Words: Hannah Lambert
Every year after the end of the long winter holiday for Christmas and the New Year, which my grandmother often calls “Western New Year”, my family begins to prepare for a spectacular event that comes after the New Year, Tet Ta (Our Tet) – the Lunar New Year for Vietnamese people and also the biggest festival of the year in Vietnam.
Warm, Chaotic and Flowery
Through my eyes, from age six till this day, the atmosphere of Tet can be described in three words: warm, chaotic and flowery. About two weeks before Tet, the streets are filled with the colours of Tet, which are the colours of red and yellow decorations, the colour of bright pink cherry blossom branches, bright yellow apricot trees, and many other colours of the many types of flowers blooming.
As Tet approaches, the streets become increasingly bustling with loud car and motorbike horns. Everyone is busy preparing for a hectic and eventful Tet holiday. I was extremely impressed with the scene on the road of huge kumquat trees being carried on motorbikes gliding down the street. Often I felt worried about whether the people riding those motorbikes would fall off and splat into the road because it looked wild and dangerous. However, it must be said that, when my family was still living in Hanoi, on this occasion, an indicator that Tet was approaching was the image of bulky kumquat trees, dangling beautiful orange fruits; or dry tree branches laden with pink peach buds are carried on motorbikes that suddenly appear in the bustling, noisy crowd.
When preparing for Tet, it’s like Deja Vu. It feels like I’ve just done the same thing over a month ago for Christmas.
During the Christmas season, my mother and I are always the most excited people in the family to clean and decorate the house and Christmas tree. My mum and I do the same for Tet – maybe even more so. I go out with my mum to flower gardens or the flower market (chợ hoa) to choose Tet flowers. Sometimes my mother buys too much…one year my garden actually looked like a flower market! Nonetheless, my mother and I were pleased and proud because looking at the house, we saw that Tet atmosphere radiating off the house. It feels just like when the Christmas tree is up and decorated with ornaments and fairy lights; all the presents are wrapped and ready; cookies are baked and the house smells of ginger, cinnamon and chocolate. By then we can sit down and relax because we know that Christmas is just around the corner.
My forte on this occasion is baking, both to eat and to give treats to people as handmade gifts. My mother said that when a family has enough money to buy delicious and strange things at the supermarket (or market) – then unique homemade dishes will become Tet specialities. One year, the two of us even made cookies until late at night to have delicious, elaborate batches of cookies made into fragrant pink peach blossoms and yellow apricot blossoms.
Sometimes I feel that my mother abuses my baking ability a bit, telling everyone that I make good food, so I have to make multiple batches of everything without stopping. Cookies, brownies and cakes are difficult but cinnamon rolls and croissants are a lot of work. However, I’m delighted that instead of everyone making banh chung for Tet, I get to “contribute” by making all kinds of cakes. Mum and I also bought a lot of food, it seemed like the market would be closed for a week, but in reality, everything reopened in just 2 days. Before, when I lived in Hanoi, it was extremely difficult to find food on Tet days, but now living in the tourist city of Hoi An, I see that on Tet days, more restaurants are open than usual.
I enjoy the Tet feast when the traditional dishes like my grandmother’s spring rolls, my grandfather’s bamboo shoot soup, and lean pork sausage are all great; vermicelli soup cooked with chicken intestines is a delicacy, greasy frozen meat has a very special taste, and the pickles made from kohlrabi and papaya that come in the shapes of different fruits or animals are also my favourite dishes. As for the sausage made from pig’s ears and head (called giò), I can’t eat it. My father and brother just looked at the boiled chicken and didn’t eat any of it because the Western palate prefers the taste of grilled chicken.
Everyone has Bánh Chưng or Bánh Tét at home and I love learning how to make Bánh Chưng from my grandmother. She doesn’t need a frame to make it, but the cake is very square and perfect. However, my family can’t eat a lot of Banh Chung. Only when my grandmother tells me how to dip it with honey or molasses, or my mother fries it crispy to dip it in soy sauce and eat it with pickles or olives, then maybe I can. I’m passionate about learning to make food from my grandparents. I can watch my grandmother make red sticky rice forever or my grandfather roll spring rolls for me to fry. There are Tet holidays when my dad and I cook pasta, make pizza, or make BBQ food to “contribute to the feast”. My grandparents are very happy when we do, my grandfather will put those dishes on the offering tray to worship his ancestors. The dishes were not on the Vietnamese feast list, but he said this was a special dish for his Western son-in-law and would like to invite his ancestors to enjoy it with us. Every time that happened, my grandmother was ecstatic and the whole house was always filled with laughter. My grandfather also used Australian wine given to him to burn incense instead of Vietnamese rice wine.
Through what my grandmother and mother told me, I learned about the history of poverty in Vietnam in previous years. In the past, people didn’t have enough food to eat and clothes to wear, so they had to “tighten their belts” until Tet. Everyone has the opportunity to eat and drink to their fullest, so Tet dishes are very precious and special. I feel sorry when I think about this because I remember Vietnam’s history during the period of war and famine. But I’m also very happy because now Tet dishes are no longer special in the sense that only during Tet do people have a chance to eat them. However, they become more special because nowadays many Vietnamese people are “full”, however, they still want to enjoy traditional dishes on this occasion with pride, which is also a way to preserve traditional and historical values.
My family often wears ao dai on Tet. Every year my mother comes up with different ao dai designs for the whole family; Some years it’s brocade ao dai, and some years it’s ao dai with flowery patterns,… I see a few neighbours wearing ao dais for Tet, but my family wears it every year. Most of the time my siblings complain because they are a bit uncomfortable to wear, but my dad and I both persuade them: “It’ll make Mum happy” or “ông bà will love it”. I know my grandparents and mother really like us wearing ao dai, my grandfather once said; “It’s strange for Westerners to wear ao dai, but it looks gorgeous on them!” I am proud and love wearing ao dai, I especially love the way my mum wears her ao dai, it looks both modern and traditional.
According to tradition, everyone must stay at home to celebrate Tet. As for my family, my grandparents understand that my family has a “Western” element and have just had a Western Tet, so they said to “let it go” for many procedures, for example, worshipping grandparents, worshipping ancestors, or going to ring in the New Year. However, my mother still wants to keep Vietnamese traditions, so she still shops and cooks a lot of things for Tet, and still makes New Year’s Eve offerings. Especially, every year, on the first day of Tet, the first thing my family needs to do is; wear ao dai, prepare lucky money to go to my grandparents’ house to wish for Tet and have a Tet meal with my grandparents.
After that, the whole family can go on a trip, or do whatever they want. Our parents like to take us on domestic trips because on this occasion we can both enjoy the Tet atmosphere of this place and that place and learn about many beautiful places in Vietnam. There were years when my whole family decided just to relax, just stay indoors watching TV or go to the beach to play if the weather was nice.
I like the custom of not sweeping the house on the first day of the New Year, because the Vietnamese concept of Tet is to rest, even the broom needs to rest, and my grandmother said that you should not sweep the New Year’s luck outside. Having to keep it in the house, sounds a bit unreasonable, but I like it because it’s great that I don’t have to sweep the floor these days. I also like to go to my neighbour’s house to wish them New Year because, in addition to receiving lucky money, I see that everyone is very happy when the whole family is crowded and many boys like mine, dressed splendidly, come and shout “Congratulations” and “Happy New Year”. At this time, I saw the word “New Year” in effect in Vietnam. January 1 of the solar calendar is the day of a new year, but for Vietnamese people, the New Year is the first day of January of the lunar calendar, which is “Tai Tet” and not “Western New Year”. It took me many years to understand this. I remember my younger siblings, last year on the first day of the calendar year, everyone they met said “Happy New Year” but only foreigners responded to them, and Vietnamese people usually didn’t say it because they don’t understand why we’re saying Happy New Year at this time of the year. The children were a bit disappointed. Mum and I tried to explain but it was difficult for them to understand. I believe that when they grow up a little, they will understand.
Every year there is usually an occasion for people to think about their homeland and family, for Australians – my father’s hometown or other Westerners, it is Christmas and the New Year. On this occasion, my friends from all over the world often return to their hometowns to visit their grandparents and relatives. For Vietnamese people, it is Tet.