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Chúc Mừng Năm Mới

February 14, 2011

I am reading “The Widow Clicquot – The Story of a Champagne Empire and the Woman Who Ruled It.” The subject of champagne and all things fizzy has always been dear to my heart, but, at a time great of celebration – personally and here in Vietnam, it is particularly interesting.

The late part of January marked my thirtieth birthday, or, as my father always likes to point out, the beginning of my thirty-first year of life. I’m not going to lie – my birthday is typically a big deal to me. Add to that it being my first birthday as a married woman, my first birthday in another country, AND a decade marker, and yes, I will take the whole month to celebrate.

But, all the while I was celebrating my birthday, Vietnam was preparing for Tet – the Vietnamese celebration of the Lunar New Year. After seeing the extravagant Christmas decorations and the amount of time it took to put them all up, I assumed they would just alter them – remove a few Santas, add a few cats (it’s the year of the cat,) and voila! we’d have Tet decorations. But no, Tet deserves it’s own month of decorations.



For most Vietnamese people, Tet is, by far, the biggest holiday of the year. For many hard workers, I think it may be their only real holiday. Everyone goes to their hometown. Families are celebrated, and depending on your religion, ancestors are worshipped. Luck and superstition dominate people’s behavior here. Many things – among them major announcements and marriages – are put off until after the new year (February 3 this year) to avoid bad luck.

The colors of Tet are red and yellow. Every store, home, and boat had yellow flowers or trees with pink or yellow blooms outside the front door or on the bow. The lobby of our building had several trees with yellow flowers and ornaments. The streets were lined with people selling a huge variety of trees and plants to be given as gifts and used to decorate.

Vendors that normally sell face masks and sodas on the sidewalks began selling red and gold envelopes. It is customary to give children money on Tet. Just like Christmas, it can be a pretty expensive time, and theft increases. I had a motorbike taxi driver warn me to keep my phone in my purse and my purse between his body and mine because “Happy New Year. No money. Mobile phone.” I got the point – and appreciated it.

Our time in Phu Quoc was, for the locals, a frenzy of preparations. Restaurants and shops had signs stating the hours and days they would be closed. Here in Saigon people spoke like the apocalypse was coming. “There won’t be any food. All the stores are closed. The ATMs run out of cash. There aren’t any taxis. The streets are like a ghost town. All our help wants to go home (ALL the nerve!) We’re all going to DIE!!!”

I made up the last part, but you get the point. Most of the expats flee the city because they can’t live four days at home without their cooks, maids, nannies, yard men, drivers, and guards. We didn’t really know what to expect, but, worst-case scenario, I stocked up on wine and made sure we had some rice. (I’m all about priorities.)

The Ivory Tower posted what is, to date, the most amusing announcement I have seen. It notifies residents that there is a votive bowl next to the KFC if you would like to burn money. They hope this will discourage residents from burning money in their apartments or in the hallways. Burning fake money, and sometimes paper cars and houses, is a way of sending it on to their ancestors. And, based on the burnt smells that filled our apartment, not everyone took advantage of the votive bowl next to KFC.



We returned from Phu Quoc on New Year’s Eve, and were shocked by how little traffic there was. The air had become breathable! Maybe there was something to the apocalyptical claims… But, when we tried to venture through the city center that night, the main walking street was packed. Cars could barely pass. People were everywhere – families admiring the decorations and vendors selling food and balloons. Their bundles of balloons were so large, I almost thought they would make their bicycles fly.

Our friends’ twenty-seventh floor apartment offers an amazing view of the river and city, so we gathered there to watch the fireworks. We could see that every spot along the road offering a view of the river was full of motorbikes and people. The bridge near us was only open to foot traffic and it looked like there was standing room only. We opened the windows in the apartment, and, as the test flares went up, we could hear a collective “ooohhh” from all across the city. During the last few seconds before midnight, the boats along the river began honking their deep horns. The sounds of hundreds of thousands of people’s excitement gave me goose bumps.



In the days that followed, the city was pleasantly quiet. Streets that were typically overflowing with food stands and decorated storefronts remained blank walls of closed grates and garage-type doors. Produce alley was empty except for a few tables of people playing cards and drinking beer.

Now, almost two weeks later, Tet is over. The traffic is back to its usual suffocating pace, and just about all the stores have re-opened. The Vietnamese equivalent to fruit cake, a thick, sticky block of rice wrapped in leaves, has all been trashed or eaten, and the last notes of the most annoying new year song are, thankfully, fading out. My barber has finally unlocked his shop, and the children are back in their school uniforms.

I’ve really enjoyed experiencing the Tet season. Seeing traditions that precede western influence has been a great reminder that the United States and western culture is not the center of the universe. If your new year began on January 1 and the first month was a wash, consider this your opportunity to reestablish your resolutions. Have you ever celebrated another culture’s special day? (Cinco de Mayo does not count!)

8 Comments leave one →
  1. February 14, 2011 20:50

    That is all spectacular!
    Same thing in Korea, I hear. Should be ballin’.

    • February 17, 2011 02:33

      It’s really fun to experience someone else’s excitement. We already know what thrills us, but seeing what thrills others is enlightening and often amusing 🙂 I look forward to hearing about your first Lunar New Year celebration!

  2. Grandpa permalink
    February 14, 2011 22:43

    I’m glad to be on your automatic email distribution list. I’m learning so much about your new world. You have a knack for writing and making it interesting. Did you land that writing job?

    • February 17, 2011 02:35

      I’m honored to have a comment from you, Grandpa. I hope the direct email is easier for you. I think I might know who I picked up my knack for writing from. I got the internship and will email you soon with more details.

  3. Charity permalink
    February 20, 2011 19:03

    Gorgeous picture of the city!!!! Love it!

    I got to hang out with Erika’s friends from India last night… so interesting that many of them have 2 birthdays: their actual and one that is made up by their parents in order for them to go to school at a certain time… that’s the one they in fact celebrate or go by.

    I look forward to experiencing these cultures! xoxo

    • February 20, 2011 19:15

      Some of the girls here were talking about their ages changing at Tet and trying to convince me that I was actually 31 now! That’s where I have to draw the line on going with local tradition. I refuse to age 2 years in 2 weeks 🙂 It is funny though how you can have a birthday in November but not get a year older until Feb…

      • Charity permalink
        March 6, 2011 21:24

        I completely agree that you should refuse that tradition. 😉


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