Each year, the Lunar New Year creeps up on us, slowly bubbling up to a dramatic apex, then, just like that, the new moon begins, signaling the start of a fresh chapter. Last year was definitely the Year of the Rat, sneaky, slimy, and carrier of scary diseases. 

Phew! How glad we all are to see that water buffalo coming at us for this year. 

And it’s a golden buffalo to boot! 

Through some nuance between the zodiac signs and their complementing elements, this year represents metal, specifically gold, so, sit back and relax, we’ll all finally become wealthy this time around.

As Tet looms nearer, it’s a game akin to musical chairs, the music suddenly cut off when one business after another bangs down its shutters to begin preparation for the big event. 

We sense it and feel it; as traffic picks up, the general level of intensity grows, the card games in cafés are more numerous and raucous, and people shop until they drop.

It makes perfect sense that it’s such an epic event – it’s Thanksgiving (celebrated in various forms in some countries), Christmas, and New Year (per the Gregorian calendar) all rolled together, and don’t forget to toss in Valentine’s Day this year since it’s right after Tet. 

I usually duck out of the country as Tet looms, mainly because I don’t have family obligations, and, I confess, because by the time it rolls around I know I’ll scream if I see one more orchid or cherry tree. It’s also nice to get out of the way so Vietnamese people can enjoy the celebration to the max and take time off after a year of hard work.

It took me several years to get ahead of the game for my annual exodus abroad. I cut it close a few times, then allocated more time, arriving at the airport over three hours before take-off, yet barely making my flight. Lesson learned, since then I leave a full two weeks before and return at the earliest two weeks after, but this year, of course, there’s no such overseas trip.

One of the signs indicating it’s time for me to hit the road is when half of the motorbikes have some sort of foliage hanging off them – flowers, trees, shrubs, bushes, you name it. Toss on a sack of rice, some of the trendiest fruits, and you’re good to go.

Kumquat tree farm

Kumquat tree farm

Offerings include plants, fruit, flowers, and trees, and there are lots of them, all with particular nuances and purposes, most of which escape me.

Gift baskets – now that’s tricky business to say the least – akin to going on a package vacation where meals are included. You never really know what you get until it’s too late, but for sure the baskets look flash, and that’s half the battle right there.

Tet gift basket

Tet gift basket

Debts are cleared, bills are paid, families remember deceased relatives by cleaning up and decorating their resting places, and parts of the house you never visit are scrubbed spotless where they will sit idle collecting dust until the same time next year.

Cupboards are stocked up to the rafters. I’ve seen more boxes of Choco Pies and huge bags of rice over the last week than during the prior three months combined. Judging by the strained expressions on people’s faces as they haul those heavy sacks, the traditional acupuncture specialists must be making a killing.

Tenuous relationships are cobbled back together (or not, depending on the gravity of the tiff), ensuring a peaceful holiday season for all. Oh, how we all know the tension around the holiday table – so thick you could cut it with a knife – that’s a universal one. There’s  a dreaded family member in every clan  that drives the whole gang crazy, that’s just part of the deal.  

The entire celebration is masterfully orchestrated with no loose ends left because there is no room for procrastination, the hourglass runs dry. All must be done, on time, and impeccably. 

Seasonal tasks are carefully allocated one of two time slots for completion:  BT and AT (Before and After Tet), with tasks designated as BT mandatory for completion by the big day, or there’s hell to pay.

AT is another attribute altogether, a vague reference to a point in time after Tet at which time tasks may be due, but then again they may never be completed, or even started, perpetually retaining the status of ‘to do soon.’

Each day leading up to Tet some facet of our daily life – a shop, restaurant, or a service – disappears into thin air without warning. The other day I wandered off to coffee headquarters only to find it shuttered and abandoned, the staff having bolted for their hometowns for the holidays. 

I recoiled in horror, then gingerly pulled myself together, and headed down the street to Backup HQ, which I had scouted out for just such a rainy day.

Everyone forges ahead, giving gifts to neighbors, preparing festive goodies, and generally being downright chummy all around. Most of the goodies are familiar, such as ‘banh tet,’ the savory sticky rice-based treat wrapped in banana leaves, but each year a new one pops up.

Check out this ‘chuoi chanh len men’ (fermented lemon and banana), not a Tet specialty as such, but such a concoction fits well with this season dedicated to preparing foods that fester, foam, and gurgle for weeks until they reach their peak.  

Scary fermented lemon and banana

Scary fermented lemon and banana

My friend prepared that concoction, waiting the mandatory 21 days before letting me near it, and when the lid was unscrewed a pungent aroma similar to rocket fuel blasted out of the jar and filled the room in no time, forcing me to flee the scene. I’m an adventurous eater, but sometimes there is a cost involved when it’s food, so I had to pass on that one.

When the big day finally rolls around, the family gathers, following many rituals, prayers, a visit or two to the temple, and eats enough food to sink a ship. The day features continuous eating, drinking, playing cards, peppered with the rekindling of an old family argument or two since the gang is finally under one roof.

There are some important rituals to be followed, such as avoiding being the first person to enter someone’s house on the first day of the new lunar year. Be careful, this one’s a bomb waiting to go off, because if you’re first to arrive and the house owner has a bad year, you’ll never hear the end of it.

It is a judgment call to some degree because should you bring the owner good luck, then you’ll get all the credit, at least in theory, plus, maybe a reward or gift, so size it up, roll the dice and hope for the best.

I’ll soon find out, because I received an invitation to visit friends during the ‘afternoon’ of New Year’s Day. You can imagine I’ll be showing up late just to be safe, maybe at 5:00 pm, to be completely certain I’m not the first guest.

Otherwise, this whole Tet celebration is clearly a ‘lead, follow, or get out of the way’ situation. That’s an easy choice as a foreign guest, so I bolt the door and relax, while bearing in mind to not take the garbage out or sweep the floor, at least on the first day of the New Year, according to tradition of course.