Wednesday, December 26, 2012


I left my homeland for almost 40 years. Every time the Tet holiday comes, sitting inside my house and looking at the snow everywhere, my memory about Tet holiday in my homeland comes back in my mind…Here being overseas or in urban cities we can find many ways that celebrate Tet holiday; like shopping mall, bar & casino, musical Year-End show, flower markets, church and pagodas for buddhists, but still a lot of people prefer going back to their homeland for Tet celebration. We are trying to understand the rationale behind this popular tradition?  It is just like North American’s thinking “I’ll be home for Christmas”.

Every time I hear somebody say about  “I ‘ll be home for Tet”, my heart was filled with a fresh breeze after several days of hibernation in the snow. It is hard to describe that feeling. We are trying to understand the reasons behind that popular statement.

All of us have a homeland for Tet celebration. Tet is the biggest and the most sacred festival.  Tet according to Vietnamese tradition is a family-oriented celebration. It is the mostexciting event to a majority of the Vietnamese because it is time for family members to get together after a year of absence and to light up incense on the altar to honour their ancestors. This is also a time to send greetings to their neighbours, friends and relatives. Tet days are always regarded as an opportunity to enjoy traditional foods such as “banh chung” (sticky rice cake), banh tet, the fragrance of which alone could strongly provoke one’s sense of nostalgia for Tet. It represents a unique trait of the Vietnamese culture.

There is no rule for Tet holiday, neither an obligation to go home for Tet. But when Tet holiday arrives, people everywhere take vacation times to go home. If someone missed that opportunity, he would regret it for the entire year to come. Regretting because they would think they don’t respect their ancestors, or achieve goals set by their parents. For grand-children they will regret not having completed their commitment toward their parents too.  For the elder people they don’t feel comfortable if they don’t see their children come home. When approaching the date of December 27 to 29 of the 12 months of the lunar calendar they start worrying a lot because they think that their children did not have a good year or maybe they are not healthy.

For some of us living overseas, the idea of “go home for Tet holiday” is a great challenge. Because some of us are like poor people living in big cities, the “go home for Tet holiday” becomes a burden; first they have to take care of their young children, looking for someone to take care of them or to drive them to school and to feed them during their vacations, etc….They have to buy gift for everyone because after a long absence they cannot just go home and greet them, the presents are a must. Unless they feel that it is not worth it to see their siblings. They don’t normally have a lot of time. In addition it is a long trip to go home. That is the reason why a lot of oversea Vietnamese stay where they are to celebrate sadly the Tet in the loneliness. We think in those circumstances the parents understand their situation and forgive them. Nowadays most of elderly people stay in the nursing home. During the Tet holidays, no children come to greet and to share with them. It is unacceptable in that case.

The younger people don’t have the same thinking. Younger people prefer having more activities, more pleasure, more friends and more funs. Only the older people have the nostalgia of looking back to their root with old memory. We all have the responsibility to remind the youngers about the Tet holiday because Tet is the occasion to pay their debt, not financial debt but spiritual. Their parents don’t need money or new dresses. They just want to see their children happy all together with the smile in their face. Tet holidays are equivalent to family reunion. It is a kind of spiritual bond to tie all family members together after several days of absence. In the Tet holidays what is needed is just a face-to-face, saying a caring word to parents, exchanging some jokes or sharing some good and bad news during “mac chuoc” game or during the cooking of  traditional rice cake “banh chung” in the back yard. During that time their parents watch carefully how their children dressed to predict the healthiness of their business. Those emotions could only be found in the homeland.

Spring is a first cycle of a year. Everything wakes up after a long cold winter season. The beautiful characteristic of the homeland seems to get back to life. We have seen the sign of life in every corner of streets, the smile in human faces and birds twittering and flocking back to their nest. It is a typical spring scene of my homeland – Soc Trang town.

According to occidental tradition, Christmas is the most solemn day of the year while Asian people celebrate the most popular Chinese Lunar New Year instead, with the formal name is Nguyên-đán. New Year is like Christmas, New Year’s and Valentine’s Day in the West, all wrapped into one angst-ridden celebration. Tết is a very important festival because it provides one of the few breaks in the agricultural year, as it falls between the harvesting of the crops and the sowing of the new crops. Not natural that people love and are always waiting for spring. Spring is the beginning of a year; beautiful moments of nature; reunion of family members while the children living overseas return to their fatherland, with loving families. It is also is the opportunity for  people send each other good wishes to one another and how they are missed after these months apart ... so amazing,  Spring is what everyone is waiting for. On the last day of the year, the trolley car is increasingly crowded, even when the sun does not shine on the roads poured in Soc Trang yet. That early morning scene gives people beautiful unforgettable pictures.

It's the flickering lights of the trolley car together with brittle sound that break the silence of the morning and wake up things that are still asleep. Between the blended quiet with haste when people jack up the trolley car with merchandises, the cage containing poultry, fruit basket in a very small place, on a fragile and heavy vehicle. Those passengers with bandanas on head, walking with sandals, all immerse in the thinking, all still want to prolong sleep.
Looking at the bright yellow apricot flourishing in the spring sky, my heart flutters. Yet that feeling reminds me to look forward to the goodness that is awaiting.

Every Spring in any Vietnamese, recall the apricot tree (Mai), is referred to the traditional New Year, referred to rice cakes, plants indicated artillery colon, fatty meat pickled with onions, red parallel sentences…

Spring in the bad bud,
Seeing apricot flower in old year becomes golden land.
I don’t know if anyone thinks about Apricot flower but every time I see it, it reminds me of those two verses of Cao Ba Quat. I strongly believe that these sayings are as strong as an athlete:
Around ten years looking for treasure
My whole life just enjoys the apricot flowers…

I remember one New Year morning, at my house, people are dressed in clothes neatly, parents sat and waited for the first guest to come to the house, with delicious cup of tea, relaxing stomach, besides the apricot flower vase. Beautiful apricot flower we should watch. At times like that, my heart was really peaceful. In the yard, there was also apricot flower, everywhere. From my grandfather, to my father, the whole family loves the apricot flower, even now down to my generation. Perhaps the feeling is also genetic. In fact, in general, the majority of South Vietnamese adored the apricot flower. It is possible that is it genetic for all Vietnamese too.

People in northern Vietnam chose peach blossom to welcome the spring because these flowers were associated with two gods who guarded people against evil spirit. In the south yellow apricot flowers (Mai) are associated with spring and the Tet holiday. Mai flowers have been used to decorate temples, pagodas and communal houses in southern Vietnam. The legend explaining why this flower appears in the springtime can move us to tears. A young maiden was determined to fight a monstrous goblin that had demolished her village. In order to kill the goblin, the young girl, clad in a yellow dress, had to sacrifice herself. To comfort her family and the other villagers, she returned home every year to celebrate the Tet holidays. After her parents and siblings had passed away, a tree with bright yellow was seen growing in the yard of her house. In honor of this heroic maiden, people planted these trees everywhere.

On the way to Sóc Trăng you will find these trees among the vast rice field, with a few crowds singing happily. You will not be surprise with these popular sceneries because life in the countryside of Vietnam is a serious social life, a clear sense of solidarity, living collectively in harmony, kindness from every individual, every family. Be sure to observe the crowd's expressing that scenery. You will see them emptying canal, scooping fields in preparation for the New Year? After the harvest rush, after the night of threshing, they dry rice, harvest from the rice they planted, they brought part of rice to the plant, part would be sold, the rest would be poured into the barns for provision of the year. This is the moment of enjoying the wealth, they think of the food, drink, although it is not formal but it is still reflected the local character.

Going to my hometown Soc Trang to have the opportunity to enjoy exceptional local products such as golden watermelon of Dai Tam, mud salted fish noodle soups, sausages, sesame cookies, My Xuyen beef in ceramic tile, Pia cake of Vung Thom, etc… Soc Trang People are very proud of their golden watermelon, a famous agricultural products which sometimes an guy from other town would dare to tease a girl by selling watermelon with flirting lyrics:

O girl of Soc Trang,
In Tet I give golden watermelon of  Dai Tam.

If you did not taste the golden watermelon of Dai Tâm, you could not understand about Soc Trăng, because the golden watermelon of Đại Tâm is a long-standing local product, with original, seeds cultivating by implant technique art. Be volunteer in a beautiful day, you'll tell us the golden watermelon of Đại Tâm is the seed of King Hung Vuong. When he brought the local product from the island back to the mainland. His ship stopped in Soc Trang which was the first station by emotions when he looked back home, therefore he gave the watermelon seed to the indigenous of  people of Đại Tâm.

In big cities there are temples and churches for peoples to practice the religion for holidays during spring holidays, but people still prefer going home for Tet holiday. From childhood our parents took us to the pagodas to light up incense and to pay respect to our ancestors in the Lunar New Year. Familiar pagodas in villages became subconscious to our childhood. Therefore people always prefer to go back to their hometown to lit the incense on the altar to remember, to gratify our parents, grandparents and ancestors, to have the opportunity to offer a bowl of rice and a glass of wine to ancestors, to visit the grave of ancestors and also to remember the unforgettable memories with the deceased.
Along with iconic elements of ancient Vietnamese villages such as banyan trees, communal houses and lush river banks, rural markets retain the atmosphere of the olden days. Even today rural markets feel charming and authentic. The most special market of the year takes place on the last day of the lunar year. These Tet markets open longer than normal markets and are characterized by lots of noise and good cheer. People scurry around busy making deals and buying everything that they will need to decorate their homes and feed their families. It feels as if a whole year of hard work is about to be rewarded with a few days of relaxation.

Goods exchanged at the Tet markets are mainly produce, grains and handicrafts made by locals. However the Tet market boasts a great variety of merchandise for daily uses, plus special products for the holidays. Succulent grapefruit are indispensable on the tray of five fruits that people offer to their ancestors. Betel nuts and areca also make a great combination on ancestral altars. In one corner an old lady sits near a plump hen. In another a lovely puppy nuzzles the hand of its young master. Here and there stalls display betel nuts, incense and votive papers.

It is not just the lure of buying and selling, villagers come here to greet their friends, to share funny stories and to enquire about family matters. They come to enjoy a juicy pancake or a grilled corncob. Rural markets allow people to bond with their neighbors.

We can see rarely the places where we can find of lot of warm and charming family love, the neighborhood relationships in Vietnamese villages. It is the emotional and invisible strings but it is strong, holding and urging people to go home every time the Tet holiday arrives, even the spring…

Phucnguyen Dec 2012

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