The Year of the Cat: ‘Silvester’ in Vietnam

Like Thanksgiving, Christmas, birthdays and New Year’s all in one, the midwinter Feast of Tet is a celebration of family and a nation

On The Town | Candy Fresacher | March 2011

By rights, this should have been the Year of the Rabbit – that’s what the zodiac calendar says in China, anyway. But in Vietnam, it’s the Year of the Cat.

"We didn’t have enough rabbits," a guide tells us. "But anyway, the characteristics are the same…"

This is the Feast of Tet, the New Year in Vietnam, their biggest holiday, like Thanksgiving, Christmas, birthdays and New Years all in one, when everyone has several days off work or school, and families put everything aside to spend time together. Like the Austrian Feast of the Three Kings on Jan. 6, the young Vietnamese dress up – like dragons, not Wise Men – and go from house to house with New Year’s greetings.

It is the week before the first lunar day of the new year – Feb. 3 this year – the streets of Ha Noi are ablaze with red and gold, streamers, cards, flowers and folded paper ornaments. Kumquat trees, bonsais, orchids and peach and apricot trees are all being sold and packed up onto the backs of motorcycles to be taken home and set up alongside the family altar.

"The most expensive of the trees to buy at New Year’s is the bonsai," explained Minh, our guide in Ha Noi. "But the most popular is the kumquat." The kumquat, with it’s many little orange balls of fruit, in fact reminded us of a western Christmas tree, standing at the center of the home or business, hung with bright balloons and the red good-luck envelopes of money, or other fanciful paper decorations in fire red and gold.

Minh had spent two years in East Germany learning mechanical engineering during the "Wende" in a exchange program between the Communist countries, so spoke German well.  When he returned to Ha Noi, the country did not really have use for his talents, so he turned to tourism. Our other guides with Vidotours had similar stories, and were encouraged to tell us about Vietnam with an inside perspective...

In the week before the event, Chien tells us, the Kitchen God reports to the Jade Emperor on the status of the family, so the house and the motorcycle or car are polished to a high shine, and everyone wants to look his best. So the streets are full of people washing cars, and sweeping up, and the hairdressers are at their busiest. People buy new clothes and shoes to wear them on the first day of the New Year, and children receive money in red envelopes from the first person they see. Giving money to others brings good luck in Viet Nam, and everyone is aware of the first one who enters the house in the New Year – an honored and respected person can mean a good beginning. Then the Kitchen God returns and is welcomed, in the hopes that he has given a good report and the ancestors will be happy.

Everywhere, in every home, is an altar to the ancestors: "We put five types of fruits there, mounted in a pyramid," Chien adds. One is called the Buddha’s Hand, which looks almost human and cannot be eaten. The fruits are chosen to represent sounds close to the words for wealth.  Sometimes the altars are also filled with containers of beer, cookies, cakes, flowers, candles and baskets of food. Streets are decorated with flowers or lanterns, and young couples can be seen strolling up and down waiting for midnight, when the skies will be a blaze with fireworks.  Red and gold signs proclaim Happy New Year, along with party slogans and the flag of Vietnam, red with a gold star, in front of almost every house – "It is required by law," we are told again.

Part of the celebration are the offerings to the gods, burning paper icons on the street inside a pressed tin lantern – pretend money, folded paper birds or animals, a flower or painted symbols for luck or happiness. The Ha Noi streets are filled with vendors selling these products – a "hot item" is the U.S. $100 bill.

Temples and pagodas are full on New Year’s Day, the time to pay respect to the ancestors.  Everyone dresses in their best and lights sticks of incense, sitting together recalling the great grandparents and others who are no longer with them.

The last day of the year is brought to a close, and the new year celebrated with a massive firework show. In Huế, the ancient capital of Vietnam the fireworks explode over the Vietnam flag across the Perfumed River and over the old city. Chien explained that individual families were no longer allowed to have their own fireworks as they were too dangerous, but here the show was for everyone, and the crowd loved it.

It takes over a week, but finally the celebrations come to an end and decorations are taken down, and down too, come the spirits. Suddenly bunches of chrysanthemums and kumquat trees lie along the sides of the road, thrown out and disregarded.  The red and gold that has brightened up the cityscape slowly disappear as the Vietnamese get ready to go back to work.  As one of the fastest growing economies of the world, they get on their motorcycles, honk their horns and try to be first to work at 7 in the morning…

Next year’s celebration is only a year away, and there is much to be done before it arrives.

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