The Hanoitimes - With my fifth Tet in Hanoi approaching in the realms of fantasy about the Year of the Dragon, I think back to my first Tet here in 2008 that ushered in the Year of the Rat.
At that time, I had only been in Vietnam for about three months so I had no idea what to expect. I did not know much about Tet except that the traffic became really crazy during the last couple weeks before the holiday then everything went very quiet, which, indeed, turned out to be true. But my first experience was so much more…
Being new to the city, I couldn't imagine how it could get any more hectic or noisy than it already was, but I was happy that my first Tet in Vietnam would be for the Year of the Rat, or the Year of the Mouse as it is called here, because I was born in that year so it had some personal significance.
All the rat images in the shops and on posters really amused me (but I was not so fond of the live ones in my house!). I particularly liked the shops along Ba Trieu Street displaying a plethora of gaudy, brassy statues, lamps and other items featuring a rat theme. I even bought a small statue of a rat with a gold coin in its mouth as a souvenir.
I was fascinated by the kumquat tree market near my house with the motorbike drivers loading massive trees on the back of their bikes then driving away precariously to deliver them to expectant customers. I also loved the beautiful orchid market that suddenly appeared at a nearby shopping mall.
People had told me everything completely shut down for about four days so I brought in enough food and other supplies to survive a siege. I was ready!
The people who lived in my alley were busy cleaning their houses in preparation for the holiday, but many had loud, screaming arguments, which I found a bit confusing (was Tet really that stressful?!), until someone explained that "clearing the air" before the new year was also a Tet tradition.
Of course, the traffic escalated alarmingly and the shops were packed with glittering Tet paraphernalia and hordes of people buying essentials for the four day holiday. Restaurants were mobbed with large groups of happy revellers laughing, eating and drinking, and Abba's 'Happy New Year' blared from speakers everywhere to set the mood. The festive feeling was infectious and I was becoming quite intrigued about what would happen next.
Finally, on New Years Eve, it was as if a fast-moving car put on the brakes and slowed quickly to a stop. It was not a sudden stop; just a fast deceleration in the morning coming to a complete halt in the late afternoon when people began to recede into their homes to focus on mysterious final preparations and wait for midnight.
When I decided to go out in the evening and wander around to see what was happening, I found the usually noisy, crowded, chaotic streets eerily quiet. A few people could be seen scurrying home and only two elderly ladies selling lucky money envelopes remained on the sidewalk. They were quite jolly, chatting happily with each other and laughing. As I stopped and bought some of their wares they seemed very amused, smiled widely and wished me "Chúc mừng năm mới".
I continued on, peering into houses where families were bustling about making ready for the big event. It reminded me of Christmas Eve in my own culture and I felt a bit homesick, wishing my family could be there with me.
I eventually returned home, had dinner and, like everyone else, waited eagerly for the anticipated hour.
Shortly before midnight I headed out to watch the fireworks in neighbouring Thong Nhat Park and was stunned when I opened my door and entered a quiet, magical, gently illuminated night. Family shrines lit by softly burning candles and filled with offerings to the ancestors had appeared on every doorstep, with the roosters that had been waking me up with their crowing making their glorious reappearance as boiled centrepieces with roses in their beaks. The atmosphere was enchanting which, to me, was totally unexpected. It was as if I had stepped back into the past and, for the first time, was experiencing the true essence of Hanoi and the Vietnamese culture I had heard so much about.
All the local residents had gathered at the end of the alley by the park wall and were milling about in anticipation of the fireworks. Little kids were running around, happy to be up so late, and their elders were talking among themselves, perhaps about Tets past or what they would do tomorrow.
On the stroke of midnight the fireworks began, lighting up the faces of the happy crowd. The children were mesmerised (some were scared and hid their faces in their parents' coats) and the resident rats ran across the road from wherever they were hiding, probably frightened by the noise but, after all, it was their new year.
Immediately after the fireworks, everyone made a mad dash for home to begin the celebrations in earnest. Kids were running around until the wee hours and house parties continued until dawn. The Year of the Rat had officially begun.
Despite the chaotic frenzy that now accompanies the run up to it in big cities like Hanoi , I still think Tet is a wonderful holiday. It has remained a quintessential occasion for families to reconnect, reflect and celebrate with a sense of renewal, while looking forward to better times to come. For a foreigner like myself, it also provides a unique glimpse into the traditional values of the Vietnamese people and their culture that have lasted for more than a thousand years.
On the occasion of Tet 2012 welcoming the Year of the Dragon, which may be my last one in Vietnam for awhile, I want to wish all my friends in Vietnam and across the globe, my family in America , and everyone around the world, peace, good health, happiness and prosperity.
Chuc Mung Nam Moi!!!