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.



Culture Shock


I mentioned ages ago that one of the reasons for this blog thingy was cyber-space shock that I thought I was experiencing – not that I put it that elegantly, of course – which was a major driving factor for me to get involved with this blog thingy. Recently, that got me thinking about culture shock and where and how I had first encountered it. I think the first time I ever really experienced it was when I arrived in New York in 1977 and expected it to be similar to the worlds I had left behind in Europe. I remember reading somewhere (Alvin Toffler – Future Shock?) that Culture Shock can be amieleroated after about nine months and that used to hearten me, much like beating Google Maps time estimate for walking from A to B does for me now.

Anyway, jump forward to about 2013. I had, at that stage, lived and worked in different parts of S. E. Asia for more than twenty years, but, despite having visited and travelled in Vietnam several times over the few years, I had never actually lived there until I got serious and signed a lease on an apartment in Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon).

Saigon was a different world. Everything was strange and either ludicrous or just plain crazy. Traffic, for instance, was no doubt governed by laws, but what those were remained unfathomable to me. One-way streets, traffic lights and pedestrian crossings appeared to be mere suggestions without any serious compliance expected. Crossing any street was as fraught with as much excitement and danger as playing a computer game like Call of Duty (Black Ops) as “attackers” (motorbikes) can come at you from any direction and at any DSC_6610time without any warning whatsoever, but unlike computer games, you only have one life here, while lumbering buses and trucks made no allowance for either motorbikes or pedestrians. Pavements and sidewalks were fair game for motorbikes and the rule appeared to be that if you can stop your bike sideways on the pavement or in the middle of your living room, or even the road, why then, it was perfectly parked!

Recently the Saigonese police initiated one of their regular crackdowns but this certainly did not involve stopping bikes rushing through red lights or going the wrong way up a one-way street or driving on the pavement; instead, it seemed to be more of a crackdown on pedestrians in that if a pedestrian was involved in an accident, it must have been the pedestrian’s fault!. Similarly when driving at night, why run the risk of running your battery down when you can simply turn off your headlights at night and drive just as well in the dark.

Notwithstanding all that, the Beady-eyed one decided that we had better get into the spirit of things and rent our own personal motorbike and for reasons best know to others it was decided to rent a motorbike on the far side of the city to where we actually live. I made the rather tentative suggestion that we rent a scooter with automatic transmission – having spent at least a total time of less than one minute “practicing” on a Honda Airblade in Cambodia. This would, I felt, obviate the need to change cumbersome gears with the feet while attempting to maintain eyes forward, sideways and backwards and at the same time weave with the fluidity of a dust mote in a beam of sunlight, through the woof and weft of roundabout traffic. This suggestion was quickly rebuffed as it is a well-known motorbikes with automatic transmission are too powerful and have a tendency to “run away” with you if you twist the handlebar throttle too much! Instead we settled on a Honda 110cc with manual gears because then “you can start it up in 2nd gear and it won’t run away on you”. All well and good and the one-eyed tout renting the bikes appeared to have no qualms about renting a bike to a pair such as us who blatantly had no knowledge of where to even put the ignition key or whether to use the left or the right foot for the necessary gear changes. A one-minute tutorial in (unexplained to me) Vietnamese and a 5 minute practice ride in, through and around the flower beds in a nearby public park sufficed and the keys were quickly handed over for another million dong or so.

The immediate problem that presented us was two-fold; neither the Beady-eyed one or myself felt sufficiently confident to give the other a back pillion ride and, even if we were, neither of us had the slightest of idea how to circumnavigate the city to get to our far-flung district. Bit of an impasse, until a malleable plastic 50,000 dong note was slipped to the assistant of the one-eyed man and he drove the Beady-eyed one home, using the bike as a XÊ HỐM ̣motrobike “taxi” or litterally “hug machine” as the passenger is often obliged to hug the driver to avoid being jolted off the back as the rider careens over kerbs, potholes and the occasional bricks casually tossed onto the road. I then spent the rest of the afternoon hunting for a bus which would go within reasonable distance of where we actually live. By the time I got back home, of course it was too dark to warrant venturing out onto the tangle of streets surrounding us so all we had to do was pay the gate-keeper where we live another small fortune in well used plastic bank notes to allow us to park the bike under his supercillious nose.

The next morning, after the apparent ritual of handing over another bunch of crumpled plastic bank notes to the new gatekeeper which allowed him to retrieve our bike from wherever his colleague had hidden it the previous night – we took it in turns – “remember to start the bike in 2nd gear” – to cruise cautiously up and down our local street, rented helmets with greasey, sweat-stained linings slipping down over our eyes, our arms extended stiffly on the handlbars, eyes flickering nervously down to our feet and then belatedly up to scan the street for the unwary chickens which patrol it haphazzardly, tentatively trying out the horn (an absolute must for any aspiring driver here) and the indicators and stalling the bike in our attempts to bring it to a graceful stop actually in front of the street cafe rather than on top of one of its small tables.

Suffice it to say, a week later, the bike remains safely parked in the basement bowels of our building while our helmets moulder in a cupboard, while, since our arrival at this address, the local taxi mafia have set up a permanent taxi-rank outside our front door.

Enough said about traffic and bikes, I feel, although there was some talk that we might return the bike and exchange it for an automatic one as, apparently, they are easier to drive! Hmm, said I, non-commitedly

Noise is a constant factor with everyone, motorbikes, buses trucks and an increasing number of private cars having carte blanche to blast their klaxon-like horns constantly, mingling with the incessant noise of daily life on the streets – people crouch on tiny stools over rickety tin tables, sucking down noodle soup at all hours of the days or night while small “cafes” simply appropriate the space before a closed shop or office and set up their stools and tables there. Along with eating on the street, there are all the concomitant activities that go with it – obviously, cooking over an open charcoal fire on the pavement is perfectly normal, as are washing the dishes in a tub of greasy lather while it is perfectly


acceptable to sprawl on the pillion seat of a motorbike with your bare feet propped on the handlebars while a foot massage or pedicure is administered. Why stop there, of course? The street is a perfect place for a barber to attach a chipped mirror to the railing and set up a barber’s chair, and while you are at it, you might as well bathe the naked children on the main street as well. Need a toilet, well there is a perfectly good tree that you can hug and pee away to your heart’s delight.   Feel like a nap? Just stretch out on any semi level piece of ground and snooze away.


Shopping is another new experience. Supermarkets are few and far between and the ones that do cater to western tastes – i.e. selling such delicacies as Kiwi shoe polish, Cornflakes, baked beans in tomato sauce, long-life UHT milk imported from New Zealand and Australia, pasta and P.G. tips tea bags – are few and far between as well as being outrageously expensive. Instead, Vietnamese life centers around the market – usually a maze of narrow alleyways where fruit, veg, fish, meat and live poultry are haggled over down to the last cent. Don’t feel the need to have an actual stall? Fine, just spread a torn sheet of plastic on the muddy ground and pile your veg there. Want a nice pig’s tongue or a bucket of toads, or a basin of slippery eels? No problem, just scoop them up into the ubiquitous plastic shopping bag and slaughter away in the convenience of your own home.


Nothing pressing to do today? Well then, sprawl in a plastic garden chair and drink syrupy black coffee with ice, or, for a real taste buster, load up the glass – cups are rarely used – with sweetened, condensed milk, top up with Irel like coffee and then dilute the dregs with the complimentary glass of iced jasmine tea, flicking your cigarette butts (Craven A – pronounced CARavan A) at pedestrians’ feet as they stumble past on the cracked and uneven pavements between the parked and zooming motorbikes, while fending off the legion of crippled and maimed selling lottery tickets, sunglasses, feather dusters, zippo lighters and manicure kits from a sandwich board contraption they sling over their deformed shoulders.

However, it IS and experience and I am coping quite well, I think. For a start, I have enrolled in a Vietnamese language school and while I signed up for an elementary class with other would-be aspirants, so far I am the only student and have the undivided attention of a pretty, charming, superbly fluent and patient 24 year old teacher. I signed up for 35 hours at the monstrous price of 4,000, 000 dong (yep, 4 million!) and have already completed 12 hours, most of which has been spent grappling with the tonal aspect of the language as well as learning to write using the correct tonal signals along with the assorted diacritics that the Vietnamese alphabet of 29 letters uses.  A “D” not surprisingly, is not, of course, pronounced “Duh” but instead sounds a bit like a “Yuh” while letters such as Ă, Â, Ê, Ô, Đ, Ư and Ơ still retain that aura of mystique. Add the tones then on top of those letters and it becomes even more baffling as in Ầ or Ẩ or Ẫ while a simple and important word like “wine” becomes unreconisable in RƯƠỤ – notice the all important dot under the final U!

However, having said all that, I have to admit to a rather modest surprise at how fast and well I am actually learning. My class is from 10:00 – 11:30 (but then again it might just be from 10:30 – 12:00 noon) three mornings a week so after the lesson I wander around and get lost and finally, in a sweating, red-faced, sodden mess, I attempt to squeeze my bum into a plastic chair clearly made for kindergarten kids and slurp coffee – (Cà phê) while mumbling such phrases as I believe I have mastered only to later discover that I have just told the waitress that “her mother is a beautiful grave”!.

Then the wearisome search for a bus home begins. Saigon is a maze of one way streets and while this is blithely ignored by motorbikes and small utility trucks powered by oily, smoke-belching ancient motorbike-like engines, buses here do tend to follow the standard traffic direction. So, getting off the bus and carefully noting the stop – all bus stops are conveniently identified with XÊ BỨYT stencilled in faded letters on the road itself – it is all to no avail as the street apparently is a one-way street and the return bus would not just simply chug along on a parallel street but perhaps take a more tortuous route several blocks away. My several attempts at asking directions in my newly fluent Vietnamese had one gentleman hawk a gob of spit at my feet while a rather prim lady blushed and pulled her paisley-patterned surgical-type mask firmly over her face and stalked off without a word.

On the subject of surgical masks! Apparently, it is not just the Beady-eyed one’s fastidiousness and it certainly it is not just the beach that can make a lady’s skin dark. It is, rather, the mundane situation of being anywhere outdoors between dawn and dusk. Here in Saigon, of course is the added problem of “the dust” which necessitates every sinlge female between the ages of 11teen and 90 wearing a plain or haute-couture designed face mask, much like the style favoured by bank-robbing cowboys. Those particularly concerned with the “whiteness” of their features will additionally opt for the more comprehensive cover of a gorget or wimple. Along with the face mask, covering everything from below the eyes, a floppy hat is also de rigeur. Add to that, elbow length evening style gloves, similar to those worn by Audrey Hepburn in Breakfast at Tiffany’s and, finally, as a finishing touch, wear fish-belly grey knee length stockings with a convenient cleft between the big and first toe, all the more suitable for slipping your foot into the ineveitable thongs / flip-flops that many ladies here seem to favour.

And then it is the numbers (or lack of them sometimes) that put the heart sideways in me – I still can’t get used to dealing in millions for relatively simple purchases. The first time I ever came to Vietnam, back in 1996, you needed a plastic shopping bag to carry the cruddy paper bank notes around. Now, a semblance of sense exists and the notes are all the new shiny plastic bank notes, originating, I think, from Australia. The largest note is a 500,000 dong note, followed by a 200,000 and then a 100,000, and then down the scale at 50,000, 20,000, 10,000, and the rather lowly paper notes of 5,000 2,000, 1,000 and finally the rather pitiful 500 dong note (approx. $0.02 Australian or Euro cents !)

Despite the above, I really came to enjoy it less than four monts later.