My thoughts on the Vietnamese New Year

And how I took it for granted.

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Image courtesy of Jez Timms via Unsplash

In Vietnamam, our New Year’s celebration is called “Tết Nguyên Đán”, or “Feast of the First Morning of the First Day”. It is the time of the year when Vietnamese people stop working and buy overpriced travel tickets to get back to their family. I guess it’s the equivalent of Christmas in the UK. Tết fell on the 16th of February this year. This is because we still follow the lunar calendar for our traditional holidays.

Because of the time difference in Vietnam, I say “Happy New Year” to my Vietnamese friends, even those who live in England, at 5pm on the day prior to Tết Nguyên Đán. What is the point of celebrating New Year afterwards, when there are no blooming fireworks in Vietnam, no bell ringing for hours from the nearby Buddhist pagoda, no laughter from the neighbourhood children who are attempting to set off firecrackers, and no cousins urging you to go around the garden to gather new leaves for luck?

I’d rather stay indoors while in England, talk and give wishes to my family and then my friends, and just imagine that I’m in Vietnam, sharing their happiness, holiday spirit and the feeling of obscure, irrational optimism about the next year.

I used to spend every Tết in my grandma’s house in a little village. The house is in the middle of rice fields, facing a line of bamboos that my grandfather planted a long time ago to protect the house from yearly floods. My parents, sister and I would arrive on the last morning of the old year.

My aunts would have already spotlessly cleaned the house. My uncles would have already picked the most beautiful spring flowers and plants for decoration. The house would already smell of delicious Tết food. There would be round watermelons in the house, couplets on red paper hanging on the wall, and five-fruit trays on the indoor shrines dedicated to our ancestors.

And there was my beloved grandma who would say I hadn’t grown up at all since last year, ask if I was hungry and tired from the journey, and point at a picture of me on the wall. She would say that she looked at it every day and missed me so much. I would say that I missed her too.

Fifteen minutes before the New Year arrived, my grandma and my aunt would bring a tray of rice, food, salt, rice wine and burnt incense sticks to the front yard. My cousins and I would bring some wooden chairs outside to stand on and look attentively at every corner of the sky to catch the first sight of the faraway fireworks, because there was no firework site near our place.

There was one year when we decided to climb up to the roof instead, only to find out that someone had taken the ladder away not knowing we were up there. We had to whisper for rescue for thirty minutes, not wanting to upset the adults, until an aunt brought us the ladder.

In exactly the same manner every year, against the background of a ringing bell and children’s laughter, as the other kids and I cheerfully enjoyed the little and mute fireworks, my grandma and aunt would start to kneel and pray to various Gods to bring the best luck to our family.

Shortly after, they would come inside to get some sleep before the busy next day: a lot of family relatives would visit; the women of the house would have to take care of the eating and drinking parties that would last all day. We remained in the yard playing some folk games: blind man’s bluff, the “dragon-snake” game, the “cat and mouse” game, and so on. As we grew up, the time devoted to the games decreased as we started to chat about schools and teachers, boys and girls…

In my teenage years, with a reversed biological clock, I sometimes found myself alone sitting outside the house under a thin coat (it’s never too cold where I come from) when it was deep into the first night of the New Year. I felt a strange sense of becoming one with the vast and quiet darkness of this village. Every fifteen minutes, another glimmering light from a faraway house was turned off. Even the pagoda’s bell would stop ringing.

I had to comfort myself: morning will arrive, and many people will visit, dressed up in their newest, nicest clothing; they will chat cheerfully, give New Year wishes to each other and lucky money in red pockets to the kids. In a few hours, the not-so-large kitchen will be filled with the joyful chatter of many aunts as they serve the ongoing parties. Men will gather among the tables in the front room of the house, drinking and heatedly discussing politics and religion.

My dad used to let me sit with him in the men’s place until I turned twelve and realised that the kitchen was a more heartfelt place where the women talked about their kids and their lives. Anyway, soon, the liveliness of the holiday would come and then there would be no way to escape from it. This feeling of stagnancy was just temporary.

My last Tết in my grandma’s house was five years ago. I wasn’t very cheerful. There was only my sister and me playing in the yard as my cousins were either sleeping or travelling with their parents. We were the only family that stayed with my grandma for three full days of the celebration.

I felt abandoned by my cousins who were growing up and not interested in our children’s games anymore. I felt tired of the way every Tết is spent in the exact same way: the same journey to this village, the same traditions, the same topics everyone seems to talk about… I knew many people chose to spend their holiday travelling instead. I suggested to my parents that we should try that out.

You know what they say: “Be careful what you wish for”. I wished things would change. Now I don’t do any of the things I used to do with my family when the New Year comes. For the next five years, I never got to spend the New Year with my family, instead having to go to lessons and lectures like any other student in England.

Things have changed. But would I prefer to spend New Year’s Eve waiting for fireworks outside my grandma’s house or to sit in a late seminar? Would I prefer to sit in the kitchen admiring my grandma skilfully wrap banana leaves around “bánh ít”, a sweet sticky rice cake filled with cooked mung beans, or write up some essay for a next-day deadline? Would I prefer to be surrounded by people I love so much and miss terribly, or to walk in such cold weather around people who could never share the same excitement?

Only after I left, did I realise that my feeling of stagnancy about the village was deadly wrong. Within five years, my big family welcomed my two new cousins and two new nephews. My mother told me how Tết was full of crying noises but also laughter from everyone. Little children always cheer up the house.

I can’t wait until I get to be the quieter adult in the yard watching the kids getting excited for fireworks and playing their games. I can’t wait until I get to be the rescuer of kids stuck on the roof without a ladder. I can’t wait until I get to be part of the celebratory scene of Tết Nguyên Đán in my grandma’s house again.

Since I came to England, I don’t wish for things to change anymore. Sooner or later you will be slowly pushed away from what is familiar to you now. And it is always much more difficult to go back to the old days than to run away or move forward.