Monday, February 22, 2016

In the Shadows of History—a Visit to Chiang Saen

                                                           by Jim Goodman

Mekong RIver at Chiang Saen
       When I first moved to Chiang Mai in the winter of 1988, intending an indefinite stay, I wanted to also familiarize myself with various places in the north.  Chiang Saen was on my list because it lay beside the Mekong River and was just ten kilometers from the famous Golden Triangle, the junction of Thailand, Laos and Myanmar.  Arriving at Chiang Saen in the early afternoon I headed there right away.
       It was moderately impressive, I suppose.  It was dry season, so a large triangular sandbar was visible next to the confluence of the Mae Sai River with the Mekong, and I wondered if that was the “Golden Triangle.”   Of course, the term actually refers to the tri-national border point.  On the Thai side a huge bi-lingual billboard announced this fact and Thai tourists liked to pose standing beneath it with their arms stretched overhead and fingers pointing to the message on the sign.  There wasn’t much else to do there, except maybe have a few drinks and fantasize what was happening in the two countries on the other side, both of which were closed to foreigners then.  Opium caravans?  Remnant insurgent armies on patrol?
modern temple, Chiang Saen riverside
       With all the souvenir shops and such, though, it was not a place to kick back and revel in the river scenery.  That proved to be easier back in Chiang Saen, where I had a riverside lodge and lots of room on either side to wander quietly along the bank.  The town was smaller than I expected, with no real downtown area, no tall buildings, a small produce market and hardly any traffic.   That was Chiang Saen in 1988.  Several centuries earlier, however, it was one of the most important urban centers in Northern Thailand.
       According to the Chiang Saen Chronicles, Tai migrants from Yunnan set up the first state there, called Wiang Nonok, near present-day Chiang Saen, over a thousand years ago.  It lasted until the mid-11th century, when the capital is supposed to have disappeared into a swamp, perhaps because of an earthquake, which scholars speculate may be the contemporary Chiang Saen Lake outside the town.  The Lawa then took over the area until displaced by Tai Yuan the beginning of the 13th century.  The Lawa retreated to distant hills, as they were to do a century later when the Tai Yuan conquered the Chiang Mai area.
typical Chiang Saen stilted house
      The victors called their new capital Ngon Yang and as more migrants came to live in the area they gradually expanded their realm west into the Mai Kok Valley and beyond.  In 1259 Mengrai was born in Ngon Yang but soon after he succeeded to the throne he left to found a new capital at Chiang Rai.  Years later, in 1291, he conquered the former Mon Kingdom of Haripunchai, moved there for a couple years and eventually founded Chiang Mai in 1296 as the capital of the Kingdom of Lanna.
Chedi Luang in 1988
       The administration moved with Mengrai’s changes of capitals, but much of the population of Ngon Yang stayed put.  That included members of the royal family.  When Mengrai died in 1317 his successor reigned from Chiang Mai, but when he died in 1325, the third king, Saen Phu, decided to stay in Ngon Yang, rebuild and refurbish the city, and rename it after himself—Chiang Saen.  It remained the capital of Lanna until 1350, when the Court removed permanently to Chiang Mai.  
       This was Chiang Saen’s heyday and the best of its historical relics, like Chedi Luang and Wat Pasak, date from this period.  At its peak the city had 76 temples within its city walls and another 63 outside of them.  Even after the capital moved to Chiang Mai Chiang Saen remained one of the most important cities in Lanna, especially as a border post.  The Chiang Saen garrison repelled an attack from Yunnan in 1422.  The invaders returned three years later, but a storm destroyed their river fleet.
       While Lanna’s fortunes waxed and waned in the 15th-16th centuries, life in the periphery city of Chiang Saen continued undisturbed.  This changed in 1600 when Burmese armies swept into Chiang Rai and Chiang Saen.  For the next two centuries the Burmese ruled over Chiang Saen and imposed a new social order.  At the top were the Burmese administrators.  Next were other Burmese, like traders and merchants.  Third was the local nobility, some of whom were entrusted with low-level administrative duties.  Last was everybody else who was living there.
Sukhothai-style chedi at Wst Pa Sak
       Among the extant ruins of Chiang Saen, none of them appear to date their construction after 1600.  Being Buddhists themselves, the Burmese overlords did not destroy any of the existing temples and chedis.  They may even have contributed to their upkeep.  But they didn’t sponsor any new ones.  Other places in Northern Thailand under two centuries of Burmese occupation, Lampang and Mai Hong Son for example, feature Burmese-style temples, but not Chiang Saen.
       Sporadic revolts against the Burmese overlords occurred throughout their occupation.  None of these were very serious or durable until 1727, when rebels from Chiang Mai advanced against Chiang Saen.  The Burmese garrison repulsed the attack.  A generation later, though, another Chiang Mai rebel force captured Chiang Saen in 1751 and held it for four years before the Burmese recovered it. 
14th century Buddha head
mythical kalan, Wat Pa Sak
       Whatever weaknesses existed in the Burmese military then certainly got rectified over the next decade.  In 1767 the Burmese conquered and destroyed their Thai rival Ayutthaya.  This was their apogee and after that their fortunes began to decline.  They were not strong enough to occupy all of Ayutthaya’s territory and soon faced revolts in Northern Thailand.  Only Chiang Saen remained manageable.  The Burmese response to revolts in northern Thai cities was to empty them of their entire populations.  Chiang Saen didn’t revolt, so that city was spared such a fate.
stone carvings, Wat Pa Sak chedi
       The native response was to continue efforts to drive out the occupiers and re-establish abandoned cities like Chiang Mai.  This provoked a furious Burmese attack in 1797, reducing the city’s inhabitants to near starvation, but Thai reinforcements, supported by the Chakri regime in Bangkok, eventually lifted the siege.  Northern Thai forces under Kawila counterattacked the Burmese and by the end of the century only Chiang Saen remained under Burmese control.
       The long and grueling campaign had devastated Lanna, both urban and rural areas.  Kawila’s initial task was to re-establish some kind of administration over the liberated lands and rebuild and re-populate the emptied cities.  Finally, in 1803 his forces laid siege to Chiang Saen.  The Burmese garrison held out for a year before the city’s capture.  Those not killed or taken prisoner fled across to Burma.  Kawila then ordered the entire local population out of Chiang Saen and re-settled them and the prisoners in other parts of the north.
Only one foot remains.
For the next seven decades nobody lived in Chiang Saen.  Nature took over the old city.  Seventy monsoons nurtured the growth of jungle vegetation that swarmed over the temples and buildings.  Teak trees sprouted in abundance in the temple compounds, crowding around the chedis and poking through the temple roofs.  The slightest earth tremors jolted loose the bricks on the buildings, causing then to crack, tilt or topple.
       In 1878, after hearing that Chiang Saen’s ruins had become a meeting place for bandits, the government in Bangkok decided it was time to re-populate the city and set up a local government and police station.  It arranged the transfer of 1000 people from Chiang Mai, 1000 from Lampang and 500 from Lamphun to Chiang Saen.  The result was little short of disastrous.  Rice was scarce and other food like fruit and chicken was unavailable.  Venomous snakes, tigers and other dangerous animals constantly threatened the free movement of settlers. 
       By 1913 Chiang Saen’s population was down to seventy persons, served by two restored temples, a district administrative office and a police station.  Many had died from the unexpected hardships.  Others had sneaked back to the cities from which they had come.  The town’s future looked pretty bleak, but somehow it survived.  It never developed into the kind of city it was in the past, but by the time of my excursion there in 1988 its contemporary residents far outnumbered the batch sent there to revive it in 1878.
"Tilting Chedi"
chedi in the jungle
    Yet it was still a small town, with the kind of ambience associated with small towns, very laid back, friendly, with nobody in a hurry to do anything.  Segments of the old city wall still stood and one could trace the boundaries of old Chiang Saen by walking around the wall foundations.  It surprised me that it was more or less the size of Chiang Mai within its moats.  But the rebuilt town itself, its residential and commercial areas combined, only occupied about 30% of its former area.  Other than a few stilted wooden houses here and there beyond the last residential neighborhood, the rest was forest and the ruined monuments of past glory.      
       The tigers had all left decades ago, so other than keeping an eye open for any kraits or cobras lying around, it was a safe stroll.  The forest begins where the residential suburbs end and the historic ruins lie.  The first one I encountered was Chedi Luang, the biggest of the ancient monuments, like an inverted cone 88 meters high, surrounded by teak trees even taller.  As part of renovating the city he chose to live in rather than Chiang Mai, King Saen Phu sponsored its construction in 1331 to house a relic of the Buddha’s breastbone.
chedi in the teak forest
       In a small clearing just past Chedi Luang lay Wat Pa Sak, first built in 1295 and expanded in the 1340s.  Of the main temple building only the columns remained.  The chedi behind it was modeled after a prototype from Sukhothai, a Thai kingdom southwest of Lanna, and built to contain relics of the Buddha’s right ankle.  While some of the stucco covering on the chedi walls had fallen off, the middle section still featured fine stone carvings of humans, mythical creatures, standing Buddhas and intricate floral and geometric designs. 
       The extant sculptural art at Wat Pa Sak kept me engaged there longer than at any other site.  After Wat Pa Sak the state of preservation of the monuments proved to be far inferior.  The atmosphere prevailed, though, and while nothing equivalent turned up on the route to match Wat Pa Sak, other attractions ensued.  For one, I came across a chedi perilously leaning to one side with a gaping hole in its center.  I nicknamed it the Tilting Chedi and wondered if it could withstand the next strong pre-monsoon storm.
       At another point the remains of a large sculpted foot rested atop a ruined brick mound.  Thick jungle stood behind it and I couldn’t discover another such foot.  But it did make me wonder if this was the remains of some sort of Buddha Colossus of Chiang Saen.  Elsewhere I spotted chedis all but obscured by trees and big bushes and on my way back to town passed a pair of ruined monuments right beside a house.  I wanted to ask its residents what it was like to live literally in the shadows of history, but couldn’t speak Thai enough to get beyond pleasantries.  Did it bring them any luck, for example, to be beside ancient religious sculptures, even if they were but remnants?  But I had to conclude my exploration without any answers to my conjectures.
the ruins next door
       Twenty years later I passed through Chiang Saen again, arriving after dark on a boat trip from Jinghong in Yunnan, China.  The boat docked south of the town.  I was burdened with luggage then, my left arm in a cast and no transportation was available from the port to the main part of the town.  On my difficult walk through the town from south to north I did notice that it wasn’t much bigger than two decades ago:  a few new bank buildings, a slightly bigger commercial zone and an extension into perhaps 10% more of the old city area.  Weather was bad in the morning, so I headed straight to Chiang Mai, without another look at the relics.  It’s not far.  I can always come back.  But I didn’t make that decision soon enough.
       Unfortunately, three years later, March of 2011, an earthquake struck the area, sent Chedi Luang crashing to the ground, damaged Wat Pa Sak and three other chedis.  (I don’t know if the “Tilting Chedi” was one of them.)  None of the town’s residents were killed or injured, so for them the tragedy was cultural, not personal, and so not especially disruptive.  Eventually funds will be found to restore the damaged monuments.  The population will expand and more trees will be cut down to make room for houses even more directly in the shadows of Chiang Saen’s history.  And the town’s atmosphere will still resemble what it basically was in 1988.  

monks on the river at Chiang Saen
                                                                    * * *                                               


Sunday, February 14, 2016

Lamphun and the Mon Queen’s Legacy

                                               by Jim Goodman

covered bridge over the northern moat
       Since its foundation in 1296, Chiang Mai has been the most important city in northern Thailand.  But it was not the first one.  That honor belongs to Lamphun, a small, clean, quiet and attractive town today about 25 km south.  One can get there quickly via the expressway or take one of the trains from the Chiang Mai station.  The nicest route, though, is the road beginning on the east bank of the Ping River.  For two-thirds of the distance this road is flanked by very tall, centuries-old trees, each wrapped in a saffron robe to mark its sanctity.  The last third of the way can be equally enchanting in late spring, for then it is full of blossoming trees with red or yellow flowers.
       Once entering the urban area, it’s just a few blocks before you cross the moat and enter the original town of Haripunchai.  The moat, partly connected to the Kuang River, a tributary of the Mae Ping, surrounds an area 450 meters wide north to south and 875 meters long east to west.  Old brick gates and portions of the old city wall stand at the four corners and a covered bridge, with a market inside, spans the northern moat.  One’s first impression of Lamphun is that it is a smaller version of Chiang Mai.  Actually, it was more like the inspiration for Chiang Mai.
one of Lamphun's old city gates
       The city’s foundation dates back to the 8th century, when Mon states dominated the Maenam Chao Phya Valley in central Thailand, the Khmer Empire was beginning to expand in the east and what is now Chiang Mai Province was sparsely settled, mostly by Lawa, a Mon-Khmer people around Chiang Mai’s Doi Suthep.  In 767-8 the Mon ruler of Lawo, today’s Lopburi, dispatched his daughter, Princess Chamadevi, to rule over the newly created city of Haripunchai, now Lamphun. 
       The river journey from Lawo took three months.  Chamadevi’s entourage included artisans, merchants, doctors, teachers, astrologers and five hundred Theravada Buddhist monks.  Thus Haripunchai was a re-created Lawo and Buddhism established its first stronghold in northern Thailand.  Queen Chamadevi subdued the Lawa, established an enduring state and in her old age abdicated in favor of one of her twin sons and retired in the new city of Lampang established by her other son,
Chamadevi's arrival in Haripunchai
       This much is known to history, but contemporary records are absent and over time legends and folklore have embellished Chamadevi’s story.  Much of this is due to a narrative, which included such stories, written by a 16th century monk, long after Haripunchai had been absorbed into the Kingdom of Lanna, about how a Buddha relic was installed in the main temple there in 897.      
       According to the legends compiled by the monk, the new queen had three special animals to assist her.  One was a faithful horse, one a rooster that crowed whenever danger lurked on the horizon, and the other, most important one, was her elephant, named Blackie Purple after the color of its skin.  It had green tusks and whenever it pointed these at an enemy that enemy dropped dead.      
       Her beauty and accomplishments aroused the ardor of King Viranga, the Lawa chieftain of the Doi Suthep area.  He wanted to marry her, but Chamadevi put him off on the grounds she was still weaning her twin sons.  After several years, this excuse was no longer tenable and Viranga’s Lawa army attacked Haripunchai.  Chamadevi’s sons commanded the defense and when the assault reached the city walls used Blackie Purple and his magic tusks to repel the attack.  Unfortunately, the elephant died in the battle.
King Viranga's first throw of the spear
       Stripped of her major defensive asset, Chamadevi opted for a new ploy.  She informed her suitor that if he could hurl a spear from Doi Suthep to within the city of Haripunchai, she would agree to marry him.  The Lawa chieftain then called upon his supernatural powers and hurled his spear all the way to Haripunchai and it landed just outside the city walls.  The deal was that he could get three tries, so now Chamadevi was truly alarmed.
       So she sent him as a present a special cloth turban, which was actually made from her undergarments and soiled by her menstrual blood, designed to negate and cancel out whatever supernatural powers he had.   Flattered by the gift, convinced he was already winning her over, the Lawa chief immediately donned the turban and made ready for his second throw.  This time his spear fell at the bottom of Doi Suthep.  Realizing he had been tricked, he threw his last spear straight up into the sky.  And when it fell it pierced his heart and killed him. The rest of the Lawa tendered their submission and from then on Chamadevi’s realm was secure.
       Incidents of Chamadevi’s life, both historical, like the journey from Lawo to Haripunchai, and legendary, such as the Lawa chieftain’s spear throw and Blackie Purple destroying the Lawa assault, have been depicted in the interior murals of Wat Chamadevi and the ordination hall of Wat Prayeun, east of the city.
Chedi Suwan Chang Kot
Buddha images embellishing the chedi
       All legends aside, Haripunchai’s first queen definitely succeeded in establishing a firm foundation for the state.  Its parent Lawo fell under Khmer control in the early 9th century, but Haripunchai maintained its independence and reached its peak in the early 12th century under King Aditayaraj, who repelled three Khmer invasions.  Following this, to celebrate his victory he had a 50-meter high chedi built over the Buddha relic at Wat Haripunchai, the city’s most important temple, as well as a chedi in the compound of Wat Kukut, dedicated to Chamadevi. 
the compound of Wat Haripunchai
       The original collapsed in an earthquake.  In 1218 King Saphsit had it rebuilt and that is the structure still standing today.  Called Chedi Suwan Chang Kot, it is a stepped pyramid on a square base, 21 meters high, of brick and stucco.  Each side of its five tiers features three sculptures of standing Buddhas, relatively well preserved, making 60 altogether.
       Around the corner of the modern temple building is Chedi Ratana, erected the same year.  Similar in style, but on a hexagonal base and only 11.5 meters high, it has standing Buddha sculptures only in the niches on the bottom level.  However, according to popular belief, Chedi Ratana contains the ashes of Queen Chamadevi.  Together, these two chedis are rare and outstanding examples of ancient Mon architecture in Thailand.            
       By King Saphsit’s time the kingdom had been at peace for nearly a century, enjoying its golden age.  Haripunchai was an important post on the trading network connecting areas to the north and inside Burma with the Menam Chao Phya Valley further south.  But demographic changes were occurring already, as Tai Yuan began migrating into the area.  They had assimilated enough into Haripunchai society that some were even part of the nobility.  In 1258 a Tai Yuan faction overthrew the reigning monarch and installed one of its own as king.
the gong tower at Wat Haripunchai
       The change had no apparent effect on the state’s prosperity.  But three decades later that very prosperity aroused the cupidity of Mengrai, originally from Chiang Saen, who ruled a growing Tai Yuan state to the north, with its current capital in Chiang Rai.  While in Fang, to the west, he met several Haripunchai merchants and learned of the city’s wealth.  Believing he was not strong enough to take the fortified city by direct assault, he sent one of his own merchants, Ai Fa, to win the confidence of King Yi Ba and undermine the state’s defenses.
       Ai Fa succeeded so well he became Chief Minister and used that position to promote sedition and instigate chaos.  Mengrai then swooped down on Haripunchai and captured it in 1281.  For a couple of years he made the city his own capital.  Then he had a new city, Wiang Kum Kan, built near the Ping River several km south of present-day Chiang Mai.  His new capital copied the layout of Haripunchai, but it soon turned out it was subject to flooding.  In 1296 he moved locations to the plain at the base of Doi Suthep—Chiang Mai.
       Mengrai captured Haripunchai, but he didn’t sack it.  Though the state lost its independence it still had a profound influence on the character of Mengrai’s new Kingdom of Lanna.  Like Haripunchai and Wiang Kum Kan, Chiang Mai’s layout followed a geometric grid; square in this case rather than oval or rectangular, surrounded by a moat and brick walls.  The first chedi erected in the area, Chedi Liam outside Wiang Kum Kan, copied the style of Chedi Suwan Chang Kot in Wat Chamadevi.  The Lanna alphabet derived from the Mon script of Haripunchai.  The Mon kingdom’s monastic order became the one followed throughout Lanna.  And Wat Haripunchai abbots occasionally were appointed Chief Abbot for the kingdom.
eastern entrance, Wat Haripunchai
the gilded chedi of Wat Haripunchai
       In Lanna’s administrative order, Haripunchai, now called Lamphun, was part of the Inner Circle with Chiang Mai.  Areas beyond, such as Chiang Rai, Fang, Lampang, etc., constituted the Outer Circle and those on the periphery of Lanna’s borders were tributary states.  Lanna kings made regular visits to Wat Haripunchai and funds for its maintenance were always part of the royal budget.  In the late 14th century King Saenmeuangma had its 50-meter high chedi covered in gold.  In 1418 the Mon-style Chedi Suwanna was added to the compound and in 1443 King Tilokaraja had the entire temple renovated.
Lamphun women at a temple fair
       In the early 16th century Lanna began to lose its cohesion as a state and society.  In 1558 Burmese armies swept into northern Thailand, seized Chiang Mai after a three-day battle and extinguished the Kingdom of Lanna.  Burmese rule lasted over two centuries.  Until 1664 Lanna was semi-autonomous and local nobles ruled as deputies of the Burmese government.  After that it was incorporated into the Kingdom of Burma and Burmese administrators took over everywhere.
       This period witnessed increasing local resistance, especially after the mid-18th century, and harsh retaliation, like emptying rebellious cities of their entire population.  When northern Thai forces, supported by Bangkok, finally expelled the Burmese later that century they found themselves in possession of a largely depopulated land.  The most pressing task was to find people to live in abandoned cities like Chiang Mai and Lamphun.
       This was an era of massive population transfers, not all of them willing ones.  Northern forces, for example, went all the way to Chieng Tung, in northeast Burma, to kidnap artisans and move them to Chiang Mai.  Tai Yong from Burma’s Shan State were brought to Lamphun, where their community still lives in the neighborhoods near the covered bridge and are famous for their weaving skills.
Loy Krathong balloon launch
Ku Chang, the elephant's chedi
       Lamphun officially marked its rebirth in 1805.  It never became much of a metropolis and today has only about 14,000 residents.  Probably very few, if any, can trace their family lineages back to the Mon citizens of Haripunchai.  Yet the Mon legacy and the cult of Chamadevi are very much part of the local identity.  Besides the popular Wat Chamadevi that honors her, ancient chedis, Ku Ma and Ku Chang, built for her horse and her war elephant (a unique phenomenon in Southeast Asia), still stand in a compound just northeast of the old town.  Devotees make regular visits here to honor her two animals and leave small sculptures of horses and elephants along the compound’s back wall.
Chamadevi Park
       Even more popular for local worshipers is the statue of Chamadevi just outside the southwest corner of the old town.  Depicting a very beautiful, almost voluptuous Queen Chamadevi, its erection dates to about 35 years ago.  Behind it is a long brick wall with low-relief sculptures of scenes from Haripunchai history.  Lamphun residents come here to make offerings throughout the day.
       Wat Haripunchai, one of the most famous temples in the north, also serves as a Lamphun community center.  Sometimes it is the venue for a local fair, highlighting a local craft like weaving or basketry.  Women dress up in traditional clothing and ornaments for these occasions, as well as for the year’s annual festivals, including one specific to Lamphun--the Longan Festival in August. 
       But the festival programs may differ a bit from elsewhere.  For Loy Krathong, for example, held for two days at full moon in November, Wat Haripunchai is the venue for a balloon-launching contest the morning of full moon day.  When the balloon ascends into the sky it releases small airplanes, rockets and smoke trails.  In the evening they float their krathongs in the moat around the old town, where some fancy large ones have already been placed.
       Lamphun’s sense of local pride is palpable to any visitor who spends some time there.  People are aware that for historical and cultural attractions Chiang Mai is much better endowed, which makes it such a popular travel destination.  Yet Lamphun’s people know that it was their own town, in its Haripunchai incarnation, that brought Buddhism, literacy, cities and civilization itself to northern Thailand.  Lamphun deserves its pride.

traditional Lamphun ornament

* * *

Monday, February 1, 2016

Time for Tết, the Vietnamese New Year

                                                  by Jim Goodman

reaching out to the Year of the Monkey
       Lunar New Year falls on 8 February this year, but for some days already Vietnamese across the country, in the cities and the villages, have plunged into the usual frenetic activity associated with getting ready for the holidays.  They are buying or selling the fruits, flowers, trees, ornaments, gifts and food required for a proper celebration of Tết—the Vietnamese word for the occasion. 
       Lunar New Year marks the second new moon after the winter solstice, roughly halfway to the vernal equinox, and, in its original conception, the passage from one meteorological condition to another.  It is a time of renewal, clean slates and fresh starts, as well as the reaffirmation of ties among kinfolk, those between the living and their ancestors and between people and their gods.  Several countries and many ethnic minorities in East Asia also celebrate Lunar New Year in one fashion or another.  And Vietnam, over time, has developed its own New Year customs.
       The prime goal of every Vietnamese at this time is to be hone for Tết.  For those working outside their hometowns or villages this means scrambling for advance bus or train tickets.  For those too far away, or in other countries, or for other reasons unable to return, their regret will only be partially softened by the telephone option.  Tết’s always been mainly a family affair, more important and more deeply felt than any other national or religious holiday.
shopping for decorations on Hàng Mã, Hanoi
       Most of the Tết rituals are domestic, beginning on the 23rd day of the 12th lunar month with the send-off of the kitchen gods.  These are three Taoist deities, represented by the three stones used to hold the cooking pot, who oversee the family’s life and behavior.  Every year on this day they go up to Heaven to report on the family to the Jade Emperor.  So to influence the report in their favor, the family gives then a fine meal, some new clothes and other votive gifts, and a carp to ride to Heaven.  The gods will return after a week.
peach blossoms sale on Hàng Lược
       By now city streets are incredibly busy.  In Hanoi the ordinary congestion seems to miraculously triple.  Yet the traffic does move, slowly, and apparently more carefully than usual, for nobody wants to risk an accident that would mean further delay.  Certain old quarter streets, like Hàng Mã and Hàng Lược, are completely closed to vehicles so that dozens of vendors can ser up stalls selling all the accouterments of Tệt:  flowers, peach blossoms, kumquat trees, decorations, dolls or models of the current zodiac animal, vases, antiques, traditional woodblock prints, bric-a-brac and balloons.
buying flowers for Tết
       Some of these items are more or less required by custom for domestic decorations that have to be in place for the New Year’s Eve rituals.  These could vary from one part of the country to another, but in Hanoi, where I’ve witnessed Tết a few times, peach blossoms are particularly favored.  People appreciate them for their vivid, pink to bright red color, but also associate them with happiness, because of a classic Chinese story of two scholars who wandered along a river banked with peach blossoms and ended up in a fairy land, and with loyalty, because of the mutual loyalty oath taken in a peach garden by three 3rd century heroes in the opening chapter of The Three Kingdoms.  Traditionally, people believed peach blossoms could expel evil.
flower seller, Hàng Lược
       While all kinds of flowers, ornamental plants and bonsai trees sell well to holiday shoppers at this time, the two most eagerly sought are chrysanthemum and narcissus.  Vietnamese consider the chrysanthemum a “noble plant” because of its hardiness in cold weather and the fact that its leaves remain attached to the branches after the flower dies.  The flower comes in several attractive colors, with preference going to the large đại đóa variety, big as a saucer, in bright canary yellow.  Vases are suitable for other flowers, but when purchasers take their chrysanthemums home they put them in earth-filled pots.
       Vietnamese know the narcissus as thủy tiên—the water fairy.  They consider all of its parts—roots, bulb, leaves and flower—to be especially graceful.  They also appreciate the horticultural knowledge it takes to select and prepare the bulbs so that its flowers bloom around Tết.  Hanoi has annual narcissus contests, with the date fixed in advance so that competitors can arrange to have their flowers bloom on that day.  Judges usually award the winners strips of red paper containing “parallel sentences,” inscribed in nóm, the Vietnamese adaptation of Chinese characters.
Tết chrysanthemums
       Parallel sentences are a specific genre indigenous to the classical Vietnamese literary tradition.  They comprise a pair of short sentences, in which the tones and meanings of the words stand in opposition to each other.  They could be solemn, philosophical, adulatory or even satirical.  Temples frequently feature them, inscribed on lacquered boards and mounted near the doorway.  In Hanoi, in the days preceding Tết, white-bearded scholars sit at tables on Hàng Bồ, writing out parallel sentences on long, narrow strips of paper that customers will hang beside their house entrances or suspend them flanking the hearth.  The custom reflects the high regard Vietnamese culture, following the Chinese model, places on learning and literary achievement.
       Besides flowers and peach blossom branches, the other plant installed in homes for Tết is the kumquat tree.  Usually about one and half meters tall, trimmed in the shape of a perfect inverted cone, its branches full of little round suspended oranges, to Western eyes it is like a Vietnamese Christmas tree.  To Vietnamese, the kumquat tree, with its abundant fruits, symbolizes the fertility and fruitfulness they aspire to in the coming year.
       Everything inside the house must look especially clean and beautiful at this time.  Decorations are not confined to plants and flowers.  Hàng Mã shops do a brisk business selling all kinds of flashy decorations, pendants of old coins, stylized stars, strings of glittery ornaments of various kinds and models or dolls of the animal of the New Year.
Monkey Year mascots, Hoàn Kiếm Lake
youth dresses as the classic hero Monkey
      In the Oriental Zodiac, twelve animals take turns representing a year (as well as the days of the year’s calendar).  In Vietnam they are:  the rat, buffalo, tiger, cat, dragon, snake, horse, goat, monkey, rooster, dog and pig.  In addition, each 12-year cycle is governed by one of the five basic elements—earth, metal, water, wood and fire—to make a 60-year cycle for each element.  Thus this year, beginning 8 February, is Fire Monkey Year.
New Year balloons in Hanoi
       Among the household decorations offered for sale in the markets, as well as displayed in parks, will be representations of the animal of the New Year.  These could take the form of dolls, sculptures of various kinds or, in the public displays, people dressed like the animal and, depending on the annual that year, real live specimens.  What’s not possible in a dragon or buffalo year will be this year, for it’s a Monkey Year.  Hanoi residents can be sure that in the numerous displays around Hoàn Kiém Lake they will see real live pet monkeys, plus youths dressed up as the character Monkey in the well-known Chinese classic Journey to the West.     
       Most of the stalls set up around the lake are for vendors selling Tết flowers or perhaps the little rice dough figurines (tỏ) of dragons, lions, warriors and others that are common festival items in the north.  Others offer children rides on carts resembling miniature cars, as photo-ops for the parents.  Since children are such an integral part of the family, they get favored treatment during Tệt.  Parents try to insure they have new clothes to wear for the holiday and every guest brings envelopes with money inside for the children of their hosts.
       In the last couple of evenings before Tết public stage shows entertain the people.  In Hồ Chí Minh City, these take place in the long park near Chợ Bến Thành.  In one area a tuồng drama takes place, while at the lower end separate stages feature performances by Vietnamese, Chinese, Khmer and Chăm dancers and musicians, representing the four major communities of the Mekong Delta. 
holiday gifts for sale on Hàng Mã
      In Hanoi the shows take place at three different stages around Hoàn Kiếm Lake.  On the stages opposite the Thê Hùc Bridge and the Turtle Tower, the performances range from solo pop singers to traditional quan họ duets, fan dance ensembles and Chăm dances (which have actually been part of Vietnamese musical tradition since the Lý Dynasty).  And next to the fountain in Bờ Hồ the Hanoí Circus sets up a stage for shows featuring fire-eating, gymnastics, balancing acts and maybe even a trapeze performance.
      Meanwhile, back in everyone’s houses, the last major Tết task is preparing the special food.  The ingredients of the coming banquets could be anything the family likes, but must include bánh chưng.  A square-shaped glutinous rice cake filled with bean, pork and lard and wrapped in leaves, it is available throughout the year, but by custom a sine qua non at Tết dinners.  The origin of bánh chơng dates back to the ancient Hùng Kings Era and it has always been the culinary item most associated with Tết.
       Finally it’s NewYear’s Eve and the cities have undergone a dramatic transformation.  The street stalls have disappeared.  Offices and shops are nearly all shuttered.  Only a few restaurants remain open for the tourists, but with a severely reduced staff.  The roads are practically empty of moving vehicles.  Everyone’s gone home for the critical Tết rituals.
taking home a kumquat tree
       Families prepare their offerings to their ancestral altar, already lavishly decorated, adding cups of liquor, tea and fresh water, flowers and a bowl containing five kinds of fruit.  The household head lights incense sticks and invites the ancestral spirits to take part in Tết, for tonight is the time to renew ties between the living and the dead.  Following the formal rituals the family then enjoys their feast.  Later on they may venture out to wherever the city will stage its midnight fireworks celebration.
       In Hanoi the biggest gathering and most spectacular show takes place at Hoàn Kiếm Lake.  People arrive long before midnight to try to find a spot where the view is least obscured by the big, leafy trees all around the lake.  They join in the final countdown and hail the first skyrockets to burst in the air above them.  They break into a round of appreciative applause when several rockets in rapid succession burst above, filling the sky with multiple streaks of different colors.
       The first few days of the New Year involve visits to relatives, friends and local temples.  Families prepare the house for their first visitor, hoping that person will bring them good luck for the coming year.  Some even extend an invitation to someone they know whose attributes, as a scholar or perhaps a successful businessman, they expect to influence the family’s fortunes.  (On the other hand, if the family fares badly during the coming year, they may very well blame that on the first visitor of Tết.)
rubbing the feet of Trấn Vũ
Chăm folk dance, Hanoi
       The most delightful aspect of these first days of the year, as custom, or even as superstition, is that everyone is especially keen to be especially nice.  Graceful, polite behavior will help make the coming year a good one.  Acts of anger, petulance or disrespect will guarantee bad luck.  This spirit insures that all social calls at Tết will be amicable, the hosts generous and the guests grateful.
visiting a temple during Tệt
       Local temples are active, with neighborhood devotees bringing offerings of food and flowers for their deities to bless.  Hanoi residents may also visit the Quan Thánh Temple at the southeast edge of West Lake.  Inside this Taoist temple is a huge, black, bronze image of a seated Trấn Vũ, the Guardian God of the North, cast in 1667 by bronze smiths from nearby Ngũ Xá village.  Nearly four meters high, weighing around 3600 kg, it is the most outstanding bronze sculpture in the north.  Devotees come here during Tết to rub the feet of the image, believing that will bring them good luck this year.  
       On the fourth day of the New Year families prepare a final farewell feast for their ancestors.  This is the final ritual act of Tết.  From now on shops, businesses and offices begin to re-open.  Taxis, cars, buses and motorbikes swarm the streets again.  For those still in the holiday spirit, there are several festivals occurring in the city and the nearby countryside over the next several days.  For most folks, it’s back to the normal grind of everyday life, but with the assurance that, thanks to Tết, all the important relationships have been re-affirmed, all the bad luck or residual negative influences have been eradicated, and things will surely go well this year.  Tết is the renaissance of optimism.

refreshing the kumquat trees in the Tết market, Hanoi
                                                                             * * *