Eight years ago a dishy stranger crashed my office Tet party, saving me from the drunken and lecherous advances of my boss.
I never expected to see the guy again when the party finally lurched to its awkward close (the boss and some male colleagues adjourned to a very dodgy massage parlour). I certainly never expected to share so many Tet celebrations with the Vietnamese stranger with the odd American accent that faded in and out.
That Tet eight years ago, my first in Vietnam, was one of my most memorable. As was Tet two years ago, when we were in Australia meeting our new baby, born 10 minutes into the year of the horse.
It’s taken many years for me to feel comfortable participating in Darling Man’s family’s Tet celebrations. I finally understand what’s going on … which is not much, just hanging out with the family. I no longer feel like an intruder, or a socially inept white elephant. I’m sure they’re no longer worried I’m going to do something embarrassingly foreign and ruin their good fortune for the year ahead.
My Vietnamese hasn’t improved much since I first met Darling Man’s family. They have kindly accepted my failure in this department, which makes putting me to work anywhere in the house or the restaurant more trouble than its worth. In my favour, I have produced two cute children, who delight their grandparents, uncles and aunts so much that my flaws fade into insignificance.
I’ve finally read enough “how to survive Tet” articles in English — for information from Darling Man has been scant over the years — so that I know I’m not supposed to lose my temper in the first days of the new years. In the lead-up to Tet I’m supposed to clean everything in our home (I washed all the curtains, and dragged the heavy furniture away from the walls to get at the hidden dust), settle any debts and lay in enough food so that no one has to do any work in the first three days of the new year.
Over the past year I have consulted with various Vietnamese people, including my most discreet in-law, about what happens over Tet. Are they muttering in the kitchen about me not helping out? Should I be in there with them, picking up every discarded utensil and washing it? (That’s about all I could manage without some kind of direction.)
The advice is unanimous — if the family want me to help over Tet, they’ll ask. If they don’t ask, I should just sit back and relax.
Darling Man’s parents have put their restaurant up for sale, so Tet 2016 might be the last year the family gathers in the village of Long Thanh to celebrate the lunar new year. If it is, future Tet gatherings will be in Ho Chi Minh City. I’ll miss the annual visit to the beautiful temple across the road from Darling Man’s parents’ restaurant.
This year we went to Ong Ba Noi‘s house on Tet Eve. (Ông Bà Nội is the combined name for paternal grandparents. I call them this, even though technically I’m supposed to call them Ba Mẹ, which is father and mother.)
We had a simple dinner, a selection of vegetarian dishes and some thịt kho trứng, pork and duck eggs stewed in coconut water. The kids and I had an early night, while Darling Man and two of his brothers chatted til after midnight.
The first day of the lunar new year, the year of the monkey, was unseasonably cool. It was fantastique! Various uncles, aunties and cousins chased our kids around while the women ironed and fussed with their hair. Finally we all set off to the temple in a quite pleasant 25 degrees Celcius (77F) instead of the usual steamy 35C (95F).
We stopped at the main temple building to pray. We also stopped multiple times for photos, including an official photo that was printed and laminated within 10 minutes.
We walked through the leafy temple grounds to the restaurant area, where Buddhist nuns served a vegetarian feast of braised jackfruit, noodles, rice, soup and bánh ít (sticky rice stuffed with mung bean paste). The kids focused their attention on the mứt Tết tray, which contained individually-wrapped durian cookies, candy and strips of candied coconut.
They burnt off the sugar overload by chasing each other up and down the grassy hill next to the eating area.
After lunch, we strolled leisurely back to Ông Bà Nội’s place, where the family chatted, napped, and prepared an early dinner, after which Darling Man, Sonny and I headed home to Saigon.
This year I didn’t feel guilty about not helping out. It wasn’t unbearably hot. I didn’t have to chase the kids too much, because they’re both old enough not to fall into the fishpond or trip over the cooking brazier that sits on the ground between the restaurant and the house.
Miss M, our precocious six-year-old, decided she’d stay on at Ông Bà Nội for a few extra days.
She came home at the end of the week with a newfound obsession with cleaning, tidying and helping mummy.
All in all, a very enjoyable Tet!
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5 years ago