In honour of Tet, Dana Filek-Gibson invites you to incorporate a handful of Vietnamese traditions into your Lunar New Year celebration
As an honourary Vietnamese person, I pride myself on being vaguely educated when it comes to local culture. Mostly, this means I eat a lot of food. I’ve also learned the proper names and ingredients of local dishes, and I know how to say ‘I hope you die’ in chopsticks (not recommended). But when it comes to actual etiquette on most things outside of eating utensils, I am less savvy than I care to admit. My knowledge of Tet, for instance, is laughable. This is not for lack of trying. I have asked Vietnamese friends for years what happens on this all-important holiday. What do you do? Where do you go? Can you name some common holiday traditions celebrated across the country? The sum total of all the information I’ve received so far: “We stay at home and eat.”
For some expats, this is not a far cry from what we will do during our own week-long Tet vacation. Of course, many of us realise the majority of take-away restaurants will be closed and, faced with the prospect of having to cook for ourselves, choose instead to leave the country. But there remains a portion of the expat community who look forward to experiencing the unusual quiet of Ho Chi Minh City at Tet.
For those of you planning to purchase a week’s worth of instant noodles, drag race down Dien Bien Phu, and watch all six seasons of Lost in one sitting, rejoice: After hours of bullying and interrogation, I have finally convinced someone to elaborate on what it means to “stay at home and eat”. Now you, too, can decode the mysteries of the Lunar New Year and celebrate a proper Vietnamese Tet in the city.
Stay at home
Everyone is familiar with the day when you wake up late, pour fish sauce on your cereal, leave the stove on, forget your helmet, and generally make every mistake you can within a 24-hour period. But on the eve of a new year, when everything assumes a higher meaning, it is imperative that you make every effort to steer clear of disaster. This means avoiding motor vehicles and sharp objects, traffic, the accident-prone, street food, electrical wires, any type of cooking, and basically everything the outside world has to offer. Instead, rest comfortably on your couch, lock the doors, and keep your television tuned on StarWorld, where there is absolutely zero chance of anything exciting happening.
This superstition, by the way, applies to everyone. The entire population of Vietnam will be cooped up somewhere, trying to keep as much good luck inside as possible before the new year truly begins. If anyone knocks on your door on Lunar New Year’s Day, consider the situation carefully: Is this person good luck? Is he likely to do anything stupid in my house? Did he bring food? Unless the individual is a close friend or a Dominoes delivery man, he is not to be trusted and should remain on the front step.
Tet is a time of snack foods and things you don’t have to cook. For many of us, so is every other day of the year, but what makes this occasion particularly special is that, like the Halloweens of your childhood, you are entitled to collect and stockpile these treats wherever space is available. The more food you have, the more prosperous your new year will be, and since nobody wants to go near an open flame on New Year’s Day (see above paragraph), all food must be non-perishable. The resulting array of Tet snacks, from rice cakes to watermelon seeds to all manner of candied fruit, provides a perfect downtime activity for the individual sitting on the couch, actively trying not to ruin the entire year in a single day.
Don’t Clean Up
Each year, hoarders across the country rejoice at the coming Tet holiday, for it is during these precious 24 hours that all of Vietnam deems it socially acceptable to keep your trash in a heap in the corner and call it good luck. Since nobody wants to sweep out lingering positive energy, it can never hurt to pile your new year’s garbage somewhere and save it for a few days, until the rubbish attains the stench of what is indisputably bad fortune. When it finally becomes too much to bear, you’ll feel good about ridding yourself of the unwanted scent and confident in the knowledge that you’ve squeezed every last ounce of good luck out of your discarded belongings.