Springtime is festival time and this year spring came earlier. The weather was warm and sunny. This was good as Tet was early this year.
Tet feels like a long time ago - and so it was - but I feel I still need to record the celebrations.
The week leading up to Tet was rather busy with cleaning, tidying, stocking up (food for survival until the markets re-opened, goodies for visitors and to take as gifts when visiting). There was also time for a couple of parties.
Tet itself seemed busier for us than last year - I think in the interim people had come to know us better and included us in more things. It went from 3 lunches on the first day to visits to places we hadn't known existed on subsequent days.
It began as usual Tet Eve with the midnight offering to the ancestors, with our landlords then sharing the food in a post-midnight feast. The food was retrieved from the family altar and assembled on a tray outside. Just after midnight they entered and we sat and ate. People often step outside and re-enter just after midnight as fortune (good or bad) for the coming year is determined by who is the first to enter the house at the start of the New Year. This way they can avoid bad luck from the wrong person coming in first.
The first day (usually for immediate family only) we expected to be quiet. However the Vice-Rector invited us to a pagoda for a vegetarian lunch. I'd read somewhere to avoid wearing black or white over Tet as these colours are associated with death and funerals in Vietnam and as we were going to a pagoda and for a meal I was a bit concerned about what I should wear. Since almost everything I own has at least some black I settled on a red and black dress, hoping the red (a good Vietnamese colour) would outweigh the black - only to find the Vice-Rector arrived dressed entirely in black, albeit in a beaded top! After the pagoda, we then went to her house for another lunch (where Owen was given the honour of being the first visitor to enter - hope he brings them good fortune). Later in the day we called on a market stall-holder neighbour as promised and were surprised to have a third meal mid-afternoon.
Next day we were invited to our friend Binh's grandmother's village of Phu Lam and saw the local con festival. This involves throwing tailed "beanbags" (con) to try and pierce a paper representation of the moon which is set atop a long pole. Once the moon is broken the new harvest can begin and the thrower receives a cash prize. Needless to say there was much eager scrambling for the con as they fell to the ground after each unsuccessful shot. Just as we were leaving we saw a truck pass emblazoned with one of the main Vietnamese dairy's logo on the side. "Oh yes there's a dairy just down the road" we were told.
Next day we were to have lunch with Hanh, one of the teachers, and another teacher, Thuy, who lives a few doors down from her was joining us. On arrival we first ducked along to meet Thuy's family before lunch, and also to see the traditional house her uncle had built in the little family compound where she and some other family members live in several houses. When her uncle learnt we were from Australia he got excited and told us about the dairy he had started - as the first manager - using cows he had brought over from Queensland. Now retired, he obviously still had considerable sway and immediately arranged for the current manager to take us on a visit. In the middle of Tet holiday! To a place we hadn't known existed until the day before! Now quite large and modern it was very interesting - and we still made it back in time for lunch.
After the obligatory rest (upstairs in the daughter's bed with her huge teddy bears) we were off to visit the cave temple on the edge of town. Another place we didn't know existed! There in a large compound were many Buddha statues, including an impressive reclining Buddha. The cave was interesting and extended a fair way in with little shrines dotted about. It was crowded with people. Many people visit temples during Tet - a lot, it seems, go every day of the festival. There were obviously some "out-of-towners" as we had a lot of photo requests and our friend was amused that people all around were talking about us.
After a couple of quiet days - (coffee in town, dinner with a couple of teachers Lan and Huyen and families), the university restarted with a huge meeting of staff in the hall. This involved recognition (not sure what for) and distribution of lucky money to some staff and some singing, dancing and toasting. After that we went to lunch of bun cha with Owen's department followed by karaoke across the road. Lectures didn't resume until the following week, so the university slowly came back to life bit by bit.
Buffalo fighting festival
Now this was an unexpected invitation. Would we like to go to the buffalo fighting festival? Initially somewhat reluctant we were assured there was unlikely to be blood and gore, and the animals only died when some were butchered after the event. The winner fetches a good price, apparently, as his consumption brings good fortune. On the day half a dozen of us headed off to Tan Yen, the main city in the Ham Yen District which is famous for it's orange growing. We were met on arrival in town, transferred to a local government car and headed for the sporting arena, getting right through to the front of the entrance. I think Owen sitting in the front seat helped us through some road closures on the way. We then stood jammed in the crowded stand with locals curious to know who we were and where we were from. We shared some nibbles, took a few selfies and chatted, which helped the tired legs cope. The buffalo fighting involved heads down foreheads connected, a bit of pushing and shoving until one gave in and ran, being then chased round and round the ring by the victor as the officials rushed in to intervene - ironically by shoving Buddhist flags across their faces to stop them in their tracks. There were a few cuts and scratches and one fell over and got "jabbed" but it was surprisingly, and thankfully, much less violent than expected. Afterwards we of course headed off to a buffalo restaurant for a tasty and different (for us) lunch.
The final, and in many ways most spectacular festival of Tet was at Lam Binh in the far north of Tuyen Quang Province. It was further away and involved an overnight stay in a traditional stilt house. We set off in a mini bus with the usual chatter, exchange of nibbles, a bit of singing and napping. On arrival we left our stuff at the stilt house and headed for a nearby temple to pay our respects. After a traditional dinner at the stilt house we headed for the opening of the festival at the local ceremonial field where there was some traditional singing and dancing in progress - on an open-air stage with a river and huge stone cliff backdrop behind. On the way in we'd noticed logs and sticks in piles on one side and were told these were the bonfires for the fire-dancing! As a kind of rite or passage some young men would do this later in the evening. To my surprise as the fires were lit, before the performance had come to an end, everyone jumped up from their seats and rushed over to get a good view - leaving the performers to a non-existing audience! I couldn't get close enough so all I could see was sparks flying up into the air and heads bobbing up and down. Later I looked up some websites covering the festival and watch some dramatic footage. After a quick wander around some night market stalls we headed back for a welcome night's rest after our long journey up. But not before Owen got caught for a quick interview with the local TV.
Next morning after a quick wash in a basin we headed of for breakfast of a local noodle soup at a restaurant in town. The noodles were thick and round - a bit like udon - not what we're used to.
On arrival at the ceremonial field the proceedings were under way. A procession of local boys and the "witchdoctor" swishing small branches to frighten off ghosts, was then followed by representatives from each hamlet bringing a large platter of food offerings to place on an "altar" on a temporary platform out in the centre of the field, then local dignitaries went out to pay respects. This was followed by ceremonial ploughing with a single buffalo and plough and rice planting by a few young girls in a small ceremonial rice field beside the stage.
Then the entertainment began. Singing and dancing in traditional dress, (not too many) speeches, then the local dignitaries went through the performers and nearby crowd distributing lucky money to all and sundry. Many con were also distributed and a free-for-all ensued with everyone throwing wildly trying to break the moon. (The beanbags thrown at the paper moon representation atop a large pole, mentioned earlier. This time we were both cornered for a quick interview with local TV.
There were many temporary eateries set up and we then were off for lunch in a horse restaurant. Another first! This was followed by a wander through the market stalls with much chatting, questioning, photos, food and wine tasting (beetles, fried frogs).
Another amazing experience. I often find myself thinking "Am I really here? Am I really doing this?"