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.)
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