Riding A Goldfish For New Year
Today, the 23rd day of the 12th month of the lunar calendar, the kitchen god rides a goldfish to heaven to report on the household happenings of the past year.
Or so the Vietnamese folk tale goes.
It takes a week for Ông Táo, the kitchen god, to travel to heaven, file his findings, then return to his kitchen.
To ensure a good report, families pile Ông Táo’s altar, which most kitchens used to have, with fruit and candy. People also release carp into the nearest river, to help the kitchen god get to heaven quickly, and in a good mood.
In Vietnam, this final week before Tet, the lunar new year, is a frenzy of cleaning, painting, renovating, repairing, cooking, shopping, partying and hamper-giving.
As Tet approaches, Vietnam seems to get noiser and more crowded. Even the quietest back street echoes with the shriek of power tools, the harsh fizz of arc welding and a louder-than-usual roar of traffic.
The roads are crammed as housewives on motorbikes fight for space with hamper delivery guys, people zooming off to year-end office parties and wobbling home again, workmen rushing materials to Tet renovation projects and families going to reunion dinners.
The supermarkets are insanely crowded as everyone tries to stock up on essentials for the week-long Tet holiday – dried food, tea, Chinese sausages, new clothes.
As you can imagine, tempers begin to fray. Which results in more honking and longer traffic jams, as cranky Vietnamese refuse to give way at jammed-up intersections.
The lead-up to Tet is also, unfortunately, the “season” of crime in Vietnam, as the poor, under intense social pressure to prepare for Tet, take advantage of any absentmindedness of the better-off, who are overwhelmed with their shopping, cleaning, renovating, hair appointments and socialising. Motorbikes vanish, purses are snatched, mobile phones go missing and homes are broken into. A moment of distraction can be costly.
At Tet, children are given lì xì, red enveolopes containing cash, known as lucky money. When employees return to work after the Tet holiday, they usually also get a small amount of lì xì. Lucky money should be crisp new notes to herald in the crisp new lunar new year.
Tet hampers, usually given by businesses to clients, can include whiskey, Danish butter cookies (don’t ask me why), crackers and what the Vietnamese translate into English as “jam”, which is actually dried fruit.
Special Tet food is prepared, including a glutinous rice and meat roll called bánh tét in the south and bánh chưng in the north. As much as Vietnamese people rave about bánh tét, I really don’t like it. But the object of the hampers and the furious pre-Tet cooking and shopping is to give everyone, even the ever-dedicated and hardworking housewives, a break, so they can start the new year feeling relaxed, carefree and, above all, lucky.
No cleaning is undertaken on the first day of Tet. (You don’t want to sweep away your good luck!) Traditionally, no one cooks either. After all that cleaning, everyone needs a rest.
On the first day of the lunar new year, Vietnamese families spend time together, visiting their local temple and receiving guests. The first visitor to cross the threshold should bring good luck. Some Vietnamese believe foreigners bring good luck, some believe they don’t. So foreigners living in Vietnam should not visit anyone on the first two or three days of Tet unless specifically invited.
Most of Vietnam’s Tet traditions, and the story of the kitchen god, come from China, which ruled Vietnam for around 1,000 years until being booted out and relegated to big-bully-neighbour status.
We are outside China’s historic sphere of influence, here in northern Thailand, but we, too, are preparing for Tet. We’re going “home” to Vietnam for the traditional Tet family gathering at Darling Man’s parents’ house.
On Friday, we’ll board an overnight train bound for Bangkok. We’ll fly from Bangkok to Ho Chi Minh City, then make our way to Darling Man’s family home.
It’s going to be a bit of an adventure, taking a toddler on an overnight train, then entertaining her during the eight hours between the arrival of the train and the departure of our flight. But we need to scrimp at the moment, and this way we save a couple of hundred dollars on our flights.
Our Tet preparations have included some shopping – gifts for the family and some new clothes. You are supposed to start the new year looking your best, in brand-spanking-new clothes. Darling Man says long sleeves and long pants are required. After ripping my favourite long pants, I don’t actually have anything suitable.
Darling Man has approved one of my outfits as “OK for the second day of Tet”. But I haven’t yet found something to wear on the super-important first day.
So, as our kitchen god gads about on his goldfish this week, I will be busy shopping for long sleeved shirts and last-minute gifts and trying to remember my craptaculous Vietnamese. Because next week is Darling Man’s “Christmas”, his family time, which means it’s also Miss M and my family time.
We had a quiet Christmas and new year here in northern Thailand, still grieving I suppose. But I’m looking forward to ushering in the lunar new year in Vietnam and joining in the Tet celebrations.
A very big, crisp and new chúc mừng năm mới (happy new year) from our little family here in Chiang Mai to yours, where ever in the world you are!
492 days ago