Tết Nguyên Đán

Having moaned a bit about culture shock I experienced when I fist moved to Vietnam (and me, an old Asian hand!) I thought I might attempt to redress the balance by posting this, which I wrote not long after the previous posting.

Approaching the end of my first four months here in Ho Chi Minh City, formerly Saigon, I have to say that the city, despite the myriad annoyances mentioned previously, is steadily growing upon me. The noise has almost faded into the distance, the money with its awesome coda of zeros rarely phases me now while the delights of the new and stylish restaurants set in uber cool settings complement the more traditional Vietnamese restaurants set so pleasantly along the riverside near where we live. Transport problems fade away with a 24-hour taxi rank at the end of our quiet street and some of the arcaneness of the language seems to be dissipating. Gainful employment still hovers on the periphery but, like the traffic laws here, remains just as a suggestion rather than something to be kow-towed to.

Saigon River

Tet has just ended and while I have been in Vietnam many times for Tet over the previous 15 years or so, this has been the first time I have been here for the warm-up to Tet, the actual period itself and the final run-down back to normalcy – or what passes for normalcy here in Saigon. Tet, or to give it its full name, Tết Nguyên Đán, is the start of the Lunar New Year and the herald of the Spring season and, like the Christian Easter, is a movable feast, usually falling around the end of January and before the middle of February.

Unlike many countries in the region, and indeed worldwide, Vietnam is particularly parsimonious with its gazetted, public holidays. Christmas Day for example, widely recognized in many countries, is totally ignored here with children attending school and people going to work as on any other normal day. Other public holidays amount to a stingy one-day off for special, usually historical, events in Vietnam’s fairly recent history. Labour Day (May 1), although it is called International Worker’s day here is, of course, de rigeur for every so-called communist country and then of course there is Liberation / Reunification day (April 30) when the North Vietnamese tanks crashed through the wrought iron gates of the Presidential Palace here in (then) Saigon and American Hueys lumbered from rooftops away to waiting ships in the Gulf and then there is National Day when Ho Chi Minh (the man, not the city) declared its rather premature independence from colonial forces (September 02 1945) but all these one day skimpy holidays pale into insignificance when compared to Tet.

Imagine, if you can, having your birthday, Christmas, Easter, Wedding Anniversary, Valentine’s Day, Buddha’s Birthday and St. Patrick’s day all rolled into one glorious holidays where everything, and I mean everything, closes down everywhere from a miserly minimum of one day to a glorious extravaganza of an eating and drinking and gambling fortnight. Add to that, of course, the annual roll-over of age in that at the beginning of Tet, every single person in the country becomes a year older, so in fact, it is your birthday so what is there not to celebrate?

However, with Tet being such an important holiday, it is essential to approach it with suitable reverence and intense preparation. Much like a western Christmas when shops start to gear up for the festive season as soon as Hallowe’en is over, so too do Tet preparations begin in earnest not only in shops and businesses but also in every home in the country. Shops fill up with gaudy decorations, usually some variation of the phrase Chuc Mung Nam Moi, ideally wrought in fine gold on a red velvet background – red and yellow being the principle lucky colours for an auspicious start to the New Year – but of course all variations on that theme, provided the colours are maintained, is acceptable.

Similar to the Chinese New Year when the largest world-wide migration of people take place, it is incumbent on Vietnamese to return to their home birthplace for Tet. Woe betide the Western tourist who tries to travel in Vietnam during this period as every form of transport will have been fully booked up and then overloaded. A 16 seat mini-bus will manage to accommodate up to 30 people along with luggage and bales of unidentifiable goods wrapped around and around with duct tape, baskets of live chickens and neatly trussed pigs. Part of the excitement in the build-up to Tet, of course is preparing to receive long absent family members and to scrupulously clean the home before Tet, as once the holiday begins, no cleaning may be done lest one inadvertently sweeps or throw away the good luck one is due on account of the preparations you and your family have made.

The Kitchen God – and every household has one – must be propiated with gifts and offering because it is he, and he alone, who will report back to the celestial Jade Emperor on the family’s efforts over the previous year and it is the Jade Emperor who will decide the future prosperity of each household. Of course as all shops and markets will be closed during Tet, it is of prime importance to stock up on all basic food items – rice, oil, noodles, preserved fruit and vegetables, as well as all the essential items, minced pork and mung bean tucked inside a solid wodge of sticky rice wrapped up in a thick layer of banana leaves and then boiled over an open wood fire in huge pots closely resembling oil drums, usually out in the street before the house for hours, often over night with family members taking the responsibility to sit up tending the fire and telling tales of Tets past – after all, what would Christmas or Thanksgiving be like without the turkey and the spiced ham and tales of Scrooge?

Once the home has been thoroughly cleaned, paying special attention to the kitchen, then it must be suitable decorated. Red and yellow flowers will predominate although orange marigolds may be included. Yellow forsythia branches must adorn the home while peach and cheery blossom trees are especially popular.

Private household altar

Kumquat trees laden with small fruit are also popular, symbolizing fecundity and abundance, something everyone aspires to in the New Year. Everyone makes that special effort to pay off all debts while new clothes and shoes are required for everyone, especially children. Everyone participates, much as they do here in driving in appallingly crowded situations by being mannerly and considerate to everyone else. Losing your temper in the bustling crowds in the teeming markets would be a very grave loss of face resulting in untold misfortune for the coming year, while at the same time, happily and willingly paying that bit extra for just about any service of goods will ensure that the Jade Emperor will look upon you with benignity, as well as helping all those others to afford the extravagance that the season demands.

The first day of Tet is probably the most important as the first visitor to the family home will set the luck for the coming year. Shortly after midnight on New Year’s Eve, – and usually by prior arrangement – an appropriate visitor – i.e. someone relatively prosperous, jolly and charming, bearing gifts of flowers, food and alcohol – should arrive and be boisterously welcomed, thus ensuring good luck to the host or hostess for the coming year. Be aware, not every visitor is welcome or suitable and expect the door to remain firmly shut if you are perceived to be from the wrong side of the tracks. I rather smartly slipped outside my own front door just before midnight, waited the appropriate time and then gave the beady-eyed one a near heart attack by banging and hammering on the front door. She opened it with great trepidation to find me beaming and lurching under the weight of a assorted potted plants in the appropriate colours, US dollar bills spilling out of every pocket, a bottle of wine gripped precariously under my oxter and my pockets stuffed with savoury snacks. Seeing as the apartment is in my wife’s name, I felt that I should be the first visitor to cross the threshold, ensuring an abundance of good luck for the New Year, although it was only her steadying hand that prevented me from shattering the bottle of Shiraz on the tiled floor as I attempted to unburden myself.

Having survived that hurdle, New Year’s Day is reserved for the nuclear family focused on the paternal side of the family. Children dressed in their new finery, bow to their parents and offer traditional greeting – Sống lâu trăm tuổi (Long life of 100 years) and formally receive a red packet – a small red envelope, decorated with traditional wishes, containing assorted bank notes (Vietnamese notes range from the very lowly 500 dong (approximately Euro 0..02 cents) to the rather lordly 500,000 (Euro 18.06 cents) while friends wish each other Tiền vô như nước (May money flow in like water).

The second day of Tet is then reserved for the maternal side of the family and for respected friends and acquaintances and it was then that we made our way to the beady-eyed one’s mother house to present our best wishes. Almost bankrupted by the excessive taxi fare for the 15 minute journey, we arrived bearing gifts of flowers, fruit, sticky rice packages and, of course, red packets. Not just for children, the custom appears to give them to everyone who is a) unmarried and b) younger than the giver. In my case, that seems to be just about everyone, including the grinning and obsequiously bobbing doormen / custodians / guards and gate-keepers at our apartment. And then, naturally, there were the Beady-eyed one’s nephews and nieces, shyly bowing to me as I sat in state on a hard wooden settle, wishing me the Buddha knows what in their whispered Vietnamese as I handed out bulging red packets. I had no idea how much money was in them as the beady-eyed one had merely presented me with a bundle of ready stuffed red packets and instructed me to hand them out. Judging from the gasps of astonishment and incredulous glances my way, not to mention the never ending line of unctuous supplicants bowing before me, it was enough to pay for a handsome university education overseas along with a Masserati for daily transport.

Shortly after Tet, Prime Minister Nguyen Tan Dung hailed ministries, branches and localities for their efforts to ensure a happy and safe Lunar New Year festival for people of all strata, although at the same time asking them to pay more attention to traffic issue, and reprimanded several localities where firecrackers were still set off during the festival despite the ban. On a more positive note, he urged everyone to take drastic measure to remove difficulties facing businesses, control inflation, solve bad debts, keep the prices of essential goods stable, and speed up agricultural production.  In implementing the instruction of the President and the Prime Minister, New Year gifts worth a total of nearly 394 billion Vietnamese dong had been handed over to nearly 1.9 million people who have rendered services to the nation, while 24,000 tonnes of rice were sent to 15 provinces to help needy people. Besides, local authorities nationwide granted presents worth more than 807 billion Vietnamese dong to families, which are beneficiaries of social welfare.

However, in a number of localities, traffic jams still happened. In many tourist sites and spring festivals, visitors still ignored regulations on hygiene and safety. During the 9-day holiday, 681 criminal cases occurred nationwide, 314 people died and 387 other injured in 373 traffic accidents.

From Local English Language newspapers at the time.