Tet (Lunar New Year) markets in Hue City, which is Vietnam’s imperial capital, and its vicinity are nowadays reminiscent of their rustic, serene counterparts dozens of years ago.
The markets are an alluring highlight among natives and tourists alike when they visit Hue City and the neighboring areas located in the central province of Thua Thien-Hue.
The first day of the Lunar New Year falls on February 8 this year, but tradition states that festive preparations and the celebratory atmosphere begin one week before and end one week after that date.
The bygone days
Le Vu Truong Giang, a Tuoi Tre (Youth) newspaper contributor, reminisced over his excitement before trips to the local Tet market as a young boy.
Before the 23rd day of the 12th month of the lunar year, on which red carp fish are bought and set free in a long-cherished Tet ritual as a means for 'Ong Tao' (the Kitchen Gods) to ride to Heaven, Giang would follow his mother to markets throughout the city and neighboring districts.
The trails around the markets were already lined with clusters of flamboyant paper flowers, a century-old hallmark of Thanh Tien Village, situated in Phu Vang District, around seven kilometers from Hue City.
The blossoms came in five gorgeous colors, with eight flowers forming a cluster, which represents the long-standing principles of Confucianism, a religion and learning sect founded by the revered Chinese scholar/philosopher Confucius.
A large flower was always seen at the core of the bunch.
This blossom, which could be either in red or yellow, was symbolic of the sun or the king.
A woman buys bananas for her Tet offerings at An Cuu Market. Photo: Tuoi Tre
Female peddlers also displayed religious paintings of 'Ong Tao' and Sinh Village folk paintings for sale around the markets, Giang further recalled.
Sinh Village, secluded on the banks of the province’s signature Huong (Perfume) River, was established in present-day Phu Vang District more than 400 years ago.
The simple Sinh Village woodblocks originally depicted images of worship and religious life, and mainly expressed local hopes for prosperity and happiness.
Some artisans later diversified the content of their woodblocks to include new themes such as folk games, daily activities, and landscapes.
The paintings now make perfect souvenirs for tourists, particularly foreigners.
In addition, papers for sale with avatar images of men, women and children were filled with the names of family members.
Each image, which stood for each family member, was meant to help ward off bad luck in the new lunar year.
Also for sale were bags of fine white sand, which were poured into newly polished incense burners placed on altars in most homes.
Flowers bloom at a market along Hue City’s iconic Huong (Perfume) River. Photo: Tuoi Tre
Such Tet markets would remain open on a regular basis after the 23rd day of the 12th lunar month so that goers would have plenty of time to stock up on necessities, Giang added.
Some of the most popular buys were glutinous rice, mung beans, and ‘dong’ leaves, which were used to make and wrap up ‘banh chung’ (square glutinous rice cake) and ‘banh tet’ (cylindrical glutinous rice cake).
The cakes, which go perfectly with pickled ‘cu kieu’ or onions, are considered indispensable Tet delicacies.
A trip to Dong Ba Market, one of Hue City’s icons, would fill Giang and his siblings with thrill.
The market offered a wide range of jams, confections, ready-made clothes, and other goods rarely found in rural Tet markets.
Giang and his siblings were in awe of water pistols, spring-operated cars, and other tempting toys.
These luxuries, some of the kids’ most coveted items, were a far cry from traditional toys, including ‘to he.’
‘To he’ are richly-colored figurines which are inspired by characters from Vietnam's fairy tales or movies and are dexterously crafted from rice powder.
Gia Lac Market, another fixture in Hue City whenever Tet came, was initiated by a king from the Nguyen Dynasty (1802-1945), the country’s last ruling monarchy, according to historical archives.
The market, however, had fallen into oblivion in 1945 before being re-created by artisan Ho Thi Hoang Anh in Germany and France in 2002.
Such market sessions provided intriguing insights into antiques, jams and confectionery used during the Tet royal festivities and items reflective of Hue’s rich, alluring culture.
A Gia Lac market was reproduced by artisan Anh for the first time in Ho Chi Minh City in 2012.
The modern-day Tet markets
Throughout the course of time, Tet market sessions in Hue City and some other districts have experienced notable changes.
Giang observed that he feels lost and out of place whenever he steps into supermarkets and stores, which offer a considerably wider range of products, including imported ones, at reasonable prices.
Peddlers at today’s Tet markets still sell Thanh Tien Village paper flowers, alongside pots of unauthentic-looking nylon and plastic blossoms.
Such Tet market sessions offer a notably wider variety of products, including imported goods, for shoppers to choose from, while traditional delights and toys, such as ‘to he,’ tend to be taken for granted.
Flowers and fruits are displayed for sale on the Ben Ngu Bridge in Hue City on the eve of Tet. Photo: Tuoi Tre
Markets are now more fun, noisier, crowded, and captivating, with peddlers barking on the phone or gossiping amongst each other.
Thankfully, the gems of Hue, including the iconic flower market at the Phu Van Lau edifice, are still retained.
The flower displays feature stunning real blossoms from the Nguyet Bieu, Bai Dau and Phu Thuong flower villages along the Huong River, according to the Thua Thien-Hue Department of Culture, Sports and Tourism.
Flowers and ornamental plants are also available at Nghenh Luong Dinh Mansion, Nguyen Dinh Chieu Pedestrian Street and An Dinh Palace, some of Hue City’s icons.
Phong Dien Town is home to the Dien Hoa apricot market and a spring flora festival, which is a major draw to locals and tourists alike.
Meanwhile, Quang Dien District boasts Quang Ngan spring market sessions, which typically take place from the 1st to the 3rd of the Lunar New Year, the culture department added.
A ‘neu’ (Tet bamboo pole) is erected and stays in front of Hien Lam Cac, part of the UNESCO-recognized Complex of Hue Monuments, until the 7th morning of the Lunar New Year. Photo: Tuoi Tre