Regardless of what you call it – there’s a big celebration going on over here in this half of the world. Technically its Lunar New Year however it’s referred to as Chinese New Year unless of course you are in Vietnam where it’s called Tet. I guess the Vietnamese didn’t want to partner with China on this most important holiday. Regardless, I’m walking around saying Happy New Year again in some weird sort of deja vu. Being a Westerner in Asia certainly makes for a long, long holiday season; November to February.
This is the holiday that puts Asia in motion; so much motion that it makes American Thanksgiving look like a toy train set. I have been watching Ho Chi Minh City residents prepare for the holiday with great interest. Tet is a huge celebration lasting three to four days. Families save money, store food, and plan far in advance for Tet. The Vietnamese take extreme care to start the New Year out right. They buy new clothes, paint and clean their homes, cook three days worth of food, pay off all debts and make amends to rid themselves of all bad feelings.
I have been watching my landlady gear up for the Lunar New Year for the last two weeks. I came outside and one day there were stacks of cases of beer and soda and she was busily putting up the plastic yellow flowers all over the front of her windows and doors. Shortly thereafter I noticed that she and all of her female friends/relatives were putting together huge baskets of gifts in her ‘living room’. I had no idea why they needed so many until one day I saw her out at the front of our alley selling these big baskets full of food, fireworks, and soda/beer to passer-bys. There’s one thing that I’ve learned about Vietnamese women; they are extremly hard working and they all multitask with amazing agility. My landlady has about 5 different jobs including ‘running’ her family.
As the Vietnamese so often say, Tet and Chinese New Year are ‘same, same, but different’. Sure, they both celebrate the Lunar New Year, however there are no dragon dance teams here, oranges, or a big parades. Instead there are loads and loads of flowers, watermelon, and spcecial food. Flowers decorate parks, buildings, streets, offices and homes. If you don’t have pots of flowers or fresh flowers to buy, then you buy little yellow plastic flowers that you stick on your windows. The main park in the city center has been absolutely transformed into a flower market. I have never seen so many flowers. I walked through it one busy night and watched as families strolled through the market taking pictures, however I never say one person buy any flowers! The main street in the city has also been transformed into a ‘yellow brick road’ through thousands of flowers and water displays welcoming the new year of the Ox. What amazes me the most about the Vietnamese is that they put on an impressive display, but they do it ’just in time’ for the holiday. In America we prepare for holidays well in advance – Christmas decorations are up at the beginning of November; hell, you have all probably been looking at Valentine’s decor since January 1st! However here, they decorate just as nicely…but it’s completed the day before the holiday. It stays up for a couple of days and then they start taking it down! Needless to say – they were still working on the flower and ox displays yet today – the 2 days before the New Year!
Not only is Tet the beginning of a New Year, it is also everyone’s birthday. The Vietnamese do not know or acknowledge the exact day they were born. A baby turns one on Tet no matter when he/she was born that year. In order to try to observe the tradition, I stopped the other day at the landlady’s Tet ‘sale’ to buy some li xi, red envelopes for ‘lucky money’. It is a tradition to give friends and family lucky money for their birthday and good luck in the next year. I’ve been busy trying to follow tradition and provide li xi to the necessary people around my neighborhood.
Finally, as with most major holidays, there is special food to prepare. In China they give oranges for good luck, here they give watermelons. Watermelons are everywhere! In addition, the week before the New Year families start the long process of preparing Banh Chung, boiled rice, bean, and pork cakes. The cake is wrapped up in what seems like hundreds of layers of leaves and baked for 5 hours! I tried my very first Banh Chung yesterday and it honestly tasted like Mexican food! The combination of rice, pork, and bean paste tasted a bit like a burrito to me; all I needed was a tortilla and some sour cream. Or maybe I just miss burritos so badly that I’m imaginging things!
Slowly the city has been preparing and shutting down at the same time. Most of the businesses will close for Tet as all of the workers leave to go see thier families in the countrysides. My school closes for the week which is good since our student numbers have been dwindling steadily as it gets closer and closer to the New Year. So I’ve decided that like the rest of Asia, I too will spend this Lunar New Year with family. Tomorrow I take off for Singapore for a week!
I hope you all have a happy New Year…again!
Chuc Mung Nam Moi!