Tet Is Everybody’s Birthday
The main road into Hanoi from the airport runs straight as a seam through the brocade of rice paddies along the Red River. Flying above the paddies as my plane approaches the Vietnamese capital, I see 30-year-old bomb craters, grown over with emerald rice, dimpling the landscape like immense bowls. I feel gently admonished by them, in a way that makes me aware of how complicated my trip to Vietnam for Tet is going to be. Tet Nguyen Ðan (literally, ”Festival of the First Day”), to give it its full name, falls on the first new moon after January 20 each year (the date this year is January 28) and is the country’s New Year celebration. It is the most revered of Vietnamese holidays, but for many Americans of my generation, the name Tet evokes not celebration but the North Vietnamese military offensive of January 31, 1968—which shattered the U.S. government’s confidence in its war effort.
Today is Giao Thu’a, New Year’s Eve, and as my guide, Vũ Ðăng Tuan, and I approach the outskirts of Hanoi, rattling along in the 1969 Comet that is our taxi, we come upon an eerie and beautiful cavalcade of bicycles laden with trees—blossoming peaches, kumquats in full fruit. By the time we reach the edge of the city, the Comet can barely make its way through this forest. Vu tells me the trees are headed to market to be sold for Tet, and that each household will have one to bring good luck in the year ahead.
Reaching the center of Hanoi, I check into my hotel on Ngo Quyen Street, stop briefly in my room, and then walk out into a hullabaloo of holiday activity. In anticipation of the New Year, people paint their houses; barbers cut hair and give shaves in the street; everything must be fresh and new for Tet. Stalls selling brightly colored joss sticks and other temple offerings line the boulevards. Young boys blow homemade horns under red banners draped across the streets, while loudspeakers warn against the use of firecrackers, now banned for safety reasons. Vendors sell banh chu’ng, a Tet necessity—beautiful square cakes of sticky rice filled with pork and mung beans, wrapped neatly in banana leaves, tied with bamboo string, and stacked up on display. Everyone is on foot, bicycle, or motorbike; very few people here can afford cars. There are few stoplights, and traffic seems to move according to unspoken agreement. Hanoi has more than a million inhabitants, but the absence of automobiles makes it feel like a village in another century; I feel as if I am experiencing a long-ago country festival.
At the central Cho’ Hom market, Tran Lien Hoan, who runs a take-out food business from her home and who will prepare one of the three Tet feasts I’ll enjoy here, shops for her holiday food. I trail along behind her, staring in amazement at the wealth of foodstuffs on display—cages of chickens and doves; bamboo trays filled with fresh organ meats and entrails; barrels of live eels; baskets of eggs, wood ear mushrooms, carved vegetables; baskets piled high with oranges, limes, and grapes. Roosters crow amid the din. Children dart here and there as Tran buys a carp-like fish, a pork heart, pork paste, jumbo shrimp, snails, and eels. She points to carrots carved so that they open up like flowers when fried and says, ”It is nice to have a simple thing become so pretty.”
Tran, 42, tells me more about Tet on our way home: ”This is the holiest day of the year for us,” she says. ”It is everyone’s birthday. It is our day of thanksgiving, and a time for renewal. We give gifts to family and friends. We make offerings to our ancestors and ask them for guidance. We don’t want the year to have a bad start, so we make amends to anyone with whom we’ve quarreled.”
At home, as Tran slices the eel, already boned, for grilling, she tells me about bÃ¡nh chung, the sticky rice cakes I’ve seen at the street stalls. ”The cakes are made of sticky rice because the people of Vietnam live on rice,” Tran explains. ”They are filled with pork and mung beans because everything God gave us is in the cake. We boil them for ten hours to preserve them so you can take them with you on a journey.” Tran shows me how to make one, although these days many people buy them. She places bamboo strings on diagonal, horizontal, and vertical lines; the cake will later be inverted and the strings pulled through to slice it. Two banana leaves are placed to form a cross on top of the strings. Next follows a layer of sticky rice, a layer of cooked pork, one of mung beans, another of pork, and a final layer of rice. She deftly ties the bundle, which will be cooked in simmering water, with the bamboo strings. I find myself thinking that banh chu’ng have something in common, improbably enough, with our own fruitcake: They’re frankly not that tasty, but they’re an indelible holiday tradition.
I watch as Tran’s 22-year-old niece, Tru’o’ng Thi Hăng, who is learning cooking from her aunt, hunkers down to grill the shrimp—already marinated for an hour in sweetened fish sauce—over glowing charcoal in a brazier on the balcony. The eels are grilled next. The fish (a variety called qua in Vietnamese), stuffed with ginger, garlic, and cilantro, sends out a hoppy fragrance as it steams in beer; clams, marinated in fish sauce, sugar, and white vinegar, are slowly stir-fried until they absorb the marinade and caramelize.
We sit on the floor to eat, a rattan mat spread in front of us. We are joined by Tran’s husband, Vũ Đinh Thin; her son, Vũ Tuan Anh; and Tran’s best friend, Nguyen Kim Oanh, and her family. We lift our glasses of burgundy-colored rice wine, and nod our heads in courtly bows. I feel that we are all searching for ways to amplify our similarities, and in the growing sense of good will occasioned by the feast, the elder Vũ remarks, ”You know, Ho Chi Minh used your Declaration of Independence as the basis for ours. We love freedom like you do. We are very much alike, our two peoples. The war was only an interlude for our countries.”
My friend Desaix Anderson, former charge d’affaires at the U.S. consulate in Hanoi, has introduced me to his friend Ðinh Minh Chau, who works at the American embassy. In turn, Ðinh, 45, has invited me home for lunch on Tet itself. First, she and I head for a village near Hanoi that specializes in growing flowers for Tet. Ðinh buys a kumquat tree along the way, then an enormous bouquet of larkspur at the village. ”In Vietnam,” she says, ”we only buy flowers on special days. For us, they symbolize prosperity, happiness, and longevity.”
At the food market back in Hanoi, Ðinh picks up a fish, assesses it, and decides that it will do. ”Fish in Vietnam means happiness under the water,” she tells me. ”You have to look for it. Happiness does not just appear. So we like to have fish on festival days to remind us to look for happiness.” We gather other ingredients, each of which seems to have a myth or legend attached to it, and then Ðinh says, ”Come, we will cook.” In her kitchen, Ðinh’s mother-in-law, Chu Thi Lan, calmly moves from one task to another, setting the table with little American and Vietnamese flags, stirring a pork rind soup with chopsticks, preparing the family altar. Ðinh makes her delicate spring rolls, another traditional Tet food. I am struck by the simplicity with which everything is prepared. The fish is steamed, heated in oil, and served in a tomato sauce that is nothing more than tomatoes and dill. For a meat pate, ground pork is mixed with shallots and cellophane noodles, boiled for 20 minutes, then served with mint, cilantro, and chopped roasted peanuts. An intensely flavorful soup is made of mushrooms stuffed with pork, cloud ear mushrooms, shallots, and cilantro, poached in a seasoned, ginger-flavored chicken stock.
Platters are placed on the table and rice is passed to everyone. Bowls of nu’o’c cham, a dipping sauce for the spring rolls, are nearby. Ðinh’s husband, Pham Trong Ðat, tells me of the American veterans he meets in his work as a translator, and the healing that their trips back to Vietnam seem to bring them. Behind us, two cats doze on folding chairs. The lazy animals, the steam from the kitchen, and the narcotic ballet of cooking have eased us past the shyness of new acquaintances into the intimacy of shared tasks. We eat and talk, wishing that the meal would never end.
If Ðinh’s banquet satisfies my earthly appetite, then the meal I have the night of Tet is a spiritual feast. Knowing that I’m leaving the next morning, Vu Ðang Tuan, my guide, invites me into his home to share his family’s own modest holiday meal. It is here that I find the rough balance that brought me to Vietnam for Tet in the first place. In the modest, one-room house, where three generations live, the meal is spread out on the floor. There is banh chu’ng, a pork pie, rice, the traditional boiled chicken, and bowls of pale mung bean soup—a sweet dessert delicacy. Vũ’s mother, Nguyen Thi Mai, and wife, Vũ Thi Ha, share cooking duties in the outbuilding that serves as the kitchen, while his father, Vũ Ðinh Phuc, places the food closer to me. I can’t help wondering if he fought in the war, as I have wondered upon seeing other men of my generation in Hanoi—but I don’t ask him. We communicate through his son, in simple phrases, and I am impressed by his graciousness. We speak of a time three decades ago. He points to the rough stone walls. ”The roof was bombed away during the war, but the walls stood,” he says. Once foes, we now eat as friends.