Tet: By the time you understand it, it will inevitably have changedPosted: February 7, 2011
Tet, like just about everything else in Vietnam, defies accurate western description.
You can attempt to sum it up and then, when you experience it, you realise you haven’t really grasped it all.
Tet is *their* New Year. Tet is like Christmas and New Year all rolled into one.
In reality, it seems to me, there is no direct comparison except perhaps that in both cases nostalgia and anticipation set a high benchmark that is had to live up to.
This was my first Hanoi Tet with my Vietnamese family and I expected a party.
My wife and I turned up mid afternoon and the food was already all but prepared. It was then put out on trays and carted up several flights of stairs to the altar. It stayed there as long as it took for a stick of incense to burn.
The altar is in honour of the family’s ancestors. We were asking for luck and protection.
I’ve noticed Vietnamese don’t have the western need to eat food as it’s prepared and still warm. Much of what we ate at Tet was cold after it had sat on the altar. In the end, on a very cold night, it was whisky that warmed us rather than the food.
At the heart of the food on offer was banh chung. Among expats the general perception is negative though a few have developed a taste. Those who have, mostly say that fried up with pickles it’s not too bad. But this glutinous rice cake, with a ground green bean and fatty pork centre, certainly doesn’t win any beauty competitions – whatever it tastes like.
I wasn’t entirely surprised, however, that the banh chung laid out for the family at Tet wasn’t fought over. I had started to harbour doubts over just how loved it really is. It seems that while it has a special place in the hearts of Vietnamese as part of Tet tradition, it’s not quite as loved for its texture and flavour.
In the end one of eight banh trung slices were eaten. And even then mum-in-law needed to do some arm twisting.
Won’t someone have some banh chung?
Pre-tet my wife wistfully talked of banh chung but it was mostly nostalgia. Much in the way that she talks of Tets gone by in general. Long trips into the countryside on bicycles to see extended family. The same era she refers to when day-by-day there were just handfuls of rice to eat. Nobody had money. Vegetables were a luxury, never mind meat.
Then banh chung was a just-about-affordable treat. Now, I’m told, many young kids won’t touch it. They’ve grown up with more expensive tastes.
Over Tet, wincing as I watched my wife dunk chicken feet into duck blood, east and western tastes still seemed miles apart. Then again, in the short time I’ve been in Vietnam, I have started to see the traditional Tet dried fruits slowly being replaced with imported fancy biscuits and even chocolates. Again it’s hard not to see the dried fruits as an obtainable treat from days gone by – slowly being replaced as increased international openness and wealth offer more options.
Conventional wisdom says, after the pre-event madness, the roads empty over Tet. That’s not quite true if you live within kilometre of a pagoda. With Hanoi having more pagodas than any other city in the world, that’s still a lot of traffic.
Repeatedly travelling past the Tran Quoc pagoda on Truc Bach, most days the traffic was jammed. Even worse was the crush near Tay Ho Temple. Outside there were plenty of uninspiring cheap balloons and toys to buy for kids but inside, I’m told, it’s a case of burn your money and incense and keep moving.
For a nation that seems more superstitious than actually religious, it appeared a fairly uninspired attraction hardly worthy of such chaos.
In cities the New Year arrives with firework displays which seem the only bit of real razzmatazz of the whole celebrations. The young take to motorbikes to clog the centre’s streets.
In the meantime, back at my in-laws, we’d all had a little sleep between dinner and midnight. Once it arrived my wife and I walked around the block before I re-entered with a gift of a small green branch. The first visitor, as it was explained to me, must be male and generally speaking a nice guy. I’m flattered, however, there was more to it than that. Born in the Year of the Pig, I was okay to enter in the Year of the Cat. However tiger, for example, eats pig. On another year I’d have been overlooked for the job.
There was no big countdown as I had expected. We weren’t all waiting with champagne corks ready to pop. Sure, we had another couple of drinks but this felt more about tradition, duty and superstition than celebration.
My father-in-law gave us each 100,000 VND lucky money. Later I spent it without thinking and when my wife asked me where it was she was momentarily shocked. It seems that the gift was more about passing on luck than monetary worth. I should have kept it.
Past midnight, at the neighbours they sang karaoke as they had been doing in shifts for the previous eight hours. In some houses, at least, celebrations were wilder. Pavements the next day appeared to be have been widely glitter bombed.
Broadly speaking it seems inevitable that Tet will become more like western Christmas. Food will become more lavish and more international. Lucky money will accompanied by more expensive gifts.
Less mindful of the old days and less susceptible to poverty, luck will not be so acutely pursued.
Such is Tet, such is Vietnam.
By the time you’ve totally grasped it, it was already have changed into something else.