Each household purchases a pair of watermelons. The redder the colour inside, the better luck the household will have in the following year. Traditionally, no food can be cooked over Tet so dried foods and cold food that can keep without refrigeration must be prepared for the huge feasts that occur. For instance, banh chung is made from ordinary foods—sticky rice, yellow mung beans and fatty pork—but its preparation is time-consuming. The rice is first soaked for 24 hours and then the mixture is made, wrapped in banana leaf and steamed for another 24-48 hours (see Chapter 9, Eating Vietnamese Food).
When to Give Presents
Presents are usually taken around to friends’ houses a couple of days prior to Tet. This way, people know what you are giving them and do not have to spend money buying the same items. An alternative is to give the present at the last moment, just prior to Tet, so that it is too late for the other party to reciprocate, and he will not lose face for not giving you a gift in return. Most Vietnamese friends understand that you merely want to help them enjoy their New Year, which is not your New Year, so they need not reciprocate with a present for you. But it can be a good idea to say so directly if you have the opportunity, particularly if you feel your friend may have stretched his finances at this time.
In the month or two prior to Tet, new clothes will be purchased, gifts bought, the kitchen stocked and the whole house cleaned and up¬graded if possible. This is the time when many household items receive a new coat of paint. It is a time to settle all the problems of the past year so that luck and good fortune will be with you in the New Year. People try to forget past sins and start the New Year with no enemies. Debts will be paid off so that they can start on a clean slate. Some flock in from the country to visit relatives. Prices rise and pickpockets and thieves are very active, so this is a good time to avoid shopping in crowded places.
The Vietnamese believe that every kitchen is inhabited by a kitchen god, or tao quan. The gods watch over their respective households throughout the year and, on the 23rd day of the 12th lunar month, go to heaven to report to the Jade Emperor on the merits and failings of the families that they live with. People aid the gods’ journey by making incense and food offerings prior to their departure. A live carp is used as it is believed to be able to transport the kitchen gods to heaven. The gods are not deemed to be infallible, however, and offerings of whisky are given to them so that they will end up in heaven drunk and only remember the good things about the family. On this day, your office staff may go out for lunch together or arrange a dinner to celebrate. Tat Nien is held on the last afternoon before the New Year commences. A sacrifice is held for the ancestors to welcome their souls back to earth for three days to join in the Tet celebrations.
At midnight, Giao Thua starts and everyone must be at home by the ancestral shrine or at a pagoda. At this time, the kitchen gods of the past year are thanked for the care they have provided and the new kitchen gods who will arrive for the coming year are welcomed. While few people still believe in the kitchen gods, the traditions surrounding them are firmly entrenched in their folklore and cel¬ebrated.
During the absence of the kitchen gods and before the arrival of the new ones, the occupants of each house lack the usual protection from evil spirits, so noise is used to scare the bad genies away. Hence, Tet is known as a time of endless noise. Lights are left on inside the house for the same reason. Do not expect to get much sleep over this period. As the clock rolls past midnight and into the beginning of the New Year, the firecrackers start and the deafening noise does not stop! Many of the firecrackers are large and it is easy to see why the 1968 Tet Offensive, when the Viet Cong pushed into what was then Saigon, was so successful. The fireworks of Tet sound just like guns and grenades so the extra sounds were not noticed. Be careful, though, and watch over yourself and your belongings. Hundreds of people are injured every year from burns and dozens lose their lives because of these firecrackers. Some of the fireworks have been known to make small craters in roads, others are carelessly thrown and small ones tossed to make you jump as you walk by. It is a good time to keep yourself and your pets indoors. Because of the economic costs and disruption that the firecrackers cause, the government has decided to ban the private purchase of fireworks for future Tets. Fireworks are made in Vietnam and also smuggled in from China, so how successful the ban is remains to be seen.
SOCIALISING IN VIETNAM 3