Sorry to disappear for so long. You know, sometimes I get a little bored when I travel (especially at night), and I take the opportunity to blog. But when I’m in MY city, MY country, I’m not bored for a second. There are so many things to eat, so many friends and cousins to see again, so much shopping to do… that I let go of my blog.
After Chiang Mai, JB and I went to Hanoi, my hometown, the best of the best of Vietnam, of Asia, finally of the world. This is only my personal opinion because most tourists (and especially JB) don’t agree with me.
Of course, this is my hometown. I’ve seen it transform, I know by heart its boui boui, its corners, the name of the saleswoman of such and such a store, the price of my favorite bún chả, the names of the children of my vegetable saleswoman… Ha Noi is part of me, everywhere I go in Vietnam, you will recognize my accent, my Hanoian intonation, I will know how to explain the delicacy of the recipe of tào phớ from Ha Noi, compared to the disgusting recipe from Ho Chi Minh City (among others), I will know how to tell the difference between two bún chả sold 5m from each other, and to dissertation on the different works that were done in Tháp Rùa, in the middle of the lake of the restored sword.
I am Hanoian, but mostly Vietnamese. And for all Vietnamese, the most important time of the year is the Lunar New Year. The Vietnamese Lunar New Year, Tết, is the equivalent of Christmas in France, where you are really sad if you aren’t with your family.
The Lunar New Year in Ha Noi is even more special. For the climate is unique during this period, with a light rainfall, a cold, characteristic of the Lunar New Year, and the cherry trees just waiting to blossom.
Why did JB and I leave the warm climate of Chiang Mai to suffer from the cold of Hanoi? Simply for the Tết, which I haven’t celebrated with my family for 7 years.
The Vietnamese don’t have many vacations, and the Tết is the perfect opportunity to really rest, to finally get together, with its 7 to 9 days of vacations in a row, every year. Foreigners and tourists avoid this period because they know it is a family vacation and the whole country seems to stop.
Part 1: Travel Diary
Part 2: Practical Tips
Part 1: Travel DiaryWe
arrived 10 days before the new year, the time needed to show JB the crazy atmosphere that is in the city. If at Christmas, you have to get excited to death a few weeks before to buy presents, here, for the Lunar New Year, you have to do a lot more than that.
First of all, we have to prepare a real meal for the dead, which we put on the altar of the ancestors: 5 different fruits, the green sticky rice cake(bánh chưng), a rooster cooked from head to foot (a rooster, not a hen, very important!).
Photo: example of a meal worthy of the Tê’t
Then, it is also necessary to buy and burn paper offerings, false coins… for the ancestors and the “gods” of the house.
You have to buy a fish and set it free. You must also decorate the house with a cherry tree, a fruit tree that looks like clementines.
Photo: JB next to the cherry tree at my parents’ house
It is also necessary to buy food because during the first days of the year, it is difficult to get supplies. It is necessary to do housework because housework is forbidden during the first 3 days of the year…
Those who have to go back home (at the other end of the country), must also think about buying bus/train/plane tickets… whose prices are soaring. Women, especially, have to be beautiful (this is the moment when you have to see your whole family – even far away – and the Vietnamese will not hesitate to ask them why they are uglier than last year) so they have to go to the spa, buy new clothes, dye their hair, redo their eyebrows etc.
Photo: traditional Vietnamese outfits on sale everywhere in Ha Noi before the new year
In short, quite a program!
Fortunately for us, my family isn’t that traditional. So we can skipper the whole cockerel part, offerings, decorations. I only keep the cleaning and the shopping.
New Year’s EveI
spent the whole New Year’s Eve cleaning up. I, who hates cleaning, am as if motivated by tradition. Because I’m used to doing this every New Year’s Eve in Vietnam. A Lunar New Year without housework isn’t a real Lol New Year. Vietnamese people consider that everything in the house during the first 3 days of the (lunar) new year is our chance. So if we empty the trash can, or clean the dust, it’s like giving our chance to someone else. So cleaning on New Year’s Eve is inevitable.
We have dinner with my parents at home. My mother makes us 90 spring rolls and serves us in addition to the typical green sticky new year’s cake !!
We have too much difficulty to finish everything, and bring the rest to our apartment (to survive during the first days of the year). Our New Year’s Eve meal still lacks many things, but as we don’t like the traditional food of the Tet at the base, we can afford to keep only what we like to eat.
In the evening, like all the Vietnamese of the North (because the Vietnamese of the South don’t give a damn), we watch a program which is called Ta’o Quân. It’s a show on TV, featuring the “gods” who are supposed to watch over Vietnam (god of family, society, education etc.) – returning to heaven before Tet to report back to Heaven (the big boss of the universe in a nutshell). It’s very funny, and the actors who take part in it are the best known comedians in the country.
At midnight, either we melt into the mass in front of the lake of the restored sword, filled with visitors, or we go to one of the many places where there are fireworks, to watch it. By chance, there is a fireworks just in front of our apartment, and as we are on the 11th floor, we see everything. It’s raining a little bit, it’s that very fine rain so characteristic that every Hanoian remembers, that rain that accompanies the Head, and that awakens so many memories in this city – so special and so hard to love when you don’t live there.
The first day of the New YearThe
first day of the New Year is the most sacred day, the day on which one dedicates oneself to one’s dearest ones. The first person to walk through the door of the house must bring good luck to the home, so I leave that honor to JB, who leaves the apartment, and then comes back in with his right foot (very important!).
Every year, my parents make the usual rounds: first to my paternal grandmother, then to my father’s brothers and sisters. Then my mother’s brother, then my mother’s super close friends.
In even more traditional families, one can only visit the paternal family on the first day. Therefore, daughters-in-law aren’t allowed to visit their parents, they have to stay with their husband’s family on the 1st day and then go to see their own family on the 2nd day.
During the whole period of the Tet, there is another tradition that can stress a lot of people: mừng tuổi (or lì xì). Those who work (wholesale) must offer money to those who do not work (children and pensioners). The money (only new bills) is given in small red envelopes (bought before).
The amount depends on the relationship between the two people, whether it is my very distant cousin or my sister. But sin is poor, it is OK to give a small symbolic bill (1,000 to 5,000vnd).
If the person is very close (my sister for example), even if she works, it is customary that I give her some money to bring her luck.
It is very badly seen to refuse a red envelope like that. Sometimes we can say that they are disguised gifts. You can give a lot of money to the children to thank their parents indirectly e.g. Children end up with a lot of money at the end of the Tet, but don’t worry, their parents confiscate everything.
You can imagine the amount of new bills circulating during this period! Besides, banks are used to see a lot of people coming to exchange money to get stacks of new bills of 20,000VND or 50,000VND. Now, the rule is less strict, you can even give away old bills.
It also happens that we come across children we don’t really know at an acquaintance’s house (the son of a distant cousin, for example). It is customary to give them something anyway. That is why it is necessary to have small new bills of 10,000 VND or 20,000 VND, which can be distributed like candy, without a red envelope.
In general, in the end, if you have children, the account is neutral because you give a lot, but the children receive almost the same amount in return. On the other hand, for childless couples like us, we give, we give, but we receive nothing. Loool
So, I was telling you, on the first day of the new year, we take a big scooter ride (JB drives superbly in Vietnam) to see our close family. Each time we go somewhere, we are warmly welcomed and people serve us something to eat (tea, jam). As JB does not speak Vietnamese, he gets bored and eats without stopping. After several stages, when we arrive at my mother’s brother’s house for lunch, we are no longer hungry.
At his place on the other hand, everything is done in the traditional way, we have the traditional meal with all the dishes you need to have (green sticky rice cake, Vietnamese sausage, different fruits, bamboo shoot soup etc.). It is thus with a huge belly that we then go to see my godmother, before going to the Lake of the Restored Sword – like everyone else.
In Hanoi, there aren’t so many famous temples as that. The Ngoc Son Temple, which stands on a small islet in the heart of the restored Sword Lake, is one of them. Everybody goes there to wish happiness and luck to his family. Everyone is dressed up, and so are we. JB is particularly handsome in his traditional outfit – modern version.
There are some cafes and restaurants open, but the price is at least double the price. It is very bad to negotiate on the first lunar day, so you ask the price to pay, not to haggle as usual, nor to say “too expensive” and leave.
Because the Vietnamese consider that everything that happens on the first lunar day is an omen for the new year. If the first day is rotten, the rest of the year will be rotten. Moreover, if you have the “misfortune” to be the first customer of this salesman and not to buy his merchandise, woe betide you! So on that day, you must avoid saying stupid things, doing stupid things, or offending someone.
Tourists who behave badly risk two slaps and an expulsion from the territory (noooo I’m kidding but I think no less).
It is only on the first lunar day that I find my hometown as I knew it about thirty years ago. There is very little traffic, everyone is smiling, joyful and happy, everyone gets dressed up and goes to take a picture with the family in front of the lake. We are far from the polluted and noisy city it has become.
2nd lunar dayIt
is the day dedicated to the maternal family, but as we saw everyone the day before, we just empty the fridge while waiting for our favorite restaurants to open.
We could have gone to pagodas and temples like other Vietnamese but we prefer to let my parents do it for us. During this time and for several days afterwards, my parents also receive people in their homes. They call ahead, or show up in front of the house without an appointment. You never know who is actually coming to visit us.
3rd lunar dayThis
is the day dedicated to teachers. I really want to see my former piano teacher, who is already 86 years old. I find his apartment without any problem, where I went every week for 4 years. He is very surprised and happy to see me, to see us. It’s the first time JB meets him, but he also perceives how sincere the feelings are after so many years.
That’s also why I love Ha Noi, because nowhere else can I see such friendly faces, relive my childhood, see again those little streets where I spent almost all my snacks, sitting on these 10cm chairs, gossiping with my girlfriends.
Besides, I still meet my girlfriends, and nothing pleases us more than to find our favorite places to taste, which resist time and public facilities (frequent and not always necessary), to gossip and talk about our common memories.
JB, on the other hand, no longer supports Ha Noi. He finds the city noisy, polluted, and the closure of his favorite restaurants during the 7 days off of the Tê’t (10 for some) irritates him even more – because Ha Noi without its gastronomy is a piece of shit. Moreover, the restaurants open during this period take advantage of this to inflate prices by 2 or 3. And after Le Tê’t, everyone raises their prices to “keep up with inflation”.
Lên ₫ồng or ShamanismOn the
8th day of the Lunar New Year, my mother is invited to a session of shamanism, named Lên ₫ồng, a religious heritage belonging to the cult of the Holy Mother. This cult has several names, and the branch to which this shaman belongs is mainly made up of extremely wealthy merchants.
This shamanism session has such an important cultural and artistic dimension that I decided to go, even though I know nothing about it.
The shaman built a temple on the seventh floor of her house. About twenty people are already on the spot, all invited personally by the shaman. She is already well dressed and made up, and is helped by two men to wear over her clothes, shoes and costumes of the geniuses who “invest her body”. Basically, during the session which will last 6 or 7 hours, she will enter into a trance and be invested by about twenty geniuses, from the highest to the lowest level. To do this, she must change her costume to reflect the rank of the genius. A special music accompanies her to help her. It is always the same melody, but the lyrics change for each genius.
You have to see it to believe it, because it is impossible for a little woman like her, given the rhythm of the session, the dances and the amount of cigarettes and alcohol she consumes, not to faint. If it were me, I would have exhausted all my energy after an hour and a half. But the session lasts 6 to 7 hours!
It’s really a pleasant show to watch, the music is also very pleasant, the costumes of an unequalled finesse. The shaman also distributes money (only new banknotes without too much value at 1,000VND) by throwing them on the ground, and everyone happily picks them up, the more we pick up, the luckier it brings us.
This is an opportunity to ask the geniuses questions, or to ask for something, for a small fee or offerings. Sometimes the geniuses ask to speak specifically to someone in the audience, to yell at them, or to give them good health or success. The intonation and gesture change according to the personality of the genius. Female geniuses will be warmer, while male geniuses are more strict.
Even for non-believers like me, the session remains very pleasant and the atmosphere warm. At one point, my mother asks me if I have anything to ask the geniuses, and I realize, delighted, that my life is so complete and I’m so good right now that I have absolutely nothing to ask. Whereas a few years ago I would have asked “when will I get a better job” or “please give me more money this year so that I can buy xyz”.
, the Lunar New Year isn’t necessarily the most fun period for everyone… but it remains the most important holiday for all Vietnamese. It is the only occasion of the year when we can stop for a while, look at ourselves, ask ourselves where we are going, what we want… and get out of this spiral so characteristic of the Vietnamese, where we have to succeed, do more, earn more, be more this, more that.
Every year, as Tet approaches, Vietnamese living abroad try as best they can to get a piece of green sticky cake, a few red envelopes… because celebrating the Lunar New Year is keeping in itself what makes us Vietnamese. Even if they aren’t with their family, they like to be able to celebrate it from far away and feel the atmosphere so special every year in Vietnam.
Note: the Lunar New Year is called “Tet” in Vietnamese. Please avoid saying “Chinese New Year” because this holiday is popular in many countries outside of China, and even the Chinese don’t say it.
Part 2: Practical Tips
- Avoid moving around on New Year’s Eve and the first day of the New Year. Not only will the choice be very limited but the price will be exorbitant.
- Some travel agencies offer to place you in a host family during the Tê’t period to experience a real Tê’t with them. Ask for more information!
- Remember to check the lunar calendar if you spend your vacations in Vietnam in January or February because the Tê’t only falls on those two months (and the date changes every year).
- It will be very cold around Tê’t in the North of Vietnam, it’s like this every year. Think of coming with a little comforter. If it rains, you will suffer. 15°C is very cold in the North of Vietnam because of the humidity and the lack of heating (not to mention the poorly insulated windows and doors). It is better to bring some clothes than to suffer.
- Around Le Tê’t, it can even snow in Sapa, so watch the weather forecast!
- The old quarter of Hanoi is the only place where you will find a large choice of restaurants open throughout the Tet period. Prefer the corner near the big cathedral of Ha Noi, very nice, quiet and pretty.
- It’s cool to stay in Ha Noi the first 3 days of the new year. Beyond that, the lack of open restaurants and services + the exorbitant prices might get you drunk, go elsewhere, in more touristic places (Sapa, Ha Long, Hoi An etc.)
- Everything will return to normal from the 10th or even 15th lunar day. Before that, the spirit of the Te’t remains intact, it isn’t uncommon that you are asked for more tips before and after the Te’t, to “bring them luck”. On New Year’s Eve, a parking space for the scooter can cost up to 200,000VND (8€).
- The prices are soaring, and do not necessarily look like the prices on the map, and you are supposed to know this – because all Vietnamese people know this. So don’t hesitate to ask for the price if you have any doubt.
- Again, Vietnamese people don’t like Chinese so don’t talk about “Chinese New Year” or you will be kicked out. It’s as if you are insulting us, use the term “Te’t” or “Lunar New Year” at worst. On the first day, wish everyone a Happy New Year.