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Tet Celebrations 2009 10 February 2009

Posted by uggclogs in Life.
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Originally posted on 10 February 2009 (edited)

Happy New Year!

You might think to yourself (in that sneaky, judgemental way) that it is a little late for that, but no – Vietnamese New Year was only celebrated recently!

I must admit that I have been a little lazy this (Western Calendar) year, and have not been blogging. So, this (Lunar Calendar) year I will start with a post. The Vietnamese celebrate Tet every year with lots of bravado, and it was good fun to experience it here in Hanoi. Weeks in advance, the stockpiling of foods etc begins in the same manner that we do before Christmas, and there is a real atmosphere of excitement.  Tet is looked forward to all year for many reasons.

Now, my personal experience with Tet started when I (stupidly) went to the wholesale supermarket two weeks before Tet with a friend. We should have turned around at the door, but since I must have left my brain in my other handbag, we proceeded inside. The crowds were immense, and it was practically impossible to get a trolley.  I missed out on the first batch of trolleys that were pushed inside from behind a rolling garage door, but thought in my infinite wisdom that I would get one the second round, as I was now first in line.  Oh, yeah, I forgot. The Vietnamese do not queue.  So after being pushed out of the way and not getting one in the second battle for a trolley either, I decided the third battle was my battle.  So when the roller doors went up, I flew ahead and grabbed one.  Unluckily, the third round of trolleys were flat, low trolleys designed for big boxes only, so after getting stuck with a wonky and completely impractical trolley which was impossible to manoeuvre, the day was not looking up.  Going through the aisles was totally painful with this monster of a thing, and there was no space to move it in.  I have seen several Vietnamese climb over my trolley to get through, as patience is not a virtue in Vietnam (or it might be, but that would mean that there are no virtuous people here).  Checkout was the worst, though. Customers obviously do not appreciate standing in line for two hours, and I saw screaming, yelling, (probably swearing) and a little lady who literally started throwing the items that belonged to others off the checkout counter and around the store.  I left the store abused, bewildered and with massive bruises on my shins from where the locals had rammed their trolleys into me (mostly on purpose). My poor friend, who had just relocated to Hanoi the week before has been scarred for life.

Rightio. So that was the most traumatic part of Tet. After that, the fun things started. A week before Tet you are supposed to release a fish into a stream so that it may bring you and your family’s news from the past year to the Kitchen Gods.  The Kitchen Gods are important in Vietnam, because they look after your family.  The reason the kitchen is their domain is because the kitchen is pivotal in all people’s lives – everyone eats.  The kitchen also tells a lot about your situation – if you have better food this year than last year might mean you are better off.  Or if you eat less or more, this could mean that there have been additions to or deaths in the family.  The idea is thus that the fish is released so it can swim to the sky to tell the Gods about you.  The weird thing, though, is that sometimes, this symbolic releasing of fish into streams are done by releasing them into ponds and lakes… My partner told me he had even seen little plastic bags with water and a fish inside bob along on the lakes in Hanoi, Finding Nemo – style.  Which begs the question, of course – is it better to die of hunger inside a plastic bag, or from the polluted waters in the Hanoi lakes?

Before Tet, we went out to the villages just outside of Hanoi to purchase a peach-blossom branch and a kumquat tree for our apartment.  Here is the full Vietnamese experience:

On Tet (which is the 30th day of the 12th month of the lunar calendar) the government has several firework displays around the Lakes of Hanoi, and many young people go out to see them.  You can also buy paper lanterns which have a fuel soaked cloth attached at the bottom.  When lit, it will cause hot air to fill the lantern, and lift it into the night sky.  In principle.  Because the lanterns are made from paper, they are prone to catch alight, and you can imagine what happens then – great balls of fire that rain down over the crowd and the houses in the city.  Every time this happened, the crowd on the street started jeering and cheering, and lots of people had to scramble to safety to get away from the flames.  It looked dangerous, and the next day I read in the local news that several houses and a central power grid had burnt down causing a large section of Hanoi to be without electricity on the first day of the new year (coincidentally, one of the coldest days we’ve had in Hanoi).

Firecrackers are now illegal due to the danger it presents to humans, but I heard and saw quite a few being set off, mostly by young Vietnamese sitting on the back of motorbikes, who subsequently sped away in order for the police not to catch them. These youngsters (and many others) were also not wearing helmets over the Tet celebrations, which turned out to be due to the police not handing out fines for minor infringements during the holidays. This being widely known, people did not bother to wear them. There was, by the way, also a high correlation between youngsters not wearing helmets and piling three or more people on one motorbike.  Interesting anecdote.

The first day after Tet, it is very important that the first person to enter your house is a good person and someone that will bring you luck for the year ahead.  It cannot be someone of a bad character or someone who is ill.  Nor can this person be in mourning, so anyone who has recently buried a relative is not eligible to visit your house on the first day of Tet.  It is even more auspicious if that person’s birth year is compatible with the year that just started (so it needs to be compatible with the Year of the Buffalo).  Often, the Vietnamese choose in advance who this first visitor will be, and invites them formally to their house in advance.  We made sure to stay well away from the houses of the Vietnamese, as we did not want to bring bad luck on anyone for a whole year.  A few weeks, maybe, but a year is a bit much!  Although, in general, Westerners are regarded as good luck, as they are seen as wealthy and lucky.

Tet is a very superstitious time, as you can gather.  You may not eat dog or duck meat on the first day of Tet.  Bringing home a branch with new buds on it is good luck.  (So you can imagine what the trees around the lakes look like after Tet?) Placing sugar cane on either side of your door is lucky, etc. etc. The first day after Tet, the Vietnamese go visit the ‘internal’ family (being the family of the man’s side of the family). The second day, the ‘external’ (maternal) family should be visited, and the third day you visit friends, neighbours and colleagues. You are supposed to give the children and the elderly new currency for Tet (in red envelopes, as red is a ‘lucky’ colour) so Tet is a fun but very expensive time for the Vietnamese.  And a very confusing time for a foreigner!

But all in all it was a fantastic experience. After Tet itself, all the shops are closed and the streets are practically empty, something which is totally surreal in a buzzing country like Vietnam. I am glad we stuck around this year to see it all!