I managed to board a 15-hour flight from Milan to Hanoi one week before the Lunar New Year (*) , reuniting with family and friends before taking off again in March. It was mid January, technically winter time in Northern Vietnam although the temperature hovered around 20 degrees celcius. My brother picked me up at Noi Bai airport and drove us straight to our small but vibrant hometown just three hours away.
Vietnamese New Year, or ‘Tết’ as we call it, is the most important festival in our country. Government offices, schools and most of businesses close for a week long holiday while the festivities stretch all the way from the God of Kitchen Day on 23-Dec till the Lantern festival on 15-Jan (according to the lunar calendar). As the new year coming close, our central coastal town became much more bustling with lots of shops lined up on two sides of the pedestrian walkways. You can ride motorbikes through every single stall, window-shopping all you want, even parking your vehicles right on the street for a closer look at the good items. Unlike many Western countries there is no such thing as Christmas or New Year market here. Weeks running up to the new year, traders and farmers would bring kumquat and peach trees downtown from the mountains, joining other ornaments and flower vendors to form an open market on the sidewalks. Do they need a street trading license? Nah, they all bribe local authority and police officers.
New year is fun but stressful at the same time. I hate it when neighbors and relatives urge me to get married every time we get together. They are curious about how much money I make, who I’m dating and why I could quit my job while their children desperately need one. Arghhh! Holiday shopping is another sort of stress since the gift list seems to never end. My parents have four siblings each. Then we have a grandpa, his siblings and cousins. Not to mention dozens of kids in our extended family. Mom said this year it costs our family nearly a thousand dollars for food, gifts and decorations. That’s twice as much as the monthly income of my parents combined.
The money stress would ease down during the new year’s days. Families would put away the worries and started to savor the year’s longest break. On the Feast of the first morning, we allowed ourselves to be a little lazier, brunching at 11:00 before heading south to the Le family temple (Đền nhà Lê). Over the past five centuries, the temple has been a sacred place to worship 27 Kings in the Later Le, the longest-ruling dynasty in the Vietnamese history. We came here to remember our former Emperors, but also to find luck. Much influenced by the Chinese culture , we believe the lucky feng shui direction would attract positive and nourishing energy to our home. In the year of the rooster, the southeast is said to increase chances of prosperity while the northwest brings good fortune and happiness.
We had a soul-soothing retreat the next day when visiting Dad’s homeland in the countryside. It was a 20-minute car ride out of the city but a world away: no changing color lights and busy traffic in sight, only rustic houses fusing with pure nature and the fresh cool breeze bringing in the sweet aroma of the young rice fields.
Coconut and banana trees mirroring themselves onto the pond
My little niece posing in front of a rice straw pile & bamboo fence
My parents used to send me and my brother here every summer break and only returned to pick us up when school was about to start. I still recall my ten-year-old self walking down the pond to catch snails with neighbor kids, knowing grandma would yell at us when she finds out but a big bowl of mouthwatering steamed snails would be on the way. One time I even tried climbing up the coconut tree and fell into this very pond. Awww, those were the days…
Some random shots on Day three:
Paper horses, boat and elephant for sale at the temple
A classical opera (Tuồng) singer waiting till his performance at the village festival
(*) The Lunar New Year begins on January 28, 2017. Some people think it’s a Chinese festival, which may be an offense to many Vietnamese. Please note that this festival is celebrated by so many countries in Asia and not just China.
Feature image: Hanoi flowering peaches, January 2016