My answer could have been "which Mrs Trang?", but actually no Mrs Trang had called me in a while - so instead I asked what about. "Tomorrow I will come and we will cook together and the TV will come and film (ah, that Mrs Trang) and they will interview you and we will have a party after". This was at 3 o'clock in the afternoon (They are not big on forward planning here) and this was the first I'd heard about it.
I had just wandered out and offered to help with the lap xuong - smoked sausage for Tet which had been being made in our front yard for the last couple of weeks. (I had wondered what the fireplace with chimney by the front door was for). This is a spicy sausage which is fried up and thinly sliced and served as a delicious speciality for Tet. Mrs Huyen, our landlady, makes and sells it each year in the lead up to Tet. I had already helped with making it a couple of times - as some of you will have seen on Facebook. People all over town are engaging in fund-raising activities to buy all the necessities for Tet. They make lap xuong, sugared ginger, carrot or coconut ... families even buy a pig, slaughter and butcher it and sell it out the front. This is sought-after as many people are making lap xuong and chan gio nhoi bong (a brawn-like specialty steamed then eaten cold) right now.
To get back to the conversation. It had escaped our attention that the next day was Tet Tao Quan or Kitchen God Day - 23 Dec in the lunar calendar. This is the day when the three gods - of the kitchen, house/land and market travel up to the heavens to give their annual report and pray for the next year's prosperity. (The story behind the tradition about how the gods came into being is interesting but a bit long to go into here). On this day a send-off for the gods is prepared. A feast is cooked, the family altar is decorated with flowers and fruit and three paper caps for the gods to wear. The caps and paper money are burnt after prayers have been offered. Three live golden carp are also placed in a bowl of water and released into a river or pond after the ceremonial worship is completed. The carp will transport the gods up to the heavens.
I had noticed a lot of flowers being sold at the market earlier, and people carrying the paper hats. and had been confused as flowers and paper replicas of household goods are sold for the traditional prayers to the ancestors on the first and fifteenth of the lunar month but not usually the 23rd. Anyway it was all explained plus the fact that the local TV would come and film us taking part and interview us about our experience of Tet and living in Tuyen Quang etc.
Mrs Trang and the cameraman (along with a few friends from the university) duly arrived and filming began - cooking, chatting, eating, helping make lap xuong, burning the offerings (and paper carp for us, not live ones). We were briefly interviewed about our second Tet in Tuyen Quang and how we found living here - and I was asked about my thoughts on Vietnamese food. Then we all sat around and ate the results of our efforts.
We've celebrated our own end-of-year festivities, if not exactly in style then certainly with happy enthusiasm.
On Christmas Eve we were visited by a group of teachers and their kids and celebrated with a party. People had been curious about what we did over Christmas so we organised a get-together. Couldn't think of "traditional" food to have so I made some star shaped cookies in the frying pan (using a cutter from a plasticine set, the only star shape I could find) and Owen studiously cut watermelon slices into Christmas tree shapes. We also rigged up the TV to play carols using the wifi. We'd found a few decorations, put up a tree and got in some goodies - but of course everybody brought more. We sang a few carols, but the kids were more interested in singing their own songs - which they did in turn. I don't know that it was a "traditional" Christmas Eve but a fun time was had nonetheless.
Christmas Day we had a real western breakfast including bacon, baguettes and bubbly we'd bought on our last visit to Hanoi. For lunch we had turkey drumsticks (another Hanoi purchase) and potatoes "pan roasted", veggies, gravy and "strawberry jam cranberry sauce" - the last not a wild success. With the remainder of the bubbly it made a passable Christmas lunch. An improvement on last year's steak and chips at a cafe in town, certainly. It being a normal day here, there was much bustle out front with lap xuong preparation and assorted family and neighbours "helping". We took out a taste of our food, I'm not sure what they thought of it but they were interested as they'd not had turkey before.
New Year was a different matter. We travelled to Quang Ngai to attend a dear friend's wedding on January 1st, so we were there to see in the New Year. (Our New Year). The weather had turned unseasonably wet and cold so when, after dinner with friends, we later walked to the Square, we found it deserted and absolutely nothing happening. Back at the hotel there weren't even celebrations on the TV. We dismissed the idea of buying a bottle of the black garlic wine on sale in the hotel foyer and instead made a cup of tea and ate some of the chocolate gift from the hotel. They'd presented us earlier with a lovely New Year flower arrangement, greeting card and chocolate.
We spent a bittersweet four days in Quang Ngai, enjoying catching up with old friends but also saying our last goodbyes. We won't be visiting again before returning to Australia when our assignment ends.
Next it will be the locals turn to celebrate with Tet just a few days away. Along with the food preparation it is traditional to clean the house top to bottom - sweeping is forbidden during Tet as good fortune may be swept out of the house. The house is decorated with flowers, peach branches or cumquat trees and new clothes are bought.
We wandered around town on the weekend and saw many people out and about - shopping for flowers, plants, lanterns, decorations - dressed up in traditional dress and having photos taken among the colour.
We've enjoyed a bbq in the front yard and lunch at a colleagues house which included catching fish from their farmyard pond. We (unwisely) stocked up on food for the break and friends have started dropping off specialty goodies for us to enjoy. The fridge is pretty full. The weather has warmed up and the sun has even come out. The festivities are here!