Coriander & Peach Branches
Dat took me out on Thursday to help me prepare my house for Tet. First the peach blossoms. We rode up to the outdoor Tet Market on Hang Luoc and bargained for a branch. Even though Dat approached the flower lady and I was purposely several steps behind, she was still too clever for her own good and tried to quote him an unbelievably ridiculous 400,000VND. Dat succeeded in charming her and we walked away with my branch for a mere tenth of the initial price. On the way back home Dat pulled up to a woman peddling herbs from the back of her bike: flowering coriander. All set, we returned to my house where we charred the base of the peach branch (stops the sap from escaping) and set it up in a vase in the living room. And this morning I did as instructed and boiled up the coriander and bathed with the fragrant water - a ritual prescription for thorough cleansing. I emerged from my herbal broth ready for a very savoury new year.
Lessons at the Family Altar
I was invited to Tet Eve lunch at my friend Thach's family's home. His father is a scholar of German and is responsible for authoritative Vietnamese translations of Goethe, Heine, ETA Hoffman. The conversation over lunch alternated between three languages, with no one person actually understanding more than two. Thach's father explained Tet traditions and Vietnamese spirituality in German. My understanding was always approximate; I had never heard German words for Vietnamese concepts. He led me upstairs to an incense-filled room with the family altar which he explained to me. He then asked that I also pray there, to the Buddha and the spirits of their ancestors. Lunch was traditional Tet: bamboo shoots, nem, chicken pieces and of course banh chung. I went home with a banana leaf wrapped banh chung in the basket of my moto.
Tet Eve dinner at another friend's family home. We ate almost the same traditional Tet meal. Midnight is a sacred moment for Vietnamese families when the house is sealed and then reopened by a guest specially selected as auspicious, so I made myself scarce at about 10:30. This also made it possible to make my way to meet a friend at Hoan Kiem for the fireworks over the lake at midnight. Once the crowds dispersed a bit we went in search of active pagodas - not hard to find just after Tet midnight in central Hanoi. The most magical was the incense-filled Chua Ba Da near the Cathedral. I returned home at about 1:30 but couldn't fall asleep. The atmosphere outside still felt electric with the sound of firecrackers and drums. Instead I wandered up to my rooftop to look down on the lake behind my house. At the far edge the sound of live drums, flutes and singing emanated from within some kind of complex (a temple or communal house?). At the lakeside several people built a bonfire of paper offerings and the tall orange flames reflected across the lake's surface.
The Pagoda Circuit
The visits begin in earnest after midnight and last for several days (and several months in the case of the holiest pilgrimage site, the Perfume Pagoda). On the first day of Tet I started things off with a visit to Ngoc Son Temple (holy though not actually a pagoda) in the middle of Hoan Kiem Lake. The beautiful square flags were out in full force as they are all over town. Afterwards I rode up to West Lake to one of the holiest sites in Hanoi, Chua Tran Quoc (see pic above). Finally a visit to one of my favourite neighbourhood spots, Chua Lien Phai which is tucked discretely down a rabbit warren alleyway off Bach Mai. Although it's hardly a secret, it's obscure location ensured that I was the only foreigner present. I arrived in the middle of hypnotic chants led by one of the yellow-robed resident monks.
Recently some ludicrous business type suggested in an newspaper column that Vietnam would be wise to abandon its faithful observance of Tet ritual because it's bad for business. Never mind the clueless tourist who gets stuck wandering empty streets. He was more concerned about the heaps of lost opportunity as Vietnam steps out of time - and the stockmarket - for a week. Of course this is just the beauty of it, to watch as a whole society switches back to its native calendar with its spiritual and symbolic markers. There are few things more powerful that seeing the whole world stop, and then gradually begin afresh.