Hoi An, February 2002
One of the most common expressions I’ve encountered in Viet Nam is: “Same same but different,” and I think that’s a pretty good description of the relationship between “our” festive season and the Vietnamese New Year, or Tet. Although Tet proper only lasts for the first three days of the new lunar year, the rituals surrounding it start at least a week earlier, and many people take the whole of the first week of the year as a holiday, so in that sense, it’s very much like our own festive binge.
Same, same as us, Vietnamese people have special trees in their homes – usually kumquats, and/or trees made from branches of blossom: pink in the north and yellow in the south. One entire major street in Hoi An was transformed into a massive tree and flower market; it was beautiful.
Same, same as us, Vietnamese people have things burning at the front of their homes. We might have Christmas candles, Vietnamese people burn incense, and “ghost money”, basically fake money. It’s supposed to buy the favour of the ancestors, but it put me in a bit of a dilemma. I was walking along this street in Hoi An when I saw two $20 and one $100 bills on the floor. Should finders be keepers? Or should I leave them for a Vietnamese person, who probably has only a fraction of the money I have, to find? Fortunately, I then realised that this was the sort of money that would get me into big trouble if I tried to spend it, and not just because I’d pissed off the ancestors by robbing them!
Same, same as us, Vietnamese people head home for Tet, but unlike us, it’s because it’s believed to bring good luck to the family if everyone spends it under the same roof. This includes the spirits of dead relatives; living people visit cemeteries during the week before New Year’s Eve to invite the spirits of dead relatives to spend Tet with the living.
There’s also a tradition of first footing (although it’s not called that). The ideal first footer should, apparently, be a wealthy man, married and with lots of children, as this should bring luck to the household. One of the unluckiest first footers is thought to be a middle-aged single woman. So no cracks, please, about why no one invited me to visit their house on New Year’s Day!
Just like us, Vietnamese people spend the weeks leading up to the festive season buying new clothes, having their hair cut and cleaning their homes. But it’s not just because they want themselves and their homes to look their best for Tet, it’s also part of this belief that you’re leaving behind the problems of the old year and starting the new with a clean slate.
There’s special festive food, too, including some kind of glutinous rice and pork mixture that’s wrapped in a leaf and tied with string to look like a parcel, and candied fruit – including tomatoes.
Tet is also supposed to be a time for giving presents, but mainly to children, in the form of “Lucky Money”, which is seen by adults as an investment to ensure the favour of the gods in the coming year. And it’s seen by some cheeky children as an excuse to race up to anyone in the street bellowing: “Chuc mung nam moi” (Happy New Year) and holding out their grubby hands for hard cash. And adults are supposed to cough up or risk a year of bad luck.
So what’s it all about? Well, like I said, it’s all about wrapping up the past year and clearing the slate for the coming year. The rituals proper start seven days before New Year’s Eve, when the three spirits of the hearth (most homes have a little altar in the kitchen) ascend to the heavens to tell the Jade Emperor about what’s happened during the year that’s ending. Apparently, they’re supposed to make the journey on celestial carp, so many Vietnamese people, apparently, release live carp into rivers. I didn’t see this happening anywhere, but that’s what’s supposed to happen.
The three spirits return to earth at midnight on New Year’s Eve. All the problems of the past year are left behind, and everyone is supposed to make lots of noise, firstly to welcome the gods back, and secondly to scare off any evil spirits that might still be left behind.
And, on New Year’s Day there are some things you’re not supposed to do, if you want to be lucky in the new year. They include swearing (a challenge for me, I admit, but I managed it!), sweeping, sewing and breaking things.
So what was the big festival like in Hoi An? For such a stunning place, it was actually a bit of an anti-climax. The build-up was great: lots of people zipping about on motos, doing their last minute shopping – including driving down the outer aisles of the market; almost nowhere is out of bounds to motorbikes. The market spilled out onto the surrounding streets, with people selling all kinds of fresh fruit and vegetables.
Hoi An (as I’ve written before) is a town of tailors’ shops (200-plus at the last count), and, as midnight approached, the shopkeepers started covering the racks of cloth, so they wouldn’t get messed up during the celebrations. Space is, shall we say, at a premium in many homes. People don’t live above the shop, they live in it. A group of young people did a dragon dance through the streets. That was great: they had a massive drum on a cart, and around a dozen of them took it in turns to dance inside the dragon. Sometimes, the person who was at the head would be carried along on a wooden platform carried by the others. And sometimes they had to reach up really high to collect presents hanging from first-floor windows. There was also a concert in the park.
Although the concert finished around 10pm and the park was closed, everyone seemed to head back to the park as midnight approached, on motorbikes, pedal bikes and on foot. I wandered through the crowd and found myself standing next to two Chinese-American tourists. It was around two minutes to midnight, so we readied ourselves for the big minute. After a while we decided midnight must be almost upon us and looked at our watches. It was five past midnight, but nothing had happened, no big countdown, no big noise, nothing. And so it continued, with people just sitting or standing around until about 12.25am, when the police came and moved everybody on. Then some of the people on motorbikes did a couple of circuits of the town centre and, I assume, went home.
However, I suspect there were many parties held behind closed doors. In fact, I know there were. At teatime on New Year’s Day, I went into Hai’s Scout Cafe (one of my favourite places in the whole of Viet Nam). The cafe had been closed since lunchtime on New Year’s Eve but I’d seen a steady stream of motorbikes pull into the rear courtyard. Anyway, as I sat down on New Year’s Day, Hai came up and spoke complete rubbish to me. I just smiled and nodded. And when I left I asked if he’d had a good Tet so far. He kind of glared at me. “Urrgh, no,” he said, pointing to his head, “Too much rice wine…”
So that’s something else that’s “Same, same” about the two lots of festivities – people getting plastered. Another common feature is watching telly: in so many homes, people were just sitting there glued to some variety show on the TV.
New Year’s Day itself seems to be a time for families to be together. Although some shops and restaurants stayed open, the vast majority were closed, which came as quite a shock in a place as touristy as Hoi An (apparently, last year the city had three visitors for every resident).
There was still entertainment to be had, though: the two days after New Year’s Day are a time for seeing friends, and it was actually rather fun to watch people, young people in particular, zipping across the town, often three or four to a bike, dressed in their new clothes and in high spirits.