I’ve taught all levels and ages of Vietnamese students and whenever I ask them what their favorite celebration is, 99% of them say it’s the Tet.
Tet (Lunar New Year) is probably the longest and most festive Vietnamese holiday. Passed through generations, the fortnight-long holiday remains the biggest celebration that every Vietnamese looks forward to every year. It usually falls between January and February- marking the arrival of spring based on the Lunar calendar. Just imagine the Chinese New Year plus Easter or Christmas and you’ll get what I mean.
Like most expats in Saigon, we go somewhere-very often, overseas- during the Tet. Why leave when it’s the king of all celebrations in Vietnam? First, ask the thousands of locals who do the same. Tet, for example, makes the usually clogged streets of Saigon look like a ghost town. At least 2/3 of the Saigonese just disappear! To where? Most of them- to their hometowns a.k.a the countryside. Second, malls, restaurants, businesses, etc. are closed during the Tet. Why? Obviously it’s because sales staff, waiters and employees go back to where they were born and raised-the provincial areas. Finally, Tet is often our longest break in a year. For teachers like myself, we have at least two weeks and it’s just the perfect time to travel, isn’t it?
Travel? Yes we did that on all four Tets- from 2009 to 2012. On one Tet (2010) though, we decided to go staycationing, that is stay at home and do fun stuff within the bounds of Saigon instead, on the fourth day of the new year. Boy, that was a very bad idea! We hadn’t withdrawn enough cash so had to drive around to find an ATM that’s got money in it. We had to go treasure hunting in at least three districts (7,8 and 4) just to be able to buy food supplies! All of that, just to ‘observe and feel’ the season. Epic fail!
This year’s Tet was a bit different though. We’d spent 9 days with our clans and friends in the Philippines before we flew back to Ho Chi Minh City. Perfect timing: it’s the fourth day of Tet- the same time in 2010 when we felt stranded in an uninhabited island! Oopsie daisy! The Crescent Mall (by far, the largest we’ve been to in Vietnam) was open! So were many 24hr convenience shops. ‘Time has changed’ I thought. I held to that belief until we reached Nguyen Hue Street, which was transformed into a ‘piece of Vietnamese countryside’.
People flocked to Nguyen Hue street which was closed and heavily guarded for the sake of the floral displays. At one end, we were met by a golden dragon in a garden of yellow flowers of different kinds. They were in different shapes and designs, all of them made of flowers and rattan or bamboo baskets. At the center was a rice field-complete with dikes, bamboo trees, scarecrow and of course the Vietnamese cone hats! Some Tet symbols like ‘ban trung’ and’ banh tet’ (special kinds of food), in their massive forms, caught people’s attention. There was also a section of mannequins dressed in ao dai of flowers. And the best part of course was the rotunda where three different dragons were erected! We took lots of photos and enjoyed the sights.
When back at work, I asked my high school students what they did on the Tet and roughly 80% of them said they only stayed in Saigon. Not because Saigon was there hometown but because their families preferred ‘staycationing’. Indeed things have changed because students used to brag about their trip overseas or their vacation in the countryside during the holiday. Also when asked about their Tet money (the cash they receive after greeting their elders or visitors ‘Chuc Tet’, meaning ‘Happy New Year’), I could say that the older they get, the lesser they receive. My grade 8s for instance received at least 5million VND and one of them had 19million! Many of my grade 9s and 10s, on the other hand, got no more than a million. That’s another difference, eh? There’s one more thing-the fun things they used to do together (making the ban Tet, playing cards, etc.) have now been replaced by surfing the internet and watching movies. Whether these changes are positive or negative, I think the economy and technology have partly caused them.
The Tet used to be a foreign culture to me but the more I get to know the Vietnamese, the more I feel that we, Filipinos, have more than one thing in common- the value for family ties. Tet, for me, is like the Christmas holiday in the Philippines. Back home, we would have at least two weeks off (usually from 16 December to 2 January) to celebrate Christmas. Like the Vietnamese during the Tet, we would go back to our hometowns and spend quality time with our families and friends. That’s why class reunions are often done in December. Tet money-the ‘lucky money’ that seniors give to the young ones’ is like the ‘Pamasko (Tagalog) or Pinaskuhan (Bisaya)’ in Filipino. When I was a kid, I would ask my godparents (sponsors during baptism) for ‘Pinaskuhan’ and most of them would give me cash, others gave me presents wrapped in colorful foil papers.
Unknowingly I have spent all Tets like a Vietnamese-I had the whole time with my kids and wife, I had a grand time with them and I did renew my enthusiasm for the coming year.
Blog post: kingceejay