Saturday, February 19, 2011
In Vietnam, Tet has come and gone. It’s quite an event in Hanoi, with people leaving the city in droves to visit their hometowns in the countryside. The city actually becomes pretty quiet, and the streets fairly empty, for about two or three days. For those families that remain in Hanoi, much of the Tet holiday is spent cooking, visiting one another, hosting visitors for several days on end, cleaning the house, buying flowers, giving red envelopes stuffed with “lucky money” to children and parents, and largely rushing around. People also rush en masse to various temples around the city, praying for their families and for themselves, for luck, good health, prosperity, success in their work and careers, and happy family lives (both now and in the future).
I was fortunate enough to have been invited to celebrate the holiday with a very warm and generous Hanoian family. Not only did I get to see and take part in their celebrations, but I also got to eat with them and make the requisite visits to different family members' homes to help bring in Vietnam’s Year of the Cat.
This particular family went all out in preparing food for the New Year. One of the most special foods they made was red sticky rice and cooked chicken, which is offered to the family’s ancestors, with prayers and incense, before the family itself can eat either one.
There was a great deal of ceremony at this family’s house, and numerous prayers were offered on Tet Eve, not to mention the burning of spirit offerings on the open-aired rooftop.
As you can see, the family altar was decorated with all kinds of ceremonial foods, flowers, and votive objects. It was quite tastefully done, and beautiful, especially when incense was burned and the family gathered together for their collective prayers.
The family had dinner together after that—I wish I’d taken a photo of the amazing spread—and then, at around 11:30 p.m., we piled into a car and drove about ten minutes to Chua Ha (Ha Pagoda) in Cau Giay district. Chua Ha is one of the oldest and most important places of worship in Hanoi. From what I understand, it was built in the 17th century and is favored by young women seeking happy marriages and lasting love. In fact, out of all the temples and pagodas in Hanoi, Chua Ha is one of the most popular among young people.
Before entering the temple, one must pass numerous vendors selling all kinds of colorful votive offerings. The temple gives away some, too, but you have to be lucky and persistent to receive anything directly.
Some of the more outstanding features one finds at the temple include a 1.5-meter-high bronze bell cast in 1793, a curved temple roof and other distinctive architectural traits, a gorgeous and centuries-old banyan tree before the main building, and a pond that serves as a home to several turtles.
The temple is especially beautiful at night, especially with so many people burning incense and stoking the fires in the outdoor altars where offerings are made and more prayers offered.
By the time we’d finished, it was midnight. We timed the visit perfectly, for as we were returning to the car fireworks opened up for several minutes overhead.
The tradition of giving red envelopes (li-ci) in Vietnam isn’t just for children and older relatives. Dogs feel sad if they’re left out of the festivities, but a squeaky bear makes any dog happy at Tet.
The next morning (or was it two mornings later), I was amazed to come across an open café and made this one my first visit of the New Year. I brought a little Neruda and Vallejo poetry to read on my Kindle, and read for a while over a coffee and complimentary dish of cookies…while on the sidewalk outside, a huge crowd gathered to gamble on cards. What better way to test your luck in the New Year, I guess…