Christmas-time in Hanoi was ostensibly festive. There were Christmas decorations and Christmas trees everywhere, and I heard more carols than I have ever heard before, or ever want to hear again.
A whole street was dedicated to Christmas paraphernalia:
And you could actually see the Real Santa's Workshop in action:
But despite this, and the cursory festive activities undertaken by me and my friends, it felt decidedly un-Christmasy. What was missing was the exponentially frenetic preparations and the anticipation of time off work which so define the festive season, and which can't be faked, no matter how many polystyrene Santas you make.
In one week's time it is Tet, the Vietnamese New Year, and the Christmas decorations street now looks like this:
This time around, the building excitement and concomitant preparatory madness is completely pervasive and inescapably infectious.
Hanoi is always hectic, yet it has somehow managed to step it up a notch to the category of abuzz. The decorations street is amazing:
It is also an out-of-control traffic catastrophe. The wise shopper opts for the travelling decorations salesmen instead:
The decorations are for hanging in your house and on the Tet version of the Christmas tree, the cumquat tree:
Which, like almost everything in Vietnam, comes on the back of a motorbike:
Alternatively, you can use peach blossom branches, which, like everything else in Vietnam, are sold by women in conical hats:
This is what we've opted for:
As with Christmas, you also send hampers for Tet:
The only difference is that they contain packs of cigarettes, and, like the one we received at work, alcohol with names like Chiwas, made from "whiskey materials".
There are so many meaningful and significant things to do and buy around Tet, that an amateur like myself can find herself completely confounded. One day, alarmingly, everyone will be out on the street burning small paper horses:
Then the next day they will be burning what appear to be paper robot rabbits:
But which turn out to be the traditional offering to the Kitchen God, being three sets of paper clothes, three sets of paper shoes and three paper carp. Naturally.
The family altar also needs to be tended to daily, with significant configurations of particular fruits and flowers, meaning the price of particular fruit and flowers increases significantly:
You can see some robot rabbits on this one, no doubt about to meet their fiery end:
There are also so many special Tet foods, that I can't begin to cover them and their traditional meanings. Most of them involve pork, rice, pickling and/or banana leaves:
As with Christmas pudding, preparing these festive foods is extremely time and labour-intensive. One such dish is gac xoi, made with gac, which is, apparently, the spiny melon gourd:
The flesh of which is just as freaky-looking as its outside:
It is then mixed with glutinous rice:
To become this pretty, not particularly tasty, sticky rice cake:
The hustle and bustle around the time of Tet is intensified by the need to have things in order for the New Year to ensure good luck. My work hurriedly moved into a new office location - which wasn't actually finished being constructed - before Tet for this reason. Debts must also be paid off, new clothes and furnishings must be purchased, and everything must be cleaned and freshened up. The streets of Hanoi have never looked better:
To ensure good luck for the whole city of Hanoi, the government even issued a decree saying that all buildings, including houses, must remove all street posters, stickers and stencilled advertising from their exterior walls before Tet, otherwise they would cut off the offending building's power supply (!!). So, there's a lot of this going on:
Nathan dutifully cleaned the outside of our house too (with our neighbourhood lingerers all pointing and observing, "Aah, Tet!"), but in an unexpected and yet again confounding turn of events, it has since been plastered with a government poster warning against the dangers of fireworks at Tet:
There is probably another decree to disconnect your water supply if you remove government posters warning against the dangers of fireworks. Those Communists will have their bases covered somehow.
Finally, you will be pleased to know that Tet has its own version of the ubiquitous Christmas carol. It is not a traditional Vietnamese song, but a little-known Abba song called "Happy New Year", which in the lyrics explicitly celebrates the coming of the year 1980. This does not prevent it being played in Hanoi everywhere and continuously, thirty Tets later.