January - February 2007
My 15th Tet (Lunar New Year) Celebration...
As a long term expat in Vietnam, I am now celebrating my 15th Lunar New Year, known locally as "Tet", which most Americans back home unfortunately think is a place rather than a time.
For those of you new to Vietnam, Tet is the Lunar New Year. Its the biggest holiday of the year and a perfect excuse to get blind drunk, eat until you explode, visit family and, depending on your age, either receive or give little red envelopes of lucky money (Li Si). Imagine rolling Western New Year, Thanksgiving, Christmas and your favourite uncle’s birthday all into one holiday celebration.
However, there are some similarities. For example, whereas Christmas has the dreaded fruitcake, Vietnam has banh chung.
I know I shouldn’t get started on this, but my personal theory is that there is only ONE Christmas fruitcake and it circles the globe constantly. Banh chung, on the other hand, are plentiful and...wait, let me get my glasses on...they are " a major part of Vietnamese culture and tradition and are well loved by all Vietnamese people and visitors. Everyone should enjoy Banh Chung during Tet."
I have to include the above disclaimer because my wife takes great issue with me on this subject after I once mentioned that a good banh chung has approximately the same atomic weight and density as a small planet and dropping one can set off seismographs worldwide. If the Three Little Pigs had made their house out of blocks of banh chung instead of straw and sticks, the Big Bad Wolf wouldn’t have gained entry even with a nuclear warhead.
Banh Chung is made of glutinous rice…the operative here word is "glue". I made the mistake of eating an entire banh chung all by myself back in 1992 and I didn’t go to the bathroom for three years, so I look at banh chung like an experienced dog looks at peanut butter. You will not catch me making the same mistake twice.
Don’t let me put you off banh chung. Try some, enjoy yourself, but exercise moderation...trust me on this.
During Tet, most business grind to a screeching halt. You can practically forget getting anything done during a few days before and after the holiday as staff are either running about doing personal errands and shopping in preparation for the holiday, or recovering afterwards from the shock of spending a week with the family, drinking enough alcohol to float a medium-sized battleship and, of course, digesting banh chung.
Now, what is there for a poor Westerner to do during this time? Well, apart from the mandatory visits to family, friends and VIPs, you can do what smart expats do...
Play lots of golf!
In the old days, golf courses in Vietnam were pretty much deserted during Tet as most of the Asian expats made the trek home. However, in recent years, more and more Asians have been celebrating the New Year here, probably because Vietnam has truly become a comfortable second home to many.
Therefore, it would be prudent to book your tee time and your favourite caddie in advance, because as many caddies seem to suffer an unexpected bout with the flu at this time of year which requires them to visit their families and endure the traditional cure of alcohol, banh chung and waving red envelopes over their heads.
Some foreigners try to escape to other lands during this time, but if you hate loud noises, I would advise you avoid China as they like to celebrate in the old fashioned way...blowing stuff up.
Westerners need to remember that gunpowder was invented by the Chinese and they like to remind everyone of this fact by setting off an amazing display of sky rockets which will thrill people of all ages and probably set fire to neighboring houses..
They also like to set off 10-metre tapers of firecrackers which will shell shock almost anyone. These are not the little puny Black Cat firecrackers found in the West. Nope, these suckers will blow your fingers clean off which is why the Vietnam Government outlawed them in 1994 and, thus, earned the eternal gratitude from all the doctors, parents, dogs and yours truly.
Naturally, kids were more than a little pissed about it and some enterprising people started selling audio tapes of firecracker explosions to be played loudly through boom boxes. This is still preferable to smoke, paper litter and missing fingers.
So, get ready for a good time, book your tee times in advance and try to keep things in moderation.
I wish all of you a happy and prosperous New Year.
Chuc Mung Nam Moi!