Monday, February 7, 2011

Tet in the countryside

Last year we spent the Vietnamese New Year in Thailand. Most expats I know use the time to get out of Vietnam as everything shuts down for a few weeks. We decided to stay around Hanoi this year to experience the Tet holiday.

Our friend, Nam, invited us to come and stay with his family for a few days. Nam's parents live in Luong Son, a small town about 40km from Hanoi. We packed a few things and jumped on our bike a day before New Year. Nam's parents live on the main road in the heart of the local market. The market was bustling when we arrived; the last day of trade before the holiday started.

Nam's parents own a small shop which operates from the front of their house. They are both lovely people and very friendly. They can't speak any English so when Nam was not around we had to bring all our Vietnamese to the table in order to communicate. We slept in Nam's old room with Nam on the floor. We tried our best not to take his bed but he flatly refused anything other than him on the floor. Even though we sleep on the floor in Hanoi, and have done so for 6 months, he would not take no for an answer.

We ate our meals on the floor in the lounge room; lying out a mat and sitting cross-legged as we ate and chat. After dinner the socialising began. Nam keeps in touch with all his friends from school and the Tet holiday is the ideal time to catch up. Basically what happens is people hop from house to house saying Happy New Year to their friends and their family. The family always offers a drink, either beer, wine or tea, and has a bunch of snacks. Some of the snacks are traditional Vietnamese or Tet holiday snacks while others are candy, nuts and fruit. Everyone passes on their best wishes for a healthy, wealthy and happy year. We usually stay at a house no longer than 30 minutes. We went from house to house until a little before midnight. At that time everyone returned to their house to bring in the new year. After midnight, we again jumped on the bike and headed to a big tree in the centre of town where a congregation of young people had gathered. The tree, on government land, was the source for a sought after branch which is good luck for a wealthy year. Young guys with branch clippers on the end of a long pole would cut small branches from the tree. As they fell others would jump to grab a branch. It reminded me of ladies catching the bouquet at a wedding. With a branch in hand people would jump on their bike and ride off. Once Nam had his branch we too left and went back home. After that the socialising resumed and finished at around 2.30am. We visited 7 houses that first night. We were tired by the end of it.

The next day was much of the same. We visited house after house. It was a brutal affair. I think we stopped at maybe 20 different houses. I have never drunk so much tea and eaten so many candies. This ritual happens every year. After visiting someones house the host then comes along as well. By the end of the night we resembled a biker gang with about 10 bikes cruising along the road together. Celine and I were very happy to call it a night at around 10.30pm.

The main topic as we moved from house to house was marriage and kids; or lack of. For many of Nam's friends Tet must be a frustrating affair. Approaching 30, their parents are genuinely worried about them. The central questions are WHO (are you going to marry) and WHEN. Nam is getting married next month so for him Tet must be a bit easier this year; He can actually answer the constant barrage of questions. After marriage of course comes a baby. This was the question we received about 40 times. Why don't you have a baby? We even started to lie about how long we have been married. They can't fathom why a couple of 3 years would not have a baby. This got frustrating after the 20th time. I feel sorry for the young Vietnamese who don't really want to get married or have a kid. They are virtually forced.

Another Tet tradition is lucky money. Lucky money is given to the little kids when you visit their house. It is given to the older generation as well. Celine and I received some lucky money from Nam, Nam's parents and even some of the parent's of Nam's friends. The amounts vary on how close you are to the person but for kids it is usually 5,000-50,000 VND. For adults it was 100,000 VND. The money is either given directly or in a small envelope. Luckily Celine had prepared lucky money envelopes to give to the kids.

On the last day Nam's two older sisters and their families came from Hanoi and we had lunch with them. They are very friendly as well and it was very nice to spend the holiday with them. Tet is the only time of the year when they are all together.

The few days in Luong Son were great. It was the perfect insight into the Vietnamese Tet tradition and we learnt many things. It was often quite demanding and we had no down time but that comes with the Vietnamese culture.


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  2. Lucky you to see and enjoy the Tet in a Vietnamese family.
    One thing that you haven't noticed that we, Vietnamese, when we host someone to our house, our bedroom is always ready being given. It's said: "Nhịn miệng đãi khách", it's not because you're foreigners but guest, and this quote means when guests come, the host of family just don't eat their good food or sleep on their cozy bed but give to their guests in order to showing "hospitality"
    I like your post :)
    Have a nice time tho