Tuesday, February 7, 2012

Tết in Hanoi, 2012

It seemed to be the consensus of most people I talked to that Hanoi would be completely devoid of life during Tết, the lunar new year. This year the Tết holiday was officially from the 23rd of January till the 26th, but for the preceding week Hanoi seemed to be slowly emptying out. Traffic was busy at odd times of the day, and the bus stations looked like riotous affairs. It seemed as though those who thought the city would depopulate were correct; my friends and I even had thoughts of shooting a short zombie film.

I was surprised then to see cabs still on the street and neighborhood shops still open. Granted quite a few restaurants and shops did close, but even the market had a few people selling greens. It was a quieter and simpler Hanoi, but not quite the scene for a zombie film. The night of the turning of the year there were fireworks over Hoan Kiem lake. A small group of us gathered at a bar before going out to see them and were amazed at the number of Vietnamese who came for the event.

Getting to the bar was quite difficult work and we were lucky to find a place to sit when we got inside. Who were these people and why didn’t they go back to their hometowns for Tết? Were these the true Hanoians who were from nowhere but Hanoi? Were these people coming from the countryside for the event? Was this simply the leftovers of Hanoi gathered in the same spot?

Properly oiled up from our drinks we faced the crowd gathered on the street and fought our way for a spot with a good view of the lake. I’d never seen fireworks in Vietnam before and was curious what it would be like. I’ve seen some pretty impressive displays over the years in the U.S., Korea, and Japan. I wouldn’t dream of taking away the award of best fireworks I’ve seen from Japan (seen in Kumagaya, outside of Tokyo), but they were pretty good. I sensed national pride welling up in all the oohs and ahs of those around me as the lights exploded above the Ngoc Son Temple in the middle of the lake. It was picturesque; a postcard scene, and definitely, with the figures of Saturn and smiley faces, better than I’d expected.

After the fireworks there was nary a cab to be found and we joined the herds of people slowly and tiredly walking the long way home; this was Hanoi up after its usual bedtime. The sidewalks were full of people burning offerings for dead relatives and holding up what looked like large palms. Due to the heavy smoke, it was even hard to breath at times. What with people in Hanoi walking home (they never walk), fires on the sidewalk, smoke filled streets, and shuttered buildings all around us, the walk home did become a bit zombie-like I suppose.

The most difficult part as a new Hanoian during Tết is trying to get your head around the gift giving. Gift baskets of assorted sizes with Tết goodies can be found for sale just about everywhere. They include things like candied coconut, lemons, pineapple, and sugar coated nuts. Generally though, cash is the accepted gift of the holiday. As I understand it, one is meant to give crisp new bank notes in ornate red envelopes. The hard part is choosing what the appropriate amount of money to give is and who you’re supposed to gift it to. I tried to err on the overgenerous side giving an envelope to even my regular coffee lady. She does, after all, let me change from my cycling clothes in her back room.

During one of the days of Tết I was lucky enough to be invited over to my landlord’s house for a home cooked meal. It was funny, I’d expected a room full of distant relatives and friends sitting on mats on the floor around a low table. I was so nervous about it I was even trying to practice some useful phrases and simple bits of conversation I could contribute. The reality was that there were only seven of us including my wife and I. We had a small feast of spring rolls, steamed and fried chicken, stir fried prawns and veggies, pork and bamboo shoot soup, fresh sausages (Nem Chua), and all of this was washed down with some lovely rice liquor. Upon the man of the house’s insistence we got a bit tipsy with the latter.

So for a week or so Hanoi was a little less populated, the people a bit friendlier, and the food a little sweeter. It was sort of sad to walk in the alleyways for the week immediately after Tết: scores of wilted flowers, empty envelopes and baskets, and a variety of liquor bottles in trash piles; evidence of good times had. It’s the only long national holiday in Vietnam and the effect could be seen on the faces of people on the street this past week; relaxed and well fed but longing for just a few more days. Maybe it was just me.

-another installment of Nate's Notions written in Hanoi, Vietnam

Location:Dốc Hữu Tiệp,Hanoi,Vietnam