most of the shops will be closed or understocked.</p>

This focus on preparations also leads to craziness in the streets. The streets in Vietnam are never filled with the safest of drivers at the best of times, but the period preceding Tết seems to bring out the worst, and you have to be at attention more than ever if you’re driving.

There’s also the food preparations . Unfortunately, the food is probably the least exciting part of Tết – it’s pretty much the same stuff over and over for the duration of the holiday. But I’ll get to that in its own blog post later… giving you my own personal review of Tết food.

In addition to the food and drink, there’s also the flowers and plants. Every house must have these, and two types are the most important -The first is the hoa mai, the ubiquitous Tết flower with the bright yellow blossoms, which are favoured in Southern Vietnam, though you won’t find them so much in the North, as they do not favour the Northern climate.

The second is the kumquat (small orange) tree which functions similarly to a Christmas tree, with lights and decorations (the hoa mai plants sometimes get this as well.) The kumquat trees very widely in shape and size, from small bonsai-like shrubs to giant towering trees twice the size of the tallest person in the house. (In Hong Kong, we used to have small ones decorating the entryway to our house – huge ones like we have here did not seem to be so common.)

Other things go on, of course, in the lead-up to the holiday… making sure the house is clean, buying a bunch of new clothes, insisting on buying some for your non-Vietnamese husband even though he says he doesn’t need any ;) </p>

There’s also the religious element – praying to the kitchen god before he goes up to heaven to report on the family for the year, visiting the graves of ancestors, and other such things. I didn’t participate in either of those this year, choosing to be lazy and sleep instead (it all tends to be done very early in the morning) so I won’t report on that here.

Finally, after all that is done, we can relax.

Well, not really.

Tết eve this year involved a very early lunch, featuring the aforementioned foods that I’ll describe later (plus a few others), and then it was just hanging around all day, waiting for the evening. In the evening, everyone gathers back at the house, goes upstairs to pray, then waits to cheer in the new year together. Elsewhere, crowds are gathering in the streets to watch the New Year fireworks, but our family is more into the traditional aspect of things, so I’ve yet to see them here, except on TV.

This was about the point Như’s sister turned up at the front door – she was the chosen one this year to be the first person to enter the house. This is considered a very important aspect of the year, as chosing the right person will bring the best luck. She was chosen based on her Chinese zodiac sign (pig, I think) being the most compatible with that of the cat. I had the honour a couple of years ago, along with Như and her brother, as the three of us together formed a particularly auspicious combo for that year (the rat)</p>

More Tết food came out after that – the first meal of the year. The cat decided to sit next to me during that, which I decided to take as an auspicious sign for the year :)

About 2am, the whole family (except for the kids and their grandparents) headed out into town. Lots of coffee shops and the occasional beer-drinking place was still open, with lots of excited customers, but, still focused on the traditional stuff, that’s not where we were headed. Instead, we visited the National Pagoda, my first visit there.</p>

Very crowded, very lively atmosphere there, and the pagoda lit up like that at night looked quite magnificent (no photos, unfortunately – I didn’t bring my camera). Visiting temples on days like this is one of the times I really appreciate Vietnamese culture – not just for the event itself, but also because you can go around as the only foreigner in the place, praying to the various Buddhist statues with your incense, and not have anyone give you a second look. It’s completely accepted that I too would take part in something like this, without a second thought or a second glance. Definitely not like some places I’ve been, although many Chinese temples have given me the same sort of experience.

After the prayers, it was home, and just a few hours sleep before waking up for the big family event.

Everyone dresses in their finest for the actual morning, and we await the arrival of the uncles, aunts and cousins. Conveniently, a lot of Như’s dad’s brothers and sisters live in the same network of alleyways, so it’s all quite well coordinated.

Everyone arrives, and the host welcomes them in, offering food for all, beer for men, and soft drinks for the women and children (occasionally a woman drinks beer around here, but it’s not really all that common.) After this, all the children line up for their lixi (red envelopes with money inside), which are given by all the money-earning members of family. A sort of tradition was started last year, which I was not involved in starting, where they all had to say something to me in English to receive the envelope from me. This year, I admit, it was my doing to suggest it, as it was quite funny last year, and this year was equally entertaining.</p>

After this is over, we weave our way around the network of alleyways, visiting all the uncles’ houses – toasting with a drink (or sometimes two) at each one, kids receiving their lixi (I don’t get any, but Malcolm does!)</p>

By the time that was all finished, we arrived back at our place, only for Nhưs mother’s brothers and sisters to turn up for even more festivities. And by the time they’d gone home, it was time to sleep and hope for not too big a hangover in the afternoon!

The holiday continued for the next few days, with more visits to more distant temples, and even more family visits. I managed to excuse myself from some of that, though, and just enjoyed the silence for a couple of days :)

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Originally published at Saigon Sunsets. You can comment here or there.

Chris at Waterfall in Dalat

Cat not rabbit

So for the past few days here, I’ve been lying (and sitting) around in the year of the cat, enjoying the Tết holiday, occasionally going out for a bit of sun, some food, some attention, and some gratuitous killing of weaker animals (okay, that last part was a lie). The past week, I’ve felt very much like a cat, in fact (except for the beer drinking – at least the cats share my love of seafood!)

This is just timing, of course, and for much of the 12-year cycle, my holiday lifestyle won’t match up to that of the designated animal at all – not sure I live life much like a snake or a chicken, although if we think about monkeys, I would very much like to live like those snow monkeys up in Japan, sitting around in the hot springs all day looking like the very personification of content. Something to work on for another year, perhaps.


The curious thing, of course, as I’m sure most readers are already aware, is that in more global terms, we’re in the Year of the Rabbit. That’s the official Chinese zodiac animal of the year, which has spread to Korea and Japan, among other places, and of course makes its own mark in the world due to the sheer spread and dominance of China, its culture and economy in this day and age. Not necessarily a bad thing, but one unfortunate side-effect of all this is that in compilations of Lunar New Year photos around the world (usually referred to exclusively as Chinese New Year*), Vietnam almost always gets forgotten, even when places like Japan and New York – despite the fact that Tết is very much the focal point of the Vietnamese year, while in those two aforementioned places, it is a mere footnote (Japan does use the animals, but brings the new one in on January 1st each year)

Vietnam received these traditions from China (specifically from the 1,000 years of political and cultural dominance of Vietnam by China), and as such, it’s very much the same holiday in both countries, with only some divergences in the way things are done. The cat, of course, is the most notable of those differences. (Ox vs water buffalo is another, but as those are both written in Chinese with the same character, plus or minus the water, makes that one a bit more straightforward)

Why the cat, not the rabbit? That’s another one of those things that has been lost to history, and you’ll find many theories for it, but none of them quite conclusive. Some suggest that it’s because the Chinese word referring to “year of the rabbit”  (卯) sounds like the Vietnamese word for cat, others suggest a mixup in translation of ambiguous characters, while others still suggest that it’s because rabbits are not too common in Vietnam, or due to a pre-Chinese cultural importance of cats that lingered in Vietnam through this expression. This blog will not provide you the answers, though there may be even more suggestions.

Still, it makes it interesting, seeing the cat imagery on walls and around town in the old Chinese styles where you wouldn’t normally see it in China. And curiously, it doesn’t seem to have prevented the rabbit from coming along entirely – Vietnamese people are aware of the original Chinese version, after all, and you do see the rabbit imagery cropping up on calenders, red envelopes, and various other markers of the new year.

* Though we prefer to refer to New Year here as Tết, or at least Lunar New Year, it is not entirely incorrect to refer to it as Chinese New Year either – Vietnamese people do often refer to their traditional calendar as the “Chinese calendar” (as opposed to the Western calendar), and it is that Chinese calendar on which the New Year is based. You’ll often see Chinese characters cropping up in various places for these purposes too.

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Originally published at Saigon Sunsets. You can comment here or there.

Chris at Waterfall in Dalat

The Phamily

Sitting around at the start of a two-week holiday thanks to Tết, and I realised how late I am with my next post here, so thought it would be good to at least get one more done before the month is over.

This would be an ideal time to get out of town, under most circumstances… and indeed, the majority of friends are off exploring other places, or visiting their own families wherever they live. I’m staying here for various reasons, but the biggest one is that my wife loves spending this time of year with family.

I believe I’ve briefly mentioned before what an integral part of Vietnamese society (as with many neighbouring societies) the family is. This time of year it becomes more obvious than ever, as everyone works to sort things out and make sure everything’s perfect before we tick over into a new year in a few days.

This post isn’t about Tết, though… but there’s still plenty of time for that.

No, I thought that as the last of my introductory (or January) posts, I should finish up on my general family introduction, but this time, rather than a language lesson, talk a bit about its importance.

To some degree, family is important in all countries, obviously… but it’s different here. Where I’m from, family is just one of many important aspects of life – how important really varies depending on who you are. In Vietnam, it’s the core unit that makes up society. Almost everything is centered on family here. You can see it change at the edges, just a little, as friends become more a more important part of the young Vietnamese social life, but even nowadays, rarely does that come at the expense of the family itself. Family is an overwhelmingly cohesive whole, and that is unlikely to change anytime soon.

The nice thing of course is that this extends to others welcomed into the family too – such as myself. As a foreigner, I was never quite sure what to expect at first, as in some countries, families can be rather standoffish and even wary of extending familial closeness to a foreigner, but Vietnam is by far the most welcoming place I’ve ever been in, in this respect. Even in the beginning, I was treated as as much a part of the family as everyone else, and that is not an unusual experience to have here.

This has both its good and bad sides, of course. The good side is the closeness of family here. The well-being of everyone in the family is of the utmost importance, and if someone’s in trouble for whatever reason, everyone will come together to help. There’s never a need to feel awkward about asking for something, because it’s never going to be an issue – not within the immediate family, and often not within the extended family either.

Despite the official name of the country, there’s no real socialism here – if people get sick, get in an accident, remain unemployed for a long time, there isn’t much in the way of official support. But in its way here, the family provides its own socialist network, and everyone will do their best to support the ones that can’t support themselves. And those people, in most cases at least, won’t let that help go unappreciated.

There are exceptions, of course, as always – there’s no such thing as perfect harmony, after all, and a Vietnamese family can be an intriguing soap opera at times.

But that too is all within the family. Looking outside, the family comes together as a whole.

But this is where it can get problematic – it pretty much stops at family and friends Despite this strength of family, there can often be an extreme amount of apathy towards outsiders. I do want to emphasise here that this is by no means a universal truth in Vietnam, and this is not to say that Vietnamese people are hostile to strangers (they’re not at all, and are often still quite friendly) but among many, at least from my perspective, there can be a distinct lack of concern towards others.

This manifests in its most obvious form on the roads, I think, where everyone pretty much acts like they’re the only one on the road, but you can see it other places too – lifts and queues, for two. I’m not going to get into those in any more detail now – I don’t want to turn this into a complaint blog – though I may touch on them again later, after some more positive and/or neutral stuff.

Next, if I can get to it in the next few days (and I should, since I wont be doing too much else, but there’s a lot of preparation in the build-up to Tết, so who knows…), I’ll write a bit more about the holiday itself, though there’s so much to get through that I’ll probably still have a lot left over for next year!

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Originally published at Saigon Sunsets. You can comment here or there.

Chris at Waterfall in Dalat

Forever Dượng

It’s a bad pun to begin with, given that the vowels are not quite right, but it’s confounded by the fact that even as a tenuous pun, it only works in the southern dialect – in the south, the d character is pronounced like a y, whereas in the north, it’s pronounced like a z. If you want your actual English d sound, you need a đ. But now that’s out of the way…

There are several distinct pieces of information I need to know when addressing a Vietnamese aunt or uncle. Most importantly, are they from the father’s or mother’s side of the family? Next, what number are they in the birth order of the family? And does that make them older or younger than my in-laws (only matters in certain cases). Finally, are they a blood-relative, or only married to one?

What it means is that there at least 4 different terms to address the uncles, and 4 more to address the aunts. This then goes together with their birth number (or occasionally the personal name, though in my experience that’s less common than the number). For the uncles, we have cậu for the mother’s brothers, bác for the father’s older brothers, chú for the father’s younger brothers, and dượng for the husbands of the sisters of either parents. And for the aunts, we have for the mother’s sisters, for the father’s sisters, mợ for the mother’s sisters’ husbands, and thím for the father’s sisters’ husbands. With such big, extended families still being the norm for that generation, this can be quite challenging to keep track of sometimes. Fortunately, I don’t have to deal with bác myself, my father-in-law being the oldest male on his side, though I do still hear it among other family relationships, so it’s useful to know.

That also makes me a dượng to all my nephews, and they’ve been taught to call me dượng ba (Uncle 3) already (me being the husband of the second-born of that family*). Only one of them actually calls me that, however. The other somehow got mixed up somewhere along the line, and consistently refers to me as Chris ba (Chris 3). At one point, they tried to get him to change it to the right one, but I told them not to bother, enjoying this strange cultural mix that has emerged. We’ll see if he keeps it up when he’s older…

Cousins, fortunately, are easier, as we can just use the standard anh or chị followed by personal name if they’re older (though the numbering system is still possible, based on their positions within their own families, not compared to my wife’s, thankfully), and just personal names if they’re younger.

As someone still struggling to learn the language, getting things wrong does not result in offense – it just results in being laughed at and then corrected – but addressing them the correct way results in huge appreciation… and, if sitting with all the uncles, usually tends to result in a một, hai, ba, dô (the last of which is not usually spelt like that, but here represents the actual local pronunciation, as described in the first paragraph.), and most likely a trăm phần trăm too. Both of which I’ll bring up again when I get to the drinking entries!

* And by the way, I did find more information regarding the reason for this numbering system, which will form a whole new post at a later date…

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Originally published at Saigon Sunsets. You can comment here or there.

Chris at Waterfall in Dalat

Terms of Address 1 – anh, em, chị

Happy New Year, everyone! Not that it’s Vietnamese New Year yet… we’re still on the lead-up to it, but Vietnam uses the Western calendar like most countries (actually it uses the Western and the Chinese calendars, for different purposes, but that’s a topic for another post), and so even while Tết is the most significant holiday in Vietnam, the Western one, as the end of the calendar year, still has some significance, and the downtown streets do get quite clogged before the countdown to midnight.
We celebrated by staying away from the downtown area (and the fireworks) by having a dinner at our apartment, and then heading with my wife and her brothers and sisters to a rather quiet open-air restaurant bar nearby. A slightly different new year.

Which brings me to the two possible choices for my first post: family and drinking.

Both are fairly significant things in Vietnam, often tied together in many ways, and I was originally going to start this blog series with one about Vietnamese drinking etiquette… but I decided to save that one for later. Because while it is indeed a significant part of the culture here (at least among the men), there is nothing in Vietnam more important than family, so it only seems right that I start with something touching on that.

Obviously, there’s a lot to write about family, and future posts will surely get into more depth about that, but I thought it would be nice to start with a post or two about the complex system of terms of address – of which there are many, many terms. It’s one of the first things I learned in terms of language, and says quite a lot about the family structure and how it reflects Vietnamese society and culture. Many (but not all) of these family terms do in fact extend beyond the family and used among non-relatives too.

Spend a little time in Vietnam, and you’ll come across a couple of them very quickly – the first two you’ll learn will most likely be anh, chị, and em. A lot of people fall into the assumption that guys get called anh and younger girls get called em. This is because most of the ems you meet will be younger girls working in restaurants/shops/etc. The actual term, however, more literally means “younger sibling”, and can be used for anyone you are confident is younger than you, male or female. No offence is taken, except by certain foreign males who feel a bit funny about being addressed as em, even when it’s correct. Among Vietnamese people, however, this is not a problem whatsoever – most of the main terms of address of Vietnam are based on age differentials.

So em for anyone the right age to be your younger sibling, basically. Similarly, anh and chị mean “older brother” and “older sister” respectively, and can be used for any male or female of the appropriate age. This generally means not people old enough to be your uncle (for which there is a different term of address, which I’ll discuss later), though I have noticed that some women who should surely be addressed as (Aunty), sometimes also get addressed as chị, as a sort of flattery I guess. Similarly, some chịs also like to be called em, and there will be no offence in such a situation.  It should be noted that this distinction only applies outside the family – real aunties will always be addressed as such.

(Of course, there was that one conceited woman who was clearly a cô, but insisted upon chị. This was highly unrealistic, and she clearly didn’t deserve it.)

Anh and chị also have another distinction within the family – the number. While any younger siblings just get called by their names or nicknames, older siblings will generally be addressed as anh or chị plus a number depending on their birth order. So if the oldest sibling is a boy, he will be addressed by his younger siblings as anh hai, literally ‘older brother #2.

Wait, #2? Yes, that’s right – for some reason, the numbering system here starts from 2, so there is never a brother or sister #1. This appears to be based on some ancient superstition, though no one in the family seems to really know the reason why this started. I will have to investigate further.

Anyway, the next sibling down the line will be anh ba or chị ba (brother or sister #3 – even if you’re the 1st sister, you’re still #3 if you’re the second sibling)

This also applies to husbands/wives of the family. I myself get addressed by my wife’s youngest brother as anh ba (although her sister calls me Chris – she’s a bit less traditional, I guess, or possibly her better English ability has something to do with it.)

These are the easiest and most familiar ones, and it gets more complicated from here. I’ll save the parents, grandparents, and most intimidatingly, the aunts and uncles, for a later post – they need a post of their own!

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Originally published at Saigon Sunsets. You can comment here or there.

Chris at Waterfall in Dalat

Welcome to Saigon Sunsets

I’ve been in Vietnam for over three years now, and while I’ve written a fair bit about my experiences here (as have many), the focus has always been on myself and the people close to me. Which is fine, and I’m not about to stop doing that, but I thought that, since the new year is coming, it might be nice to try something a little different. Step away from myself, as it were… look around me, at the place I’ve been staying in for the past several years, maybe reflect on that a little bit…

So, for the next year at least, my plan is to write this blog, twice a week, focusing on aspects of Vietnam (and Saigon in particular) that stand out – small aspects of culture and society, maybe little bits of geography, anything that I feel is a reflection of the place itself, rather than of me…

Now, of course, in a way, it’s still going to be about me – I’m the one doing the writing, the reflection, after all, and there’s no getting away from that. Many of my observations, too, will come from my experiences with my Vietnamese family, where obviously I’ve learnt the most of what I know. But I hope to vary things up a bit – some from the small family angle, others from a rather broader scope.

Naturally, this blog should not by any means be taken as a definitive account of Vietnamese culture. It’s not, and it never will be… it will be a blog of the Vietnamese culture, filtered through myself, based on my understanding (albeit informed by others more knowledgable, particularly my wife) and shaped by my own interests and biases. Some things might seem a bit too obvious to some of you, others too obscure to care about. Similarly, some entries may be longwinded, others may be too concise. But I hope that, at least most of the time, I’ll find a reasonable balance between the two.

If you can learn something from these posts, excellent, though to bring it back to myself despite my previous statements, the biggest value in this for myself may be seeing what I myself understand from this whole experience…

My first real post will come next week, during the first week of 2011.  Do feel free to comment… I’ll be interested to see how this experiment goes…

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Originally published at Saigon Sunsets. You can comment here or there.

Chris at Waterfall in Dalat

My 8th post of the year

 Yep, it hasn't been a big one on the LJ front, but then that seems to be true of most people nowadays anyway... I still come here for a read a few times a week, because there are still a few entertaining folks posting worthwhile stuff, but between Facebook usage, lack of writing productivity, reading an ever-growing number of RSS feeds through Google Reader, and the apparent complete disappearance of certain people, it's become less of a priority...

It's been a good year, though, with lots to write about, even though I haven't ;) Most of that is because it's been the year of Malcolm (version 1), which has simply been amazing... he's taken his first steps, made his first sort-of-words, and is on the verge of becoming a walking, talking person - next year's going to be even more interesting.

Work this year has been continuing as usual... intensive Advanced 2 classes mostly, which I enjoy a lot more than the lower levels, and things look set to continue for a while (just got my new resident card that lets me stay and work for the next two years.)

This year's travels weren't so much, with Hong Kong, Jakarta and Bali (with Nhu and Malcolm), Taiwan (solo - but visiting justin_pilon ), and Phnom Penh (final weekend with a good friend who left Vietnam this year, but who could well be back the next one) being my only excursions out of the country. Next year may not improve on that number, but it will bring us further afield - as we plan to visit the UK (see my sister in Scotland and some friends in London), and hopefully also visit Germany and maybe one more country. The UK visa is the most complicated part of that - part of the process will involve a trip up to Hanoi in April, as it's the only place in Vietnam that processes the applications.

I'm not making any resolutions for next year, but I do have some plans... the first of which is to rewrite and finish my Journey to the West adaptation, and hopefully get to work on something new. The second is a new blog, about Vietnamese culture through my eyes and experiences (and possibly other things) which I hope to try to update at least twice a week. Working on getting that one started soon, and will update here once it has been.

Well, we haven't talked much this year, but hope everyone's had a great one, and that your 2011s are even better! :)
Chris at Waterfall in Dalat

A quick note from Taiwan

In Tainan with justin_pilon, and this bar has wifi, so here's a quick note. Taiwan is an excellent place, and having a lot of fun. It has currently reminded me of Kuala Lumpur, Japan, Singapore, and even Vietnam, but curiously not HK. However, despite these reminders, it is it's own unique place and well worth visiting. Oh, and I find it hilarious that Justin thinks the traffic in Tainan is crazy. Clearly he'll have a fun time whenever he makes it to Saigon ;)

Off to explore the east coast tomorrow, and will write more later.

BTW, just for bogwitch64, I have not hugged Justin for you, but we have ridden internal combustion engines with wheels through the city together, so surely that's enough!