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
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