Vietnam and Vietnamese Culture

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Staying in Vietnam for Tet

By Nancy Jessup

An adoptive mother enjoys the Tet celebrations in Hanoi, Vietnam.

Phoebe Jessup Tet fireworks in Vietnam Nancy Jessup's letters back to the U.S. describe her first Tet holiday, in Vietnam.

Parents adopting from Vietnam usually return home before the government offices close down for Tet. However, Nancy remained for the Vietnamese New Year in Hanoi to complete her documentation.

February 5th

It looks like I will end up being in Vietnam for longer than I had thought. They are trying to schedule my Giving and Receiving ceremony for Monday, but there is no guarantee that the officials will cooperate. The other families are all going to be leaving Monday or Tuesday. I will probably end up being here for Tet. Everything shuts down for the week between the 15th and the 22nd, including the American Embassy. I called Kristin last night, the person who originally was going to come with me but couldn't because of the timing, and she is going to come after all. I am actually looking forward to being here for Tet and to seeing more of Vietnam than the inside of a hospital room!

This process has confirmed for me the importance of being able to let go and trust that all will unfold as it should. It helps to be in a country where that is a common mode of functioning. Impatience and frustration get you nowhere. So I just go with the flow.

February 11th

I am excited about being here for Tet, and glad that I'll have a friend here with me. I have been learning more about it and thinking that it is a tradition that I may want to carry on with Phoebe. It's like Christmas, Easter, New Years and Thanksgiving all rolled in together. It's a time of connection, renewal, forgiveness and peacemaking.

Some things close down for the whole week as everyone goes to be with their families. I discovered why so many people are carrying orange trees on the backs of their bikes and motorbikes: they are Tet trees, equivalent to Christmas trees!

Last night's Tet celebrations were momentous. This morning the streets are very quiet in contrast. Kristin and I walked around the lake in the afternoon yesterday and watched all the preparations. Huge red balloons lined the bridge to the pagoda and were anchored in bunches across the lake. Kristin noticed that each one had a little light bulb and battery attached to it. There was an area that was cordoned off by ropes where the firework preparations were taking place. It was guarded by squatting police with batons. We also saw men on rooftops across the street.

We woke ourselves at midnight in time to step out on the balcony and watch the fireworks. They were going off all over the city. The hotel is a couple of blocks from the Hoan Kiem Lake, but we could hear great crowds of murmuring people. Then, when it seemed that the grand finale was going off, we saw bunches of little lights floating into the sky, like the Milky Way on the move, it was all those balloons with the little light bulbs attached. It was very sweet if you didn't think too long about the ecological and safety implications. Every once in a while we'd see a light falling very fast towards the earth. I wouldn't want to be under one of those batteries when it fell out of the sky! This morning Mrs. Thuy (the proprietor of the hotel) knocked on the door of our room and presented us each with a little gift. She also told us that all our meals today would be free. I don't think she was planning to have hotel guests over the holiday, but she certainly is a gracious hostess.

Well, Phoebe is awake and Kristin has taken her for the time being. I think it may be time to head back to the hotel and the next bottle. This afternoon we're going to one of Hanoi's nicer parks (Lenin Park) to partake in the festivities and see the Dragon dances.

February 13th

Van (a woman who works at the hotel who has become a friend) took me to the Tet flower market this morning. It was crowded with people and plants. I discovered that what I thought were orange trees are actually kumquat trees. Those and peach trees loaded with pink blossoms are the traditional Tet decorations.

February 18th

Hello all! Happy New Year and Good Luck!

Today is the third official day of Tet, though the holiday spills over on both sides of official. There are certain things one does on each day of Tet, a lot of it has to do with visiting and who you visit. Tet has a lot to do with connections and reconnecting. It is first and foremost a family holiday, and families reunite from all over the world for Tet. It is also a time to celebrate connections with the natural world and its cycles; a time of rebirth. It signals the first day of spring in Vietnam. It is also a time of thanksgiving and time to connect with the spirit world and one's ancestors, time to celebrate what it means to be Vietnamese. It is also a time to set aside quarrels and ill feelings.

There is a belief in the importance of firsts. There is significance in the first animal you hear on Tet (we heard chickens, not sure what that signifies) and the first visitor who comes to your house (the "first footer"). They say that people may invite a guest who they consider particularly auspicious and lock their doors to chance visitors who might bring bad luck!

On the first day of Tet, EVERYTHING was closed. My suspicion is that the Claudia (my seven foot wide hotel) would have been closed if I hadn't been stuck here! (An aside: I don't know if I've described the hotel. It's seven feet wide and about 120 feet long. Apparently, here in the Old Quarter, people used to be taxed by how much street frontage they took up. I can stand in the hotel room with my arms outstretched and almost reach both walls. But the room is long. When Kristin arrived, we moved into a double room, with the beds end to end. Phoebe had been sleeping with me in my double bed, but there is no room in the single, so Mrs. Thuy provided me with a dog bed for her!) As I was saying, everything was closed the first day of Tet, including restaurants. All along the sidewalks temporary little food stalls, called "dust restaurants", were set up. There are little wooden tables laden with plates heaped with snails and chopped greens and there are little plastic stools that one (not me) would sit on to eat their Tet meals.

Yesterday, more was open and today the bigger shops began to open, though a lot is still closed (the American Embassy is closed this whole week!) Kristin and I did a little shopping today and were the "first footers" in several shops. I had the sense that the shop keepers used this as leverage to get us to buy. "Oh, it's New Year! You are my first customers! For good luck you must buy something!" One shop was one that I had bought something in last week. They recognized me and told me that since I was a "regular" they would give me a special deal! Of course it all worked. And then they gave us little Tet gifts. Things are so inexpensive and so beautiful and I want to have things for Phoebe from her homeland.

© Nancy Jessup


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