In England, from whence I hail, people often take weekends away. Someone from Liverpool, like myself, might choose to go to the Lake District or Llandudno. The more adventurous might decide France or even Spain are worth a weekend jaunt.
In Hanoi – when not running a language centre or dicing with death on a motorbike – we take weekends away in places like Hong Kong. I’ll tell you more about that shortly.
We went during Tet, and before I tell you about our weekend in Hong Kong, I want to tell you about Tet. Because despite the fact it was now over a month ago, I realise I still haven’t written about it. And I really should, because it is a remarkable time of year.
Tet is also known as Chinese New Year, the same festival you’ll have seen news about on the telly back home. Given Vietnam’s continuing quiet enmity with China there are obvious reasons they don’t like calling it Chinese New Year. Instead, they call it Tet. You might remember the Tet offensive from the Vietnam war – so called because it happened during Tet.
Tet is new year as calculated using the lunar calendar, as opposed to our own Gregorian calendar which thinks New Year happens a month earlier. Tet and the holiday around it can last for anything up to two weeks, during which time it is virtually impossible to get a Vietnamese person to do anything productive whatsoever.
Some would say this is no different to any other time of the year.
Alas, for Western people Tet is something of a boon, since coming less than a month after our own lengthy New Year break, we have barely worked off our Christmas pud than we find ourselves presented with another fortnight off work. As you’ll imagine, very few expats in Vietnam find cause to grumble.
Tet in Vietnam is often compared to Christmas in England. There are some similarities. There is a palpable sense of occasion in the weeks leading up to the big day, people decorate their homes with trees, and fatal drink driving incidents soar.
The Tet tree itself, it has to be said, is slightly different to a Christmas tree as you or I would recognize it. Intended, I assume, to signal the blooming of a new spring, they appear little more than bare branches with a few plumes of pink foliage. Some people opt for entirely bushier cumquat trees, which are transported around Hanoi on the back of motorbikes in the weeks leading up to Tet. Indeed, seeing a tree on a motorbike is a sign that the big festival is beckoning.
On Tet day people visit the houses of their families, where they’ll eat a traditional stodgy sticky rice cake named ‘chung cake’ (best served fried), drink large amounts of rice flavoured vodka (best served chilled), and sometimes even eat bowls of thick jelly-like pig’s blood soup (best not served at all).
Thus it was for me that I spent this Tet day being welcomed into the various homes of my girlfriend’s various family members. I did my best to talk through broken Vietnamese, but alas, it was just lovely to part of what is a quite pleasant family occasion.
The next day, Trang and I flew to Hong Kong. About which my next entry shall be…