Saturday, February 5, 2011

A typical Tet (Lunar New Year) in Vietnam

Well folks, it's that time of the year again.  New Year.  In England, it's nothing more than just a glorified 'piss-up', a good excuse to throw a party and complain about the previous year.  Usually, you sit at home most of the day, watching TV and listening to Terry Wogan or some equally 'popular' daytime TV personality showing countries from East to West celebrating new year at various times during on the 31st December when midnight strikes in their particular part of the world.  I for one, think it's the second most overrated night of the year, second only of course, to my birthday.  I say this namely because I don't like to be forced to have a good time.  There seems like too much pressure on these occasions to have fun and people spend most of the time asking you 'are you having a good night?' to which it would be pretty rude to reply 'I would rather be at home, sipping a cuppa and reading a book'.

Anyways rant over, let me tell you all a little about my (observed version) of New Year in Vietnam. Firstly, let me apologise for not actually having done much research.  Quite honestly, I've read 2 John Grisham novels in the last 3 days and there are no bookshops in Ben Tre (a quiet town at the gateway to the Mekong Delta) that sell any.  I'm enthralled with court room and crime books, especially set in times of racial tension.  That's besides the point but I haven't bothered to find out too much about the lunar calendar, how long a full lunar month is (I assume 28 days) or how many months there are in a year (I assume 12).  All I do actually know is that the cities come to a stand still as everyone evacuates to their hometowns to return to their mothers who can't wait to fatten them up with home cooked meals.  This means I have a 2 week holiday from work which suits me just fine!

New years Eve

The day before Tet (New years day to you and I) is a day of preparation as traditionally no housework is supposed to be done on the day of Tet.  The house is cleaned, clothes are washed, dried and hung up, yellow flowers (Ochna integerrima apparently) are stationed throughout the house, people buy new clothes, shave and get a haircut.  I'm not sure what it all means, but the small bits I know it's about setting up the year to have a new start and to bring good luck, wealth and health to the family.  As usual, I didn't cut my hair (I didn't even get my hair cut for my wedding so what would you expect) or buy new clothes (I have enough already!) and I wasn't allowed to assist with the housework (my mother in law shouts at me whenever I try to help).  The only thing I did was go to the market with my father in law to pick up some flowers and write my blog and read the entire contents on the BBC sports website.


With the house spotless, we wait until midnight.  Unlike the UK where you generally go out and get smashed with your pals, the Vietnamese New Year is very much a family affair.  There's various live karaoke and dance performances shown on TV similar to the awful TV that we have at home on the lead up to midnight.  Each town council uses half of it's yearly budget on a grand or less grand firework display depending on which are you live in and a lot of families, friends and couples will go to see them.  This year we didn't.  I'm not sure why we didn't go but I think it was mostly laziness and a touch of tiredness that made staying at home more appealing.

At midnight is when it really starts to kickoff and things become traditional and strange to those not privy to the information I'm about to share.  In the UK, we usually just countdown from 10 to 1 culminating in 'Happy New Year' then perhaps a toast, a kiss, hug or something equivalent.  Afterwards, we continue to drink until passing out, preferably in your bed or sofa, if not on the street, in a ditch or worse of all in a prison cell.  In Vietnam, things are a touch different.


In families, there is a definite hierarchy.  The man of the house holds the power and respect.  Not in a commanding or forceful way, just a respect figure.  I'm not sure if this is unique to my in laws, or whether it's across the country, but the father and mother will be sat together (almost like a king and queen at a throne) and the children, starting with the eldest to the youngest, will then approach their parents one by one to say 'happy new year' and to wish them good fortune and health for the coming year.  The parents will then do the same.  After the good wishes have been exchanged, lucky money is then exchanged.  Lucky money represents wealth during the year, and of course, everyone is happy to receive it.  It's put inside a red envelope and you shouldn't open it until you're in a private place.  I'm not sure how much your supposed to give or who you're supposed to give it to but during New Years Eve it's only immediate family involved.  From what I've seen the two times I've been at my in laws for Tet, is that children who don't earn receive money but don't give any.  Children who earn will give upto a months salary (divided between their mother and father) to their parents, and their parents will give them some lucky money back.  After each child has spoken and exchanged lucky money with their parents, the children will then do the same with one another.  The oldest child will then be approached by their younger siblings and the process is repeated until everyone has exchanged pleasantries and given and received their lucky money.

After that, the family sit together, have a couple of drinks together and nibble on some snacks.  Drinks could be beer, wine, local spirits, herbal tea etc.  and food could be local fruits, special breads that are popular at this time or dried beef.  Sorry that I can't be more descriptive at this point, but the food is quite difficult to accurately portray.  After a small feed, people drift off to bed, ready for New Year.


New Year's Day

On New Year's morning, breakfast is generally taken early.  I believe cooking and perhaps washing the dishes are the only household chores which are allowable (please correct me if I'm wrong) and everyone promptly changes into the new clothes that they had bought the day before.  Then, photo time for the annual family picture for the collection.  For me, this part dragged on a bit as I hate having my photograph taken, but I could see that the in laws were enjoying it a lot (especially Hanh and Ngan) so I endured it as best I could. 

Now for a touch more of the traditional family customs.  On the first day of Tet, the wives will be at their in laws.  In my case, my family is in England so I'm an exception.  The family, after pictures, will all migrate to the family home where the eldest son will usually live with their parents if they are still alive.   At the family home, their will be an altar to the latest generation to have passed away.  For example, both my father in law's parents have died, so their is a small area of the family home devoted to them.  Again, in order, the family will light a scented candle, close their eyes as if praying, and ask for luck, wealth and health for the year.  They then bow 3 times, place the candle in a pot, bow 3 more times and walk away.  It isn't worship is religious in any way, it's just the Vietnamese way of paying their respects to their ancestors.  After that, tea is drunk, lucky money is given to nephews and nieces, and traditional foods are eaten.

Then you return home, waiting on various members of the family to drop by if they happy to live nearby.  Snacks will be on standby, lucky money ready to give to the young ones and beverages close at hand.  It is believed that the first person to visit your house is significant.  Every name in Vietnam as a special meaning, and if somebody with a good name is the first guest at your home it is supposedly a great omen going forward.  In between times, the day is much like any other.  You eat, talk, watch TV, read books, take a nap or whatever it is you usually do whenever the shops and entertainment venues are closed.  On the next day, the process is repeated, only this time at the wives families and in a nutshell, that's Tet holiday.

I've probably completely butchered Tet holiday and what happens, so any comments would be great appreciated and I might make a few changes.  This is merely what happens in my family and what I've seen and heard.  I've deliberately not checked things out on the internet as no family is the same and experiences vary greatly.  In a way, this is my disclaimer :-)  Chuc Mung Nam Moi!!!

Tuesday, February 1, 2011

Crazy things we see on motorbikes

The first thing many people think about when Vietnam is mentioned is the sheer number of motorbikes.  And to be fair, this is a very accurate reflection on this tropical part of the world.  However, they probably haven't told you about the amount of crazy things you can see transported on them.  So let me enlighten you!

To start, the roads in Vietnam aren't designed for cars.  They're simply not wide enough and some junctions can be pretty difficult to maneuver around.  There is also a ridiculous volume of motorbikes and bicycles who swerve happily in and out of traffic which makes an already treacherous job even more troublesome for car drivers.  Given this and the simple fact that cars out of the reach for most families financially, it is little wonder that you often see entire families on motorbikes!  As a soon to be father, I find this terrifying!  How can it be safe?  How can the driver have complete control of the bike?  What if one of the little ones decides to throw a wobbly when I'm traveling at high speed?  However, pictures like the one seen above are incredibly common in VN.  Being brought up in a country where I was chauffeured around by dad means I take having a car for granted, but I can't help but feel that more that 3 people on a bike must be incredibly dangerous!

Secondly, when you move house or buy white goods for your house, what do you think of?  Things like removal companies, transit vans or delivery service springs to mind, right?  Well not here!  You got it, refrigerators, washing machines and televisions are all items that I've seen fastened to the back of a bike.  I've even witnessed double beds, wardrobes and a sofa being transported across Ho Chi Minh City.   Needless to say, these vehicles must be very awkward to drive.  The weight severely limits the acceleration, the size and height of the goods often restricts the drivers view and steering is impeded.  I'm not sure if moving your house in such a fashion is legal, but I'm yet to see anyone be punished by local law enforcement for moving goods from A to B in this way and I'm always amazed that there are so few accidents or damaged furniture in the transition!  I'm probably just not skilled enough at driving to pull it off but still....!

This final picture might disturb a few people, and if it does I apologise.  Whilst it's not overly common to see live stock transported in this way, from time to time I've seen piglets and chickens carried on the back of bikes similar to this picture.  Needless to say it's very cruel to the animals and I can't imagine that too many people would want to devour these pigs if they knew this is how they had been treated.  I can't even begin to think of how it must feel like to drive a bike when you can hear the animals crying and being in obvious distress but I don't really want to get into the rights or wrong of animal welfare.  I've simply included this to inform or shock some people into realising just how essential motorbikes are to all aspects of life in Vietnam.