“We don’t love Tet for the days off and good food. The whole point of Tet is family getting together and the festive atmosphere that brings people joy” Mrs.Nhung told me when I accompanied her to the market on a chilly spring morning. Tet was drawing near and it was the high time everyone went shopping for the necessary grocery to prepare for the celebration.
After 2 hours spending at the open-air market, we came home and are laden with vegetable of all sorts, fruit, a huge grapefruit that I had to handle with extreme care to keep the stem intact, pork, and a live majestic rooster that Mrs.Nhung had bargained for nearly 30 minutes to reduce the price by one-third. Carrying that much stuff all the way home on foot felt like doing a vigorous workout and I sweated profusely. When I finally got rid of the burden and sit comfortably on the couch catching my breath, Mrs.Nhung walked by and murmured something about our generation having frail health and I was too skinny for an early-twenty young woman. Thuy, my Vietnamese friend, and Mrs.Nhung’s daughter laughed out loud at me and her mother then said she bet Mrs.Nhung was running through her mind about what to cook to help me gain some weight.
Markets while Tet is drawing near (Source: Internet)
I thought that shopping hard for Tet holiday was bad until the real pain happened. Thuy and I had to clean the house inside out to get rid of the evil spirits that still lurking in some corners. Thuy laughed but this time bitterly as she picked up the broom and gave me the lambswool duster. Thuy said cleaning was her least favorite part of this Vietnamese holiday. Another 2 long hours passed by and we finally finished the daunting task. Mrs.Nhung walked by again to check on us and this time with a broom in her hand swept out what looked like a dune of dust from nowhere. Thuy sighed as her mother handed her the broom without a word. We repeated the tiring process until Mrs.Nhung decided that the cleanliness of the house was finally “acceptable”. Thuy leaped with joy and dragged me to her grandparent's house nearby to help them make banh chung as she said it was far more interesting.
How a banh chung is made (Source: Internet)
We sat on a spotlessly clean floor surrounded by huge bowls of sticky rice, mung bean, pork belly and a heap of la dong (Phrynium placentarium leaf). Thuy reached for two square wooden molds to teach me how to make banh chung. She lined the inside of the mold with some la dong then pour in the rice, mung bean, and pork. When it was completely filled up, Thuy wrapped the leaves, fastened the whole thing with some bamboo strings and carefully removed the mold. It looked so easy that I was eager to try myself. After half an hour, my first banh chung was shaped but not in square. Thuy comforted me by saying that she even made a flat banh chung on her first day and mine was at least edible. They made a fire in the backyard and put on a huge pot, banh chung were fitted inside with fresh water. We gathered around the fire listening to folklore on the origin of Tet and some family traditions told by Thuy’s grandfather. The whole family hung out by the fire like that all night long, talking about their daily lives while youngsters playing cards. That was when I finally understood what I was told in the morning, Tet gives people a reason to set aside everything that troubled them and just enjoyed the quality time with their loved ones, no more work, no more stress, just talk and laugh together.
The next morning, Thuy woke me up to hand me the banh chung that I made the day before along with some tiny ones to give the children. It was the day before the New Year Eve and it was the time we cleanse ourselves. The bathtub was filled with coriander water and we took turn immersed in it. By the time I finished bathing, dinner was ready. I had to say that Mrs.Nhung is a real gourmet as I gulped down everything that she put in front of me. Bamboo and pork soup, pickled onions, Vietnamese sausage…not the healthiest but the best dishes I had ever tasted in my life.
Lucky money for children (Source: Internet)
Thuy took out a deck of 10.000 VND notes and put each one in a red envelope. She explained it is the custom in Vietnam that adults give young children a small sum of money called li xi to wish them health and luck. Plates of fruit, banh chung and chicken were put on the family altar as Thuy’s father bowed and paid tribute to the ancestors by lightened some incent sticks.
A plate of fruit on the altar (Source: Internet)
Thuy, her nieces, nephews and I dressed in brand new clothes and headed out to a nearby lake for the firework show. I could feel that this was the moment everyone was waiting for, firework is no strangers to Vietnamese people but the whole point of seeing it is that they could let the sorrow and troubles of the old year go as the firework explodes and light up the sky.
I spent a few more days with Thuy and her family before heading south to explore Hue. Despite all the foul things that I heard about how reserved people in Hanoi are and how they like to scam tourists, I still love them. You just need to get out of the tourist zone to blend in the life of ordinary people to experience for yourself the authenticity of Vietnam.
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