A decade ago I received an invitation to travel with a small group, by motorcycle, from Hanoi to the China border, then west along the border to Ha Giang. The trip was called “Tet Fiesta” because it was over the Tet holiday. I read a little about the Tet, but had no idea what an amazing experience I was about to have.
In my reading I learned about “lucky money”, so I prepared some red envelopes with money to be given away to children and old people. I also gathered small gifts that could be packed into my backpack.
The day came to depart from the U.S. for 24 hours of travel to Hanoi. The time difference played games with my mind, making me sleepy at mid day for a few days. As I looked out of the window of my hotel in the Old Quarter, four days before Tet, I saw many strange items packed on the back of the passing motorcycles. Many flowering branches of the peach tree and entire kumquat bushes, sugar cane, paper carps, paper horses, paper hats and boots,…, an amazing procession! All the streets in Hanoi were buzzing. I had never seen anything quite like it.
I called some friends that lived in Hanoi, finding them cleaning the house. When I asked about it I was told it wasn’t just the usual cleaning, but rather a deep scrubbing and sweeping on hands and knees. They wanted the house perfectly clean so that they wouldn’t be bothered by such activities during the Tet.
We left Hanoi two days before Tet after packing the bags on our motorcycles. On the way out of town we got close to the flower market on Hang Luoc Street. A steady procession of bikes, motorbikes, and trucks were loaded with every imaginable color and shape of flowers. I wondered where that many could have been grown.
The next day was spent at a homestay at Ba Be Lake, a beautiful lake surrounded by fertile farms and limestone mountains. Even far from the city it was obvious that Tet excitement was everywhere.
We were invited to try our hand at making “chung cake”, a major tradition for these people. To make them a flat leaf is laid on a table where sticky rice and mashed ground green beans is placed. Shreds of fatty pork and a bean are placed in the center, then surrounded by more sticky rice. The leaf is then folded around the mix until the two-inch-thick square is about seven inches on a side, then tied off with thin lengths of plant material. I must admit it isn’t my favorite flavor, but I ate some to be polite.
Occasionally, the squeal of a small pig could be heard in the distance as it was dispatched for the Tet meal. Usually, there were a group of boys and men gathered around the pig as this ritual was accomplished. I could also see fruit and veggie accumulating in the areas near where the cooking was done.
On the Tet eve we left Ba Be for a ride into the mountain areas. As we rode it began to rain, turning the dirt trail going to the Red Dao village into slick mud. As we got closer to the village a group of boys came out to help push our motorcycles up a steep hill to the homestay. We would have never gotten the motorcycles up there without them.
After parking our bikes under the floor of a stilt house we unloaded and were directed to a huge structure where we were to sleep and live. Men set up sleeping gear at one end, while the women were together at the other. A cooking area which had an ongoing wood fire occupied the extreme end. Soon, the head of the village and many of the villagers came to greet us. We were invited to the Tet celebration which was to take place in a different building nearby. It was dark as we wandered down the trail to this building. It was here that I learned the meaning of “Eat Tet”!
The head man of the village took a liking to me and my son. He placed us at the table next to where he was sitting. A large container of home-made corn wine was brought to the head table. Some brief words were uttered (I have no idea what was said, but everyone was happy about it), then the drinking commenced.
At that point we dropped down to the floor, sitting cross legged on a large rice mat. Huge piles of meats, veggies, rice, fruits, and dipping sauces were ready to be eaten. My son and I were invited to drink a glass of blood from the pig which was made to look tasty by putting some cilantro in it. Not wanting to offend our host we obliged. Then, the part known as “Eat Tet” began. It was a happy time with the villagers placing their chopsticks laden with pork or veggies near my mouth if I wasn’t eating fast enough.
After the first part of the meal we all gathered into a different part of the room where two older men performed the “chicken dance”. The two, carrying a chicken in their arms, danced in step with each other for maybe fifteen minutes. The finally was when they did a summersault with the chicken tucked in front of them. At the end the neck of the chicken was cut so it bled out and (I presume) was eaten.
It was a wonderful and rich cultural night for us, but at las we fell into our beds and fell asleep.
The first day of the Lunar New Year (also called Head Day) is reserved for getting the nuclear family together for well wishing and thanking the grandparents for their birth and upbringing. Many of the families were inside.
I was advised that this might be a good time to distribute the lucky money I had prepared. As we walked down the trail in the center of the village, we found a few children to try our lucky money on. While reluctant to mix with us strangers, at first, soon the word was out that these strangers were passing out red envelopes. Soon we had quite a large group. Occasionally, an older person would come out to see what we were up to, so we gave them a red envelope, too. Usually, that resulted into an invitation into the house for (at least) some rice or corn wine. I truly have never experienced such warm and loving people.
In the afternoon of the first day a group of young men and women joined us in the building where we were living. We continued “eating Tet” and sat around the rice mat singing songs familiar to the locals there. One such song was about every province in Vietnam. Sadly, I couldn’t understand the words but, clearly, they were proud of their country as they sang about what the specific province is famous for.
As the trail had settled off a little by the second day of Tet, we started our way back to Hanoi. When arriving, it was apparent that Hanoi was totally different from the pre-Tet days,…almost a ghost town. The hotel was being run by a skeleton crew while most had gone “home” to the parent’s home in the countryside. It was quiet.
Since the described Tet, I have returned twice more to motorcycle into various ethnic minority areas during Tet. Each time learning more about this great holiday. For example, I brought a friend some electronic equipment, delivering it prior to Tet. I phoned him saying he could pay me after Tet, when I get back. He drove two hours through the pre-Tet traffic across Hanoi to make sure I was paid before Tet. I did not understand so he told me it would be bad luck if he had a debt after Tet. We should have such ideas in the U.S.!
Another beautiful Tet tradition I have experienced with a friend a few years ago was going to the Temple to take gifts and light incense for departed relatives.
To close, I will tell you the real meaning of “Eating Tet” – which took me three Tet trips to learn. I have often heard, “Will you eat Tet with your family”. In reality it has not much to do with filling one’s stomach, although in the old days Tet was a brief time of abundance contrasted to the frugal norm. “To eat Tet” means to experience a spiritual eating and renew the mutual communion with those around you. It is with this thought in mind that I wish to eat Tet with you this year.
Chuc Mung Nam Moi.
*Phil Hassinger is a simple farmer from the U.S. that loves Vietnam.