You can be forgiven for the confusion when you see Christmas decorations and Lunar New Year street displays festooning the streets in Vietnam at the same time. It’s a slightly delirious concoction; colorful and hallucinatory at the same time – particularly if you’re riding around on a motorbike at nighttime.
It can be even more phantasmagoric if you’re having a party with Vietnamese friends in a local restaurant. Twinkling Christmas lights and miniature Santas hanging from the rafters competing with ‘Chuc mung nam moi’ posters can distract you from the food!
And it gets positively psychedelic when you get to this all to the greatest hits of ABBA! Yes, you will have a headache but that’s the morning after.
|A stage for nighttime performance in Cao Lanh City, Dong Thap Province, southern Vietnam. Photo: Viet Toan / Tuoi Tre News|
It’s a heady mix of mooncakes and birthday cakes, Saigon export, Larue and Huda beers, rice whisky and strange things in your soup. And it all depends on who is open during the holidays or whose cousin has taken over the restaurant duties while the main chef is heading back to the hometown to touch base with the relatives and parents. Yeah, good luck with that.
It’s a welcome break from the usual noise to be replaced by amateur karaoke blasting out the front doors after the main four days of Tet has passed but folks still have a few more days off work. For myself, it’s quieter than normal – the neighbors have built three houses over a year and a half and the unqualified mechanic who loves revving up the motorbikes a few houses up from me disappears for a few days. I think his method is if it’s loud then it’s fixed.
Around Hoi An (my hometown!) we get a lot of Hanoians and out-of-towners visiting, more so if the weather is warm and sunny. I know they are from Hanoi from the license plates and the number of U-turns they do from not knowing the streets. You can also tell from the totally unsuitable high heels worn on Hoi An’s multi-leveled footpaths and the sudden urge to take a selfie in the middle of the mad traffic. I wonder if Hanoians have no fear or simply have worse traffic than us.
I think it’s funny the way the local tourists dress up to the max regardless of the weather. Ladies in evening wear are sweating on the streets or donning light cotton dresses shivering during our central coast winter. The things people will do to get noticed. One thing that never seems to change around here is the boys racing around in torn jeans (not it’s fashionable) and gangster haircuts.
Selfie sticks are an ever-present danger too. Honestly, it’s not a light saber from Star Wars, you know – amazing how many people I’ve witnessed copping a belt over the head with one of these things. Especially since no one is looking out for other people because they’re glued to the phone screen.
|Tet flowers at the post office in Cao Lanh City, Dong Thap Province, southern Vietnam. Photo: Viet Toan / Tuoi Tre News|
It’s a great time for the kids too, lots of street games and playing with their new toys. To me it’s a gentle reminder of how much humanity people have in common when we all smile at the kids.
One really nice event I like over the festive season is the number of local people putting together charity goodies to take out of town to poorer folks in the surrounding area or doing it tough in the mountain regions. Usually this involves young university students and working kids – again another reminder that people do care and are willing to do something about it. Quite a few foreigners also get involved, frequently donating clothes and cash for shoes, books and festive presents and food.
Although it’s inevitable that some trouble erupts around the place, usually alcohol-fueled among the older locals, it’s a remarkably calm time of the year – if you ignore the traffic death toll. I believe this is due mainly to so many people being out of town.
|A family poses for a picture beside a bed of Tet flowers in Hanoi. Photo: Nam Tran / Tuoi Tre|
Interestingly to me, it’s the one time I really see the locals’ spending money rather than trying to make it. People can be fairly generous here, especially towards the young, and although it's part of their traditions, it’s just plain nice to see people not so materialistically focused. While people do pray for prosperity and wealth and burn the votive paper cars, phones, houses; most Vietnamese I know are simply happy to be together as a family and have food on the table.
I hope you all enjoy the holiday break and get invites to meet the locals – most of them are genuinely interested in meeting foreigners and want to show, with some pride, their culture as well. So take the opportunity if it comes up, it can be a refreshing experience.
‘Festive’ originally meant ‘a feast’ (lots of eating) but nowadays takes on the extra meaning of a happy time and celebration. I wish we had that more often during the year. Perhaps that might bring more peace to our crazy world.
Anyway, slow down and look around – may the festive feeling last you a whole year!