Very Vietnamese New Year

24 Jan
Offerings for the ancestors... and us afterwards...

Offerings for the ancestors... and us afterwards...

I had read so much about the Vietnamese new year that I was very curious to actually see it happen – and I was even more excited to be part of it in my boyfriend’s family. Having said this, this was certainly not the reason for getting back with my ex (that would be veeery cheap!). I made pretty sure that I’d prefer to stay at the hotel if it would be inappropriate to be at his place for Tet (Vietnamese new year) or at his family’s ‘tout court’.

Our ‘getting-back-together’ timing was not the best of all, as we only got back together the day before the new year. I had seen that it is traditional to give each other big presents for the new year, so I certainly didn’t want to be the pauper and come empty handed. So on new year’s eve, in the evening, I still wanted to get one of those big baskets that people give each other for the new year, filled with goodies (e.g. coffee, sausages, energy drink, jelly sweets, dried shrimps or squid, cookies,… you know-the usual…). But where to find a new year basket at 10pm the evening before the big day… We were zooming around the city on C’s motorbike, looking at every shop that looked as if they might sell new year baskets – but most of them just proudly exhibited the hamper baskets they had received themselves.

Everryone helping for a last minute new year basket

Everryone helping for a last minute new year basket

But in our despair, we did find a little stall at the market (there are no closing times in Saigon) that was willing to get all hands on deck, and prepare us an emergency basket. The whole neighbourhood was activated. The husband got some bottle from the neighbouring stall for the basket, the friend of the family looked for the wrapping paper and bow tie, the son calculated the total price,… Tooo funny, but I got what I needed, and for a decent price (meaning that it would surely be expensive enough – one should not ‘under-do’ it in Vietnam). The next challenge was to get the basket, plus my luggage home… on the back of a motorbike…

Last prep - fixing the lamps above the altar

Last prep - fixing the lamps above the altar

The mother was already preparing for the New Year. On the second floor, there was the Altar room, with pictures of the forebears and statues of all different Buddhas and gods together. The woman Buddha was for safe travels, the fat Buddha was for happiness, another one for success, one that was a mortal human being that became Buddha = the example to follow, etc. Offerings of fruit and drink were already spread out in front of the statues and family portraits of the deceased. The basket I brought was proudly added to the offerings. The ancestors were supposed to feast on it first, and a (few) day later the current family would eat the ‘left-overs’ ;-)

Mother prepared incense sticks for all of us – as we were supposed to pray and put the incense in front of the different altars, inside and outside, on the floor and on the shelves. We lit the incense sticks together and held them in our hands that were pressed flat together. We raised our hands cum incense sticks a few times and prayed with our eyes closed. I prayed for peace in my heart (stop asking questions, and go with the flow), a family and friends that are like sticky rice, and at least three steps closer to happiness…

Mum (also called “Aunt 9” in Vietnamese tradition, as she was number 8 in row of the siblings – as there is no number 1) was reading a prayer from a paper that she got at the temple, while she and the house servant were burning (fake paper) money for good luck. This would traditionally go together with setting off fire-crackers and firework to chase the bad spirits away. But because of the waste of money, and pollution (the regular waste) the government had forbidden private fireworks – and only some public fireworks above the river remained. We went to the roof terrace of the house to watch. And gradually the whole family arrived there as well…

Traffic jam at the temple at the new year

Traffic jam at the temple at the new year

As is custom for New Year, at or after midnight, people go to the temple. Even though the aim is to pray, it looks more like a rock festival. There are signs indicating the special parking lots for the mopeds (hundreds of them swarming in), there are special signs put up indicating the entrance and exit to steer the masses a bit, etc. All along the entrance and exit vendors are selling incense, drinks and foods. Instructions are blared from loudspeakers: people should take a maximum of 3 incense sticks into the temple – to avoid asphyxiation (but the Vietnamese response to this is to bring humongous incense sticks of about 5 cm thick and a meter long!)… If the people wouldn’t have been as used to the traffic fumes as they are, surely many would have suffocated in the deed.

Temples in Vietnam are veeeeery different from the Cambodian and Thai ones. Somehow they look more Chinese (with calligraphy on the wall), the decorations are a lot more kitsch and pastel, there is a wider variety of gods and statues representing them, and in this one temple we went there were stuffed tigers and other animals. People were touching parts of the animals and then rubbed their own particular body parts to transfer the strength of the animal onto themselves. There was a horse and people rubbed its legs for strong legs, a long haired lama helped against hair loss, another quite potent animal, etc – Guess what I rubbed… All of the above!

Some communist hero worshipped in the temple

Some communist hero worshipped in the temple

Funny thing is that in the temples there were also statues of some important people – e.g. heroes of the country, the founder of the temple, etc. They were prayed to just like the Buddha. As if we would have a statue of Napoleon Bonaparte in a church or of Lady Di…

And besides the fireworks, the temple was the most festive part of the celebrations. New year doesn’t involve partying or drinking. (well we had a fresh fruit shake in one of the stalls along the street, sitting on mini garden chairs). The next morning, we did get up late (in true Western style) and there was traditional New Year food on the table. Tradition wants that you eat vegetarian food for New Year breakfast… and I found out after I had already attacked the one chicken dish left over from day before…

water melon and banana-leaf wrapped raw meat

New year decorations: water melon and banana-leaf wrapped raw meat

There are quite some traditional foods to be eaten: water melon because of the red colour inside that brings luck and happiness, special raw meat stuffs wrapped in banana leaves, sticky rice, and a lot more that I either don’t know the name of or can’t remember. The Vietnamese probably have the same problem as national TV broadcast a near-to-propaganda programme about how to prepare the traditional new year food ;-)

The rest of the 3 days of New Year celebrations involved mainly seeing relatives (on lunar day one the family of the father, on day 2 of the mother) and friends. On the third lunar day students visit their teachers. I opted out from most of the family meetings (because without subtitles…). However, the close family of C took me by surprise at breakfast, and gave me the traditional Li Xi (red envelopes = colour of happiness, filled with money= representing wealth). Soooo nice of them.

Street vendors selling red Li Xi envelopes

Street vendors selling red Li Xi envelopes

I did send off my Li Xi for the new year to my friends back home: little red envelopes with the typical fake paper money (that is used to burn for luck)… I wonder if they arrived at all (from Phu Quoc island) or maybe better they don’t – as C told me that it brings bad luck if you give fake money… Cultures can be quite complicated… It is like playing a game, without knowing the rules before you start, you learn them as you go along (and loose a trick every once so often).


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