This photo essay for Vietnamese New Year was first published in February 2019.
It was my first Tet, or lunar New Year, in Vietnam this year and I am still glowing from so much happiness and from the chance to start the new year twice.
Tet is short for ‘Tet Nguyen Dan’, literally ‘First Day of the Year’. It’s the most important holiday of the year when the whole nation grinds to a halt for ten days, but preparations begin weeks before.
Many had warned me to expect 10 days of non-stop, extra-loud karaoke, closed shops and choked roads. Some had even advised to go away and come back when the frenzy was over. I am so glad I didn’t listen.
The roads certainly became traffic choked as the nation mobilised and everybody returned to their ancestral homes. Many shops and restaurants stayed shut, but with a bit of forward planning that wasn’t a problem.
My neighbors, who usually love their karaoke at earsplitting volume, at all hours of the day, including early morning, remained surprisingly quiet.
The festive atmosphere was infectious and it was fascinating to watch the Vietnamese go to great effort and expense to make sure they start the New Year right.
.and it meant I got my own garden all cleaned up ready for spring
The Vietnamese New Year coincides with the beginning of spring. It’s a time of renewal when new crops are sown and everybody is busy sweeping, cleaning, decorating and holding neighborhood parties to create goodwill with coworkers and community members.
The small grocery stores in my quiet fishing village quadrupled their stock, spilling out onto the footpaths with all manner of household goods, including a wide selection of brooms as the country embarked on a collective spring clean.
For weeks before the New Year my neighbors were busy tidying up overgrown yards, applying new layers of paint straight over the mould from the last wet season and getting rid of old furniture. On my small island that means straight over the back fence and into the river.
Homes were scrubbed inside out, windows cleaned, clothes aired and the day before Tet everybody dragged their furniture outside and into the sun to give it a good wash to kill the mold that had accumulated in thick layers over the wet winter.
Vietnamese New Year is a fresh start and all sorts of traditions are observed to harness good luck for the year to come. People pay their debts, make amends, buy new clothes and get their hair done.
In my street the ladies had their hair done weeks before, to ensure enough time to get it right, which often involved several trips to the hair salon. Orange is the new black here among young women who patiently apply layers and layers of bleach to their jet black hair in an effort to go blond. While the grandmas and grandpas in my street opted to cover their grey in traditional black.
The markets were a frenzy of activity weeks before as food plays a major role in the Tet celebrations. Like Christmas, Tet is a time of excess. Families cook three days’ worth of food in advance. I watched my neighbors taking turns all night around a steaming pot in their backyard cooking ‘earth cake’ which is made from rice, mung beans and pork, wrapped in banana leaf and cooked overnight. I wondered why the roosters around my house suddenly went all quiet until it was explained to me that a feast of boiled male chicken and sticky rice is served on the first day Tet.
The most important thing about Tet is getting together with the family. This includes the deceased ancestors who are believed to return home during this time and are served special meals on pop-up altars that appear in front of every home and shop. Altars are decorated with incense, flowers, and photographs of deceased relatives. A tray full of fruit, coins, and a tall vase of blossoms are placed in front of the altar symbolizing good luck and prosperity. Any hungry ghosts who might be wandering the streets are offered sticky rice and salt.
For a week or more, the mainstreets transformed into colourful outdoor nurseries, displaying endless rows of potted cumquat trees, yellow, red and purple chrysanthemums, orchids and many other flowers I am unable to name. The gardeners who’d brought the flowers from their market gardens on the outskirts of town, slept on foldout chairs on the footpaths next to their flowers. The newspapers urged people to get on with it and buy their special Tet trees and flowers so that the gardeners could return home to their own beds, but many held out until the last day, because it’s common knowledge that prices go down the closer it get’s to the New Year.
The bigger the tree and the more blossoms or orange fruit it bears, the more luck it is thought to bring. Large trees cost a small fortune and many people rent these trees for the duration of the Tet holidays. What a great concept. Imagine renting a Christmas tree each year!
For days everybody was busy carting home these special Tet flowers to be placed in front of homes, shops, even the bulldozers on construction sites got decorated with potted yellow chrysanthemums, all in an effort to harness good luck and prosperity for the new year.
I too carted home my very own cumquat tree which is meant to represent peace and calm, but only if it’s positioned right in front of the main entrance as I learned when my neighbor made me shift the heavy pot. It’s the equivalent to the Christmas tree and everybody’s tree but mine was adorned with greeting cards, good luck symbols and fairy lights.
For a week the air was fragranced with cinnamon incense, the streets were decorated with flags and lanterns and every home sparkled in a shower of flowers in the lucky colours red and yellow. Just before Tet the streets were swept cleaner than I’d ever seen. During Tet it is forbidden to sweep the home to avoid sweeping away the good luck.
The new year was welcomed at midnight with huge fireworks and I was lucky enough to watch from my balcony.
I fully expected my neighbors to welcome the Vietnamese New Year with very loud karoke and energetic drinking competitions – their favorite past time – but it was eerily quiet before and after the fireworks.
Cycling through the dimly lit streets of my little fishing village just after midnight, I watched people dressed in their finest, many old men in traditional robes, going about the ritual of burning paper money and other effigies to honour their ancestors. The only sound to be heard was the rhythmic clanging of gongs in small family shrines.
The first person to cross the threshold
I was surprised to see my neighbor Viet, who owns a homestay, a small beer delivery empire and a cornerstore, speeding on his scooter from his home to his shop just after midnight, dressed in a crisp white shirt, black slacks and polished shoes, his hair flapping in the wind. He was on an important mission: he had to be the first to cross the threshold.
It’s one of the many interesting traditions I came across during my first Tet. To ensure prosperity and good luck in the new year, the first person to cross the threshold should be a person of financial means and good character.
It’s a Vietnamese New Year tradition that is taken very seriously, many will even leave their home just before midnight to make sure the best person for the job is the first to cross the threshold during the first minutes of the new year.
One of the women in my writers group who is white, widowed and American – which means she’s naturally assumed to be wealthy and of sound character – was invited to be the first to cross the threshold at her homestay. I was asked by two new friends to be the first to cross the threshold to their new home. Meanwhile at my house, I am the first and only one to cross the threshold for a month while my partner is away or until I invite someone over.
So I sat down that night, after my round of the island on my bicycle, and wrote in my journal about what kind of person I wish to be as I cross the threshold of my home and into the new year.
Your Vietnamese New Year inspired writing prompt:
Who do you wish to cross the threshold of your home on the first day of the new year?
Pay attention to the details. Make it a fictional character if you like. Have fun and share in the comments!
Happy Year of the RAT!
The rat is the first sign of the Chinese zodiac which means this year is the proverbial blank page, when the cycle begins again and new opportunities await.
I may not believe in the Chinese zodiac, but living as I do in a community that celebrates the Year of the Rat, I know that the energy will help me to stay focused for rats are believed to be clever and quick thinkers, successful but content with living quiet and peaceful lives. The perfect assets for a writer.