You can’t use the same flowers for both occasions because that’s cheating!

With Tet and Valentine’s Day celebrations falling within the same time slot, it’s the best chance flower sellers have had in a while to make some bucks. It’s also a double reminder of the value of family and personal love during the tough times of the COVID-19 pandemic and Vietnam is no exception.

Say ‘Chuc mung nam moi’ and you know it’s Tet. Valentine’s Day is named ‘Ngay Tinh Nhan’ or ‘the feast of love’ or more simply ‘Ngay Valentine.’ Traditionally, Tet has been the main occasion for expressions of love, fidelity, and bonds of affection. Valentine’s Day is less so as it’s only a recent addition to Vietnamese culture imported from the West; yet it is hugely popular with younger Vietnamese.

A very busy flower shop at Be La Market in Hoi An, Quang Nam, Vietnam. Photo: Stivi Cooke

A very busy flower shop at Be La Market in Hoi An, Quang Nam, Vietnam. Photo: Stivi Cooke

This year the emphasis on our ties to the people around us became never so more important when we’re faced with all the issues COVID-19 has exposed. Loneliness, job insecurity, and lack of physical contact with family and lovers ate away at our collective confidence. Fortunately, the strength of Vietnamese family values provides a good defense against some of these predicaments.

Life can be harsh in Vietnam for many, yet the Vietnamese are quite tough mentally and adapt to changing personal circumstances with flexibility that I wish the West would learn from. Locals might complain as much as expats on social media but there’re more realistic and pragmatic attitudes. They show less denial about vaccines and the coronavirus while crucially moving fast to address their problems.

There’s still plenty of joy and happiness around. Folks in my area of Hoi An in central Vietnam were very busy buying stuff, cleaning houses, and having smaller but lively home parties leading up to Tet. And there’re lots of plans for romantic stuff as Hoi An has been spared any lockdown at the moment. I’ve always enjoyed and admired the locals’ habits of eating out instead of staying home; the sense of energy buzzing all around me is one of Vietnam’s greatest gifts.

No romance is on the table for me but I did manage to give a big, heavy basket of goodies to my Vietnamese best friend who I’ve known for around eight years, helping me out of dozens of cultural and domestic hassles over the years. As friends, much of this Tet’s crossover with Valentine’s Day has a lot in common with both of us. Mutual respect, support, and a broad acceptance of the differences between our cultures are no barrier to getting along with each other. Well, that’s one definition of love, isn’t it?

It’s nice to see the parallels between expat and local families too. Fancy clothes, celebratory lunches, and oodles of presents and a million selfies! It will be much the same for Valentine’s Day as couples show off their relationships. Certainly, some of the local traditional formalities have rubbed on the expats, have you ever noticed how everyone regardless of Tet or Valentine’s Day all poses rather stiffly and politely in photos? There isn’t so much of the ‘touchy – feely’ stuff on public display in Vietnam!

A souvenir shop selling Tet decorations in Hoi An, Quang Nam, Vietnam. Photo: Stivi Cooke

A souvenir shop selling Tet decorations in Hoi An, Quang Nam, Vietnam. Photo: Stivi Cooke

In the years I’ve lived here (up to my fifteenth in May!), Tet never really felt commercialized in the same way as Christmas and New Year in Western culture. I’ve always been thankful for that – one of the things I’ve loved about Vietnam is the natural appreciation for life; even if that is drilled into the citizenry from day one. And Valentine’s Day, at least this time, doesn’t seem as glittery, glossy and over-glamorized – I hope it’s a sign of people getting back to some of the basic values of both events. It’s the symbolism, not the materialism, that matters at the moment. Let’s not give kids smartphones or lovers expensive gifts; how about a nice book or a day out in the sunshine? At least food is always in fashion! Forget the giant teddy bears, maybe hugs are better even if you’re wearing a mask.

If Tet has reminded us of the value of family and friends in making it mentally through the stress of the pandemic, Valentine’s Day might be the somewhat painful recollection of how difficult it can sometimes be to find love and a great partner in life. Even though I have broken up with many lovers over the decades, I’ve never forgotten what they gave me along the way so for me this entire holiday, festival, and celebratory atmosphere makes me remember fondly the good times and accept the bad times without any bitterness or wishing it to be something else than what it really was; it’s just life.

By the end of Tet, we can be very thankful for making around the sun another year while beginning new things in love, marriage, life, and plans for the future. As the expats often say in recent times, comparing life here to the rest of the mad, chaotic world, ‘I’m so glad I’m in Vietnam.’

Wishing all of you, wherever, a happy Tet and a fabulous start to 2021!