Tuesday, March 1, 2016

Tet Holiday in Vietnam

Chúc Mừng Năm Mới!

We all know about Chinese New Year. It's big news at home and the Chinese celebrate it at home. What I didn't realize is that the Vietnamese also celebrate this Lunar New Year, but they all it Tet. Although we have a substantial Vietnamese population at home, I don't recall ever hearing that they were celebrating the Lunar New Year as well. From my untrained eyes, the lunar new year celebrations of the Chinese and the Vietnamese seem very similar, but I won't make that bald assertion because it's probably wrong.

Flowers everywhere leading up to Tet. Notice the oh so clever 6? It is Year of the Monkey after all.
Tet brought to you by 7UP.

As luck would have it, we happened to be in Vietnam to see their Tet holiday celebrations. Without doubt, it is the holiday of the year, and the only time many of the street vendors and shop owners actually shut down for some days off of work. Tet is so big, it's like American Thanksgiving, Christmas, Easter, and probably your birthday too, all rolled into one. 

More flowers being planted, or so we thought. It did appear that maybe they were removing them before Tet. But that just seems wrong. And then I remember, we're in Vietnam, so who knows.

I say it was good luck, and it was fantastic to be there. We saw a side of Vietnam that we never would have seen. But it was a bit of a mixed blessing.

In the days leading up to Tet everyone is busy. It's a time to deep clean and fix up your house so that it is ready for guests. It's a time to buy new clothes. It's time to get a kumquat tree and a flowering tree (in Hanoi it's a peach tree) to decorate. It's also the time to travel home to be with family. All this activity makes the streets busy, and travel around the country nearly, impossible unless you've booked your tickets way in advance.  

One lucky family will get that kumquat tree that's on the bike on the left. On the right is a bicycle flower seller.

Fortunately, we'd discovered last fall that we'd be in Vietnam over Tet and that it was a busy travel time.  We were able to book our train tickets on the tourist train for the overnight journey we wanted to take.

Peach tree and kumquat seller

Anyway, we arrived in Hanoi a few days before Tet. It was exciting. Buildings were being fixed up. Pagodas were being painted. The streets were crazy busy. So busy in fact, the hotel staff told us it was busier than normal. Motorcycles were loaded down with peach trees, kumquats, and other goodies for Tet. Street stalls were filled with decorations, lanterns and lucky money envelopes. 
Painting the bridge to a pagoda as part of the Tet preparations.

Lucky colours: In case you haven't noticed, red and gold are everywhere. 

At the hotel the staff talked excitedly about Tet, about going home, and patiently to the people asking for help for train tickets during Tet. We heard the front desk woman explain to more than one person, "I'm sorry, but there are no tickets available. It is Tet, the most important national holiday in Vietnam. It is very busy."

A couple days before the first day of the new year everything slowly started shutting down: the museums, some restaurants, the travel agencies, the shops. 

As the shops started shutting down the sounds of Abba's "Happy New Year" filled the air. I don't think I've ever heard this song before, but that deficit was quickly made up by the fact we heard it many, many times over the next few days. In case you've never heard it, here it is:

The crowds around the lake in the Old Quarter started changing as well. It went from an essentially child-free area to throngs of multi-generational families dressed up, or in traditional dress. 

A whole lot of photos were taken by a whole lot of families.
The pagodas were suddenly very busy with local people going to worship their ancestors by praying, burning incense, leaving food, and burning paper goods and money. They need to make sure their ancestors in the next world are properly provided for. You leave food for them, and burn paper miniature goods (like houses, cars) and fake paper money for them so that they will have those material goods in their world. 

On New Year's Eve the streets were more crowded than usual as people made their way to the lake where the midnight fireworks would be. Part of the main road was blocked off to traffic so people had a place to stand. Sidewalks were completely unwalkable because of the motorcycle parking. 

We headed out about 11pm to make our way to the lake in among the people and balloons and motorcycles. The fireworks started on time and lasted an impressive 15 minutes. They were spectacular! 

We walked back to our hotel with motorbikes and people sharing the exact same space on the road. I've never left such a big event before with so many people where motorcycles moved in and along with the pedestrians. After a couple blocks, it did get a bit better. 

People bought long stalks of sugar cane for good luck (everything is done for good luck at Tet). As if that's not enough chaos for you, there were also people burning their paper goods on the sidewalk to make certain their ancestors want for nothing. Some use fancy metal stoves, but a lot just burn in a pile on the sidewalk. 

The tall sugar cane wrapped in red ribbon.

This fellow is burning his goods in a metal bowl.
The red and gold paper package behind the fire contains all the paper goods he'll be burning.

This fellow burned his paper goods on the sidewalk.

It took us over 45 minutes to make the 10 minute walk back to our room. 

Tet morning was quiet. Most everything was closed. The streets were quiet compared to a fewer days before, but there were still cars and motorbikes carrying families to visit family. 

Most surprising of all though we're the shops that had their doors open, but all their goods pushed aside to make room for a temporary family dining room. Sometimes these families were cooking on the street, sometimes the chairs spilled out onto the street.  In every case nicely dressed families gathered to eat, drink and celebrate. I have to admit though, a couple of times it was a little tough to tell whether it was a family gathering or a pop up restaurant to fill the void of the closed places. 

The family's temporary dining room in their shop.

Our hotel was down to the minimum of staff with the front desk fellow working something like an 18-hour shift before he headed off to his family. But the jobs that needed to get done got done, and breakfast continued to be served - except for the fresh baguettes. That baker must have been on holiday. 

There were some restaurants open, especially by the lake in the tourist hub. A couple of very touristy shops also had their doors open for at least a few hours. 

In the days following Tet things slowly began to open. Most offices (including the dentist, which I desperately needed - read that story here) were closed for the whole week. Some were closed even longer. The agency through which we booked our food tour was closed for almost two weeks. It had been determined that the most auspicious day to reopen was February 18. 

The new year is all about starting off on the right foot, setting aside differences, and doing all you can to bring about good fortune for the upcoming year. I've never heard the word auspicious used so frequently.

Some families pay particular attention to the first person crossing their home's threshold in the new year. Not just anyone can come in. The astrology of the person matters, his character, his wealth and undoubtedly some other factors too. If the wrong person crosses the threshold first, he brings bad luck into the home and for its occupants. 

It's also bad form to bargain in the first few days of Tet. That meant the price for the rickshaw ride doubled. At first we did bargain, then during the ride we remembered it was bad form, so we paid the original price and said "Chúc Mừng Năm Mới" (Happy New Year). The driver was mighty happy. No doubt. 

The kids were very excited to hear about lucky money. We were lame and didn't get them any, but in the second day of Tet, an old woman came over to Eamon and gave him some money. It wasn't much, but he was mighty pleased. 

The remainder of the week was quiet with not quite everything operating at full speed. 

I'm glad we were there to witness the lead up to Tet and the start of Tet. It's fun to see so many people excited about the holiday and getting together with family. But after Tet begins, so much is closed and many tours aren't operating. This didn't affect us too much because we were here long to enough to have things reopen, and the beach in Danang never closed. 

If I were travelling to Vietnam around Tet again I would never hesitate to come just because of Tet. I would however, time my visit to leave Vietnam shortly after the first day or two of Tet so that I could make the most of my time there by getting to museums when they are open, getting on tours that are still running, yet still seeing the excitement of welcoming in the new year. 

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