Reflections and stories on six months of life, culture, food and friendship in Hanoi, Vietnam.

Tuesday, January 24, 2006

The Kitchen God Departs

It's not unusual to see little conflagrations in the street gutters at certain times of the lunar month here in Vietnam. Usually these paper offerings consist of fake (US) money, and occasionally paper replicas of other items your ancestors might need in the afterlife: furniture, motobikes, cars, maybe even a cellphone. Last weekend though it seemed to be getting a little out of hand so I start inquiring what was going on.

It turns out the Kitchen God was about to depart and would be needing a few things for his annual visit to the Jade Emperor. Ideally you want Ong Tao, as he's also known, to be comfortable on his voyage to ensure that he doesn't badmouth you and your family thus sealing your fate for the coming year.

The Tet countdown is on. The 23rd of the lunar month is final date of departure for your home's own personal god of the hearth. He rides a carp to heaven and so you will also see many people releasing small fish in the many lakes and ponds of Hanoi. Like Christmas or Easter, Tet is not just a day, but a whole ritual stretching several weeks. We are down to four days.

The closer we get the more riotous the streets. I rode part way up the dyke road this morning to check out the procession of kumquat trees and fruit blossoms. Pink peach blossoms are traditional in the North, but you can also see the yellow apricot blossoms more common to South Vietnam. These branches, bushes and trees are ubiquitous right now, but the parade of trees reaches it's zenith along the dyke road which leads to the flower market. The whole road becomes a massive outdoor garden store. Each side is lined the entire way with trees, pots, flowers, and branches. Needless to say you won't get anywhere fast on this road right now. From an aerial view the traffic must look like a giant botanical river. It seemed like every second motobike had a kumquat or peach tree strapped to it.

Tomorrow Dat will come over and help me buy my very own peach branch for my living room.

Since I have been invited to the homes a few friends I have also been shopping for gifts for their families. The most appropriate Tet gift is a selection of dried fruit. These are nothing like our bland dried prunes back home. There are a million varieties and are preserved in sugar and often have a chile or ginger zing to them. I'm addicted.

I was also warned to do a little food shopping for the house since everything will be shut down and the unprepared expat can go starving for a couple days. Actually my friends have said that regardless this fate will not befall me. They will take care of me and invite me to their homes for the traditional banh chung.

Stay tuned for more Tet reports!

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Blogger Thuy said...

Very interesting. I didn't know the burning was for the Kitchen God. I remembered buring fancy folded paper clothes and monies. Recently, I've seen paper cars! I've always thought it was for the dead ancestor so they would have better clothes so they could move up in rank or something like that. I will have to ask my mom about that.

11:42 PM

Blogger HanoiMark said...

Hi Thuy,
You are right...the little fires in the gutters are often for ancestors. That's what it's about most of the year when you see it, but the conflagrations you see just before Tet are for the Kitchen God's journey. Same practice, different recipient.

2:16 AM


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