26.01.2011 - 02.02.2011 14 °C
This is our first Tet and I think my memories will also be of the kumquat trees being transported around Hanoi on the back of motorcycles and, the smaller ones, on bicycles. The really huge trees bound for the international hotels and vast public spaces go on trucks but it is, as ever, the motorbike which reigns king of transport here. The branches gently sway and the fruit bob along as the drivers weave their way through the traffic although with a little more caution: looking at the size of some of the trees (and sometimes up to 3 on a bike), there is considerable skill to keep the whole thing upright. Choosing your kumquat tree is as important as getting the right Christmas tree and you can either buy it from sellers on the street or you can go to the market gardens where the trees have been growing since about May last year.
Hanoi is on holiday now for a week. Tomorrow is the first day of Tet, 3rd, and therefore the first day of the year of the Cat here in Vietnam (Rabbit in China).
Tet preparations began 26th January which was Kitchen God Day. Depending on which myth you subscribe to, there are one or three kitchen gods who watch over the household during the year and on this particular day, they return to the Jade Emperor to report on the happenings and to then return with good luck, health and happiness for the family for the year ahead. To help the kitchen gods on their way, it is customary to release live fish into waterways so the gods can ride on their back. I tried to buy a fish to release my own kitchen god but I clearly wasn't going to any of the right places and I did cycle round Hanoi for about 2 hours looking. I was disappointed that people seemed to unceremoniously empty their plastic bag of live fish into West Lake. If they were aware of their actions, they took the plastic bag home with them or found a waste bin (not many in Hanoi); others left them by the lake side or, worse, chucked the bag into the lake after the fish. No wonder we have so many plastic bags now floating around our little lake! It also explains why so many fisherman stand for hours in the shallows of West Lake and frequently pull out enormous catches: last year's Tet fish!
I read Sam Meeking's fantastic book "Under Fishbone Clouds" last year and in this, Sam uses the Kitchen God as the narrator so I was delighted when I realised I did know something about household gods after all.
Hang Ma in the Old Quarter was a Christmas wonderland in December and now is all gold and red with Tet decorations everywhere. It has been pedestrianised for a week to allow easier movement but that didn't stop a funeral procession going down last week with musicians walking at the front, the cortege and bus loads of mourners. What you have to remember here is that "one way", "no entry" and "pedestrianised" doesn't mean YOU have to follow that rule - that's for everyone else, of course so the motorbike chaos continues.
Flowers are a big part of Tet. The Au Co flower market was heaving with people at the weekend: Nick and I managed to cycle through but I went down on Monday to take photos and turned around - I couldn't get my bicycle through the people and jam never mind finding somewhere to park it.
The market gardens down by the river will let you wander around their plots, taking photos, choosing your own blooms and also letting you dig up plants to transplant into your own garden. I took the photos and the rooted plants although the 5 I bought only transpired to be 3 by the time I got home with them sticking out of my backpack!
Being Vietnam, food is an important element of Tet and we have been given some Tet specialities. Banh trung which is a square cake made from sticky rice with ground pork and green bean in the middle, wrapped in what I think are palm leaves or similar (not banana anyway) and then boiled for 10 hours. I'm not a huge meat eater to start with but this is certainly something different if somewhat tricky to eat as it is sticky! But they will last some weeks. The other food is something called "gia" which is a 6" diameter roll of what can only be described clearly as Spam. We saw a programme on VTV on how this is made but it actually tastes OK. Nick is keener on it than me but then he eats meat "properly"!
I was out on the bike the other day and, round the corner from our house, I saw a pig with his nose in a bucket, grunting at a yappy puppy who also wanted some food. There so much building work going on all around Hanoi and it spills out onto the street. The workmen live on site in pretty basic conditions but this is the first time I'd seen a pig on site! He had gone within the week so I think he's now part of someone's sticky rice cake. I did take a video of him and have also posted it on YouTube so I'm pleased he was able to have his 30 seconds of fame first.....
Temples and pagodas are immaculately kept anyway but extra attention given for Tet and kumquat trees and orchids decorate the door ways: the Kim Lien temple near our house is a particularly peaceful complex, recently renovated and looking very lovely today in the sunshine!
The Vietnamese do special occasions so well and seem to always put on performances - usually with singers and dancing. There are stages erected in the main public areas in Hanoi and I saw these children waiting to rehearse near Hoan Kiem lake. At night the lake is lit: the Party HQ as brilliantly lit as the Tortoise Tower!