I've lost track of how many Tets I've spent in Viet Nam. Years ago, I experienced Tet in wartime Quang Ngai. I enjoyed Tet in peacetime Ha Noi and at villages in the Red River and Mekong Delta while researching After Sorrow.
Strolling into the past: Foreign tourists flock to Ha Noi's Temple of Literature during Tet (Lunar New Year).
|Brushing with tradition: Calligraphy on show at Ha Noi's Temple of Literature. Tourists have been snapping up calligraphic works, a traditional Vietnamese customs during Lunar New Year over the holidays. — VNS Photos Truong Vi
I joined television teams from Viet Nam Television and the US Public Broadcasting System for Tet together in Ho Chi Minh City/Sai Gon.
I also joined Tet in Pulau Bidong, the largest camp in Malaysia for "boat people". Sensing the Enemy describes the life (and culture) the Vietnamese boat people created after they landed on Bidong, a formerly uninhabited island. The boat people had arrived empty-handed, but they brought Vietnamese Tet in their souls.
What have I learned from these Tets?
To enjoy Tet and to escape Tet.
Tet suits extroverts – those who like festivities, parties, and social flurry. As Viet Nam's largest holiday, Tet is like Christmas, Hanukkah, Western New Year, American Thanksgiving, and everyone's birthday. For introverts – those prefer small gatherings and solitude – the celebrating can become excessive.
The festivities begin two weeks before Tet with office parties and family preparations (caring for ancestors' graves, paying debts, cleaning houses, washing vehicles, tending gardens, and arranging family altars). There follows a week of non-stop feasting and then village festivals during the three months of lunar spring.
I love the bustle before Tet (although I'm distressed by the ever-increasing "bustle of bribes", the "envelopisation" driving the Vietnamese economy ever closer to that of Greece).
In the US, we fill our December holiday season with office parties, whereas the Vietnamese events include partners and retirees, creating a community focus. I treasure this chance to greet friends and acquaintances I seldom see.
I love our small office party held early in the pre-Tet season. Everything is home-cooked, and we haven't yet become over-sated with nem [spring roll] and banh chung [sticky rice square cake]. I love this intimate mix of friends and colleagues. This lunar spring, Tet's intimacy will continue with a water-puppet performance at a colleague's home village, Dong Cac Village in northern province of Thai Binh's Dong Hung District, one of the sites where this Vietnamese art originated.
I also like the pre-Tet custom of cleaning. I addressed my chaos of books. (Hurrah! Several lost treasures found!!) And I took my bicycle to a neighbour, who replaced both tires, adjusted the brakes, and scrubbed the fenders. I paid my debts. For me, these were mighty because I do not believe in carrying debt. But I had lost my wallet.
"Lucky your bad luck came in the old year!" Vietnamese friends said, lending me money.
"Lucky," I said, "to have my passport and close Vietnamese friends!"
"Lucky," I can add, "to have American friends help with re-issuing bank cards in time for debt payments."
Each year, I add my own way of tending ancestors.
Ruth Cadwallader (1918-2009) connected Vietnamese and American women during the "hard times". She and I visited Viet Nam in 1983, when Viet Nam suffered from floods, a dysfunctional economic system and a stringent US-led embargo. Ruth particularly liked the ceramic elephants we saw at Bat Trang.
Outside our office door, two white ceramic elephants support decorative stands of bamboo. Tet Eve Day, I tended bamboo. I'd planned to bathe the elephants as I do each year, but I ran out of time. At midnight, I placed lit incense among the bamboo stands astride their elephants. As the pungent smoke rose, I welcomed Ruth Cadwallader's spirit back to Viet Nam.
Early the next morning, the first day of Tet, I left for the airport.
But why leave?
The Vietnamese say an Tet – eat Tet. Years ago, when famine haunted Viet Nam, custom dictated that everyone must be sated the first three days of Tet. But now, the feasting is relentless. I can't eat six feasts a day, and I can't manage the conflict between my American upbringing and Vietnamese hosting.
We Americans with Depression-era parents learned to eat everything we were served. My parents drilled the "clean-plate club" into my psyche. But by custom, Vietnamese hosts must never allow a guest's bowl to stand empty. Our Vietnamese friends say again and again, "Eat! Eat! Don't talk. Eat!!" My system can't handle so much eating. My American male friends who have lived in Viet Nam for years also leave. Their systems can't handle so much drinking.
So, I'm in Kuala Lumpur. An introvert, I've relished bookish solitude. I've thought about how I'll visit the friends in Ha Noi I didn't see before Tet and enjoy water puppets at Dong Cac Village in their natural venue. I will trim any yellowing leaves on the bamboo astride their elephants.
And I will light incense again for Ruth Cadwallader. — VNS