One perk of living in Vietnam is that, if your bosses are as kind as mine, you get time off for two major holidays in a row: Christmas/Hanukah/etc. and Tet (Lunar New Year). Just as I was adjusting back to normalcy after the post-Christmas hangover, Tet was already upon us. I love the buildup to the holiday. Hanoi’s already hectic energy ramps up a few notches, a feat previously thought impossible. However, the frenzy and traffic gridlock is somehow made bearable by the explosion of colors and smiles throughout the city.
I’ve developed my own Tet tradition of taking copious amounts of photos of kumquat trees being transported on motorbikes and bicycles. One photo just isn’t enough:
This year we decided not to follow our expat brethren who tend to flee Vietnam en masse during the Tet break. For most of us, Tet means an opportunity to bask on a beach somewhere. It’s an allure that’s hard to pass up. In years past, a few people told us that we should stay in Hanoi. It’s so calm and peaceful, they’d say. But Hanoi has no beaches, we’d reply. Leaving Vietnam during Tet is practically sacrilegious among the Vietnamese, so it can be difficult to explain why we are usually so eager to leave when given the opportunity. Travel is our religion.
However, not this year. The trip home for Christmas left us a little exhausted and lazy. The appeal of doing nothing trumped the appeal of exploring another place. There is much to be said for doing nothing, and we generally don’t do nothing enough. Plus, a part of me has always been curious to see what Hanoi is like during this period of reverie. I pictured shuttered doors, deserted streets, and an absence of honking. I bought what felt like loads of groceries to prepare us for the shutdown. (They only lasted through the second day of Tet, confirming Mitchell’s assertion that we’d be among the first to go during the apocalypse.) Most expats who stay in Hanoi lament over the closing of all their favorite spots, but in a way I was hoping everything would be closed. This can’t be a normal week! Convenience be damned!
What actually happened was that most places were closed, but enough were open so we didn’t starve. People were still in the streets, but not nearly as many as usual. The first day of Tet was even busy as people left their houses and flocked to the pagodas. A friend told us that if you wake up very early on New Year’s day, the streets truly are empty. Although we didn’t experience this ourselves, we spent a day being tourists in a less crowded Hanoi. This meant visiting pagodas and actually reading the history and descriptions about them, gawking at old buildings, taking excessive photos and walking aimlessly through the Old Quarter. While people were still out and about, most things were closed and the traffic was reduced to a trickle. It felt like seeing the Old Quarter for the first time. In general, it’s easy to feel like a tourist in this city, no matter how long you’ve been here. It sort of never loses its mystery. You peel off one layer only to find dozens more.
Throughout the years I’ve peppered Vietnamese people for details about Tet, and as far as I can tell, they do the same stuff we do for the winter holidays. That is: go to “their countryside” (i.e., hometown), eat, spend all their money, eat, cook, eat, nap, eat, drink alcohol, eat, visit friends, eat, visit a pagoda, eat, watch fireworks, and eat. I don’t know if they also follow the Christmas traditions of bickering over politics, nagging at family members to get married/have babies/lose weight/find employment, posing for awkward family photos, and embarrassing one another, preferably in front of a new love interest. I can only hope they aren’t deprived these time-honored bonding activities.
Like Thanksgiving, Tet comes with special food. I had nearly the exact same meal 4 times in 5 days, which includes chicken, fried spring rolls, bamboo noodle soup, “frozen meat,” and bánh trứng (sticky rice cake wrapped in banana leaves).
What’s frozen meat you ask? The Vietnamese name for it is “giò thủ.” It was explained as being meat from a pig’s head (or chicken) mixed with mushrooms and then frozen into a lump. (Find a better explanation and recipe here.) It kind of looks like meat jello. My American tongue cringed a little at the sight of it, and my body gave off survival signals along the lines of “do not put the strange thing into your mouth, better safe than sorry.” But I overrode these alarms and tried it, and it’s actually not bad. All in all, Tet food is delicious quá.
We didn’t stay in Hanoi the whole week, though, as we visited a friend Chi at her grandmother’s house in Bac Giang. The house was on a small hill in the countryside. Chi’s family was very hospitable and generous from the start. The warmth and open-heartedness of Vietnamese people never ceases to surprise me. If you’re in their house, you’re family. Period. It’s humbling. Chi’s grandmother is 92 years old and tiny. She smiles often. While she lives alone, Chi’s aunt is right next door and numerous other relatives are close by. There were many animals around as well. Chickens, dogs, piggies, kitties, birds, and cows. It’s nice to see the Vietnamese countryside. I often forget that there’s a lot more to Vietnam than Hanoi. Hanoi has a way of occupying one’s attention.
While it was difficult to pass up the chance to travel, I’d recommend staying in Vietnam for at least one Tet holiday. Indulge your sedate side.
Chúc mừng năm mới!