I had lived in Hanoi for almost a year before the lunar New Year finally rolled around. Throughout that time, my Vietnamese friends had urged me to stay for Tet, while many of the foreigners who lived in Hanoi urged me not to. My conversations with representatives from both groups had already taught me quite a bit about that most important of Vietnamese holidays, enough to provide me with an image that was both extensive and unappealing: Tet, as far as I could tell, was a week of life-threatening firecrackers, freezing rain, and constant feasting followed by constant indigestion. One British woman recommended celebrating Tet by making a visit to Thailand.
I asked a life-long Hanoian why Tet was so important. "The first few days of the year set the tone for the next 12 months," she explained. "So if you have a happy Tet, you'll have a happy year. If you have a sad Tet, you'll have a sad year." I got even more worried then. I come from the United States, a culture committed to the belief that today is the first day of the rest of your life. As if the constant noise of firecrackers weren't bad enough, I was uncomfortable with the concept that the tone of a whole year could be determined by what happened in the course of one week. Just as I prepared to bow out, though, my Vietnamese friend forced me to look at Tet from a different angle. "You can never understand Vietnam," she told me," until you experience Tet." I decided to stay.
Watermelon and sunflower seeds were the first sign that Tet was approaching. Vietnamese munch seeds all year around, but as Tet nears they begin to consume with a fervor, as if the crack-crack-crack of seeds on teeth would prepare the very air around them for the louder bangs of explosives. But seeds have an importance that goes beyond sound. Seeds demand conviviality. No one sits alone in a room, cracking sunflower seeds. No one eats seeds for dinner. Sunflower and watermelon seeds are sitting-around-with-friends food.
Just as I was getting used to the seeds, other signs of the approaching New Year season appeared. According to tradition, in the days before Tet, people bring gifts of food to their friends, neighbors and relatives. To keep up with the demand for these items, specialty shops open up all over town, their bright red banners wishing everyone a happy Tet and proclaiming the delectability of their particular products. I visited one of Hanoi's biggest Tet markets, located just down the street from the Metropole Hotel, where shopkeepers stood in front of big glass jars full of the sugar-covered dried fruit known as mut. A saleswoman weighed out a bagful of apricot mut for one customer, coconut mut for another and ginger mut for someone else. In other parts of the market, shoppers were stocking up on other delicacies: imported jars of pickles, apricot wine, vodka, sausages and golden Danish sugar cookies. In a country where most diets are limited to whatever local farms and factories produce, a package of laughing cow cheese or a bottle of Johnny Walker constitutes real luxury, and can therefore serve as a perfect holiday gift.
In the weeks before the New Year, vendors begin to appear on the city streets selling miniature orange trees and cay hoa dao, the small blossoming peach trees that are as much a requisite part of Tet as Christmas trees at Christmas. Roaming the streets with the trees slung to the frames of their bicycles, the vendors announce their prices, ready to bargain, while prospective buyers check the trees carefully, looking for just the right mix of branch and flower. People who want to choose from a wider selection of trees can visit the Tet flower market in the center of Hanoi's old quarter. One day I rode my bike through it and stopped in the midst of the forest of trees. The tree sellers were bundled against the winter cold and as the wind picked up I zipped my own jacket tighter around my neck. The lacy pink veil of peach blossoms couldn't keep out the chill, but it did what the peach trees are supposed to do: it promised the coming of spring.
All around the city, people were making their preparations. Shoppers swarmed the markets, searching for new clothes to wear for the holiday. Children got haircuts and new shoes. People mopped their floors and polished their bicycles and motorbikes until they glistened as much as anything could glisten during those sunless late-winter days. The peach trees were placed in prominent positions in living rooms, storefronts and offices. Work became a low priority as offices locked up early so employees and their bosses could go out together and socialize.
The wealthy weren't the only ones getting ready for Tet. Not far from my house, a group of homeless children lived in a small alley full of popular food stalls. Some of them begged and some of them sold newspapers for a local orphan's aid organization. They slept in a half-hidden corner of the alley, and at first glance their bodies, curled around each other in sleep, looked less like children than piles of discarded rags. Over the past few months, I had gotten to know a few of them. One afternoon, I invited a young boy and an adolescent girl to eat noodle soup with me. They were shy, and as we waited for our meal they tried not to look at the foreign woman sitting across the table from them. Finally, when I began to ask them about their lives, they relaxed. Neither of these children were orphans. Rather, both had left their homes in the countryside when their families could no long afford to take care of them. Now they returned home once a year, at Tet, and brought their families whatever amount of money they'd been able to save over the past 12 months. The girl told me she had saved 10,000 Dong (about US$1). The boy, who was younger, cuter, and therefore more successful at begging, had saved 15,000 Dong. They would have had more, they told me, but they'd both been robbed. After that lunch, I hoped I'd see those children again, but the next time I went to the food stall alley, it was quiet. The children had gone home for Tet.
The firecrackers were already exploding. Children thought they were toys and shot them off like missiles into the rush-hour traffic. Foreigners were easy targets, a fact that provided me with a whole new challenge in riding my bicycle down Hanoi's already chaotic streets. The Vietnamese government recognizes the danger of fireworks. Every year the newspapers print articles about people who die in fireworks accidents and about fireworks-filled buses and buildings that exploded because of one stray spark. It doesn't seem to make much difference to the populace. The closer we got to Tet, the more frequently I heard the bangs and pops.
Throughout the rest of the year, Vietnamese follow the solar-based calendar that's used in the West. At Tet, though, time changes. Last year's Tet began at midnight on February 9, 1994, and so February 10 was the first day of the Lunar New Year. As if following some subtle shift designated by the heavens, just as the holiday begins, Vietnamese go back to ancient tradition. Suddenly, while people in Paris or Washington are still marking their calendars by the revolutions of the earth around the sun, Vietnamese have begun to follow the moon. No matter what the Western calendar might call the date on which the Lunar New Year's Eve falls, Vietnamese call it "the 30th of Tet," and according to the logic of the season, New Year's Day itself is known as "the first of Tet," followed by the second, third, fourth, etc. While the rest of the world continues racing through the same old year, Vietnam steps off for a week and then, only reluctantly, steps back on.
Vietnamese give a lot of thought to the question of whom to invite to be the first person to walk through their door on the New Year. It must be a person who has had a prosperous year or a person with a reputation for bringing luck. As a foreigner, lucky or not, I was invited into many homes for Tet because Vietnamese love to receive foreigners as their guests. By the time the 30th of Tet arrived, my holiday schedule was complete. I'd settled it weeks in advance, filling every day like a dance card to accommodate all the friends who wanted me to visit them. Because I had so many holiday visits to make, I would spend most of Tet eating. A Vietnamese saying explains that, "You can go hungry on the anniversary of your father's death, but on the three days of Tet you are full." There are reasons for all this indulgence. At this holiest time of the year, Vietnamese offer as much as they can at the altars to the ancestors and the food they use as offerings will later be eaten. In addition, Tet tradition calls for showing respect by visiting friends and family in their homes. These visits always require at least a little food.
In one sense, Tet is like Thanksgiving in that every household follows a virtually identical menu. But Thanksgiving is a midnight snack in comparison to Tet, because Vietnamese indulge in the feast two or three times a day for at least three days. The menu usually includes spring rolls, pork pates, rice noodle soup, stuffed mushrooms in broth, and banh chung, a lard- and mung bean-filled steamed rice cake. Dense and bland, banh chung plays as prominent a role during Vietnam's holiday season as fruitcake plays in America's: Vietnamese like to have it around the house but they don't necessarily want to eat it.
I went to my friend Cam's house to help cook the first feast for New Year's Eve. Thankfully, they'd made their banh chung well in advance (like a fruitcake, banh chung has a rather long shelf life) but there was plenty more to do. I sat on the kitchen floor wrapping spring rolls, while Cam, her mother, and sister hurried to complete the dozen or so dishes they would prepare as an offering to their ancestors. According to Buddhist tradition, only after the ancestors have had their share of food can the living family members eat. As we completed each dish, Cam or her sister would set it as an offering on the family altar, saying silent prayers, and lighting sticks of incense. When all the dishes had been offered and all the incense had burned out, the family itself would eat the food. For hours, the two sisters ran back and forth between the kitchen and the altar, while their mother and I kept working in the kitchen.
Firecrackers were now exploding constantly in the streets outside. I looked out the window, excited but nervous about the increasing onslaught in the hours to come. Like most Americans, I grew up watching firecrackers from a cozy distance on the Fourth of July. These explosives were closer, more constant, and dangerous.
Cam's mother saw that I was edgy. "Don't you have firecrackers in America?" she asked.
"Yes, but mostly for public displays," I said. "In many states, people are forbidden to buy or sell them."
"Forbidden!" She seemed shocked. "Why?"
"Because they're so dangerous," I explained, surprised that she didn't recognize this fact.
"Oh," she said. She was thoughtful for a moment, cutting thin slices out of a slab of beef. Then she looked up at me again, this time with a smirk on her face. "So you Americans can't shoot off firecrackers but it's quite alright for you to carry guns and shoot people?" she asked. Vietnamese culture may not have made much sense to me, but American culture wasn't easy to figure out either. I smiled at her and shrugged, then looked down at the spring roll between my fingers, pretending to concentrate on wrapping it.
We ate the first feast of Tet almost silently, not because of reverence for the occasion, but from exhaustion. The women in the family had spent the last weeks cleaning and cooking without respite. For the women, who would be cooking meals like this one all week, Tet wasn't much of a holiday. Still, even in their tired faces, they seemed content, even happy. After we finished eating, we went out to the front porch and Cam's father and younger sister lit firecrackers. I kept my distance and watched.
A few hours before midnight, Cam and I went back to the center of town, to the shore of the Lake of the Restored Sword, to experience the arrival of Tet. Midnight New Year's Eve, known as giao thua, is the most significant moment of the Vietnamese year. Every home and business hangs a long string of red firecrackers by its front door to light at precisely the instant when the new year begins. Within a few hours, every street and sidewalk would be red with the fragments of exploded firecracker papers, a blanket of lucky red paper covering the city and all of Vietnam. But now it was impossible to think of luck or red. At the strike of midnight I could see only the black of the sky, the white flash of firecrackers exploding in front of every house, and the rusty fog of smoke. For so many weeks, I had braced myself for this moment when the world would explode and now it was happening.
The noise was a demon in the air. For the first time in my life I thought I could imagine the sound of war. And that, perhaps, is one of the main reasons foreigners have such a problem with Tet. Given Vietnam's history of war, giao thua gives outsiders an uncomfortable suspicion of the inherently violent tendencies of Vietnamese culture. On the surface, it seems true. Any culture that would willingly put itself through something as aurally painful and potentially destructive as the simultaneous explosion of a million fireworks has got to have a death wish. But standing in the middle of it, I realized that something entirely different was going on. All around me people were joyous, not reveling in the danger but reveling in the excitement.
And then I began to understand the truth about Tet. Vietnamese don't love firecrackers because of their violence. They love them for their noise. Firecrackers are Vietnam's call to the heavens: "Here we are! Don't forget us! Let the new year be better!" At that moment, I knew that what my friend had said was true. I couldn't begin to understand Vietnam and its culture until I experienced Tet. It was complicated, yes, and sometimes painful as well. The weather might be freezing. I might have to eat too much. I might be afraid of all the explosives. But beneath it all lay that sense of joy, that sense of change, and that pervasive hope for the future. The sound made the dark night wake up. I could hardly breathe through the smoke. My head ached from all the explosions, but my body felt alive and strangely grateful to have a head that could ache, lungs that could fill with smoky air, ears that could ring, and, most importantly, a mind that could sense the power of what was happening all around me. Vietnam changed then. For a few brief moments at least, it was floating between reality and dream, between heaven and earth. As an outsider, I might never fully understand the meaning of Tet, but I knew that I was witnessing something spectacular and precious. A whole nation, through the force of firecrackers and collective will, was welcoming the new year.
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Published on 2/1/95