Vietnamese Lunar New Festival – a little Asian touch

It has been already 2 hours into the first day of lunar new year in Vietnam, and I wonder if my parents have been back from the pagoda. We usually have that tradition, either going to pagoda right after the moment turning to new year, or in the next morning. We Vietnamese, believe going to pagoda is to wish all the best things happening to us, or our family. That is probably because Buddhism is the most popular religion in our country. I, personally, am not religious. I grew up in a family, in which my parents and relatives do not bring lots of religious factors to our lives; even though I am still taught to have spiritual beliefs. Anyway, they go to pagoda now and then, especially in these traditional festivals. But I am always comfortable to say I am aesthetic.

I spent one hour speaking to my family, looking at them preparing for last minutes of the last year. Time has been passing by so fast, I feel as if I cannot catch up anymore. This time last year, I was there with them. It was a great time since I had not been back home at all before that, since I left. This time last year, I felt so excited for being physically around them for a first time in a while, that I could not sleep. We rarely go to bed before the midnight time anyway. Then, I recalled me insisting to go to pagoda with them, making some wishes for my parents. In there, if you want and truly believe in Buddhism, you can also take a random stick in this bowl, and on each stick indicating how your life in next year tends to be. Each sticks will also in a way reflect whether your next year would be lucky or unlucky, regarding about work life, study, family, health and relationship. I and my mom also did that; for me, it was mainly for fun. They turned out to be unlucky ones, and we laughed while burning those sticks away. The whole day today, I did not feel a thing until those moments talking to them, as always. My life, at the moment, is not in such a good shape that I find my head wandering and avoiding many times. I guess, part of them avoided to be homesick too. Anyhow, I figured it would be interesting to share 10 things you might not know about Vietnamese Lunar New Year festival, in the light of the spirit:

  1. In the last hour before midnight comes, families might have different traditions; but most of us, we make up a table on which we present candles, and certain stuffs bought at the market, to burn. This action represents how we show respect to our ancestors, as well as certain Buddha Gods. We also usually kneel down, and spend 1 minute wishing what we want to gain in the next year, and for our loved ones, and then light an incense.
  2. On the first day of Lunar New Year, it is all about family and relatives. Depending on how big your family would be, the first day of the year will be as tired as much. In mine, when I used to live there and was much younger, I always wake up at 8am, dressing fancy clothes, and since my family lived together with my dad’s side of the family, I would go downstair later when I was ready. I would find some of my cousins, relatives already up. I would prepare some wishing sentences to the adults; because the younger people (kids) always have to give respect, and love and good wishes to the adults. In exchange, the adults would give me lucky money in red envelopes. It used to be rather simple gesture, as a way of them thanking us; hence, the amount of money inside does not matter. Throughout the time, I think, subconsciously, the value of the money has increased. It became one unique way for us, as kids, getting money to spend besides asking from our parents. Usually, when you turn to be older than 18, it is a sign you will not the “lucky money” anymore. And if you have a job, you might have to give them to the younger ones, when they come and give respect to you.
  3. For those who might wonder what I meant by “fancy clothes” earlier, we always made a lot of shopping before Lunar New Year festival. It is also a time of the year that families around spend lots of money. There are lots of things to buy, food to cook during the holiday, decorations, flowers (specifically: apricot and sakura flower) and clothes. We also make the biggest formal house cleaning at this time. We tend to believe in new year, new fresh start comes with new things. It is a new chapter. As my dad told me before he ended the Skype (and it has been long enough I have not heard this from him, one of the wise man I have ever known): “It is already a new year. Whatever sad, bad lucks, desperation or grief, belongs to the past year that has gone away. This first week of this new year is nothing but relaxing mind and enjoying with the loved ones, getting ready for another 365 days coming up. We have to step into the new year with good spirit – the only way to have a good year ahead”.
  4. The traditional food we eat during the holiday is this particular recipe of meat (thịt kho tàu) with rice or rice papers, and it would not be complete without [củ kiệu]. This is at least true for almost every families in the Southern Vietnam. We can also add some other food recipes, but this food recipe should always be there. My mom used to make it only enough, for our family of 4 people, sometimes even less; because she knows we will always find food in our grandma’s, which is actually true. I really enjoying going to grandma’s house around this holiday, because the first thing she might ask me is whether I have eaten something, then she will display all the food on the table without me even answering.
  5. We play a lot of card games and gamble. And before you think it might be illegal, it actually is except for the first 3 days of the lunar new year. You are allowed to gamble with money (I hope it does not change). Usually, we tend to keep them longer than 3 days, lasting for a week or so. And if you only play within the family, gambling against each other for fun and a bit of risk, keep it low profile, I assume polices do not mind. Last year, I did not play any though. I was too busy moving around, from seeing this friend to seeing another friend and the first three days of the year was lying around in the house, and being with family.
  6. My city is one of the big city in the country, and I am always proud to say you can always things around. Everything is so lively that it can be called “unsleeping city”. But on the first day of the holiday, you might find not many shops opening. This is not to day you would not find anything opening, some small family businesses, if they are ambitious enough, they will keep their shops opened.
  7. Prices are increased around this period of time too, and especially when you go to those few shops opened while the rest are closed.
  8. On the first 3 days of the year, my city – Ho Chi Minh city, starts to be more empty than usual; since most of us have been away for holidays. Most of the trip are domestic trips, going to the different touristic cities or beach cities. Some are international one to near countries such as Thailand, Singapore, Cambodia; but of course this is not to say it is limited within these places, depending on the family’s financial situation.
  9. There is always one big flower market being presented in the center area of the city. They start to be built weeks before the lunar new year, and then opened to people approximately one week before. A lot of people like going there with families or friends to take pictures and sense the excitement wrapping around.
  10. Have you ever heard of 12 Zodiacs? Well, each year of lunar new year festival represents one Zodiac and it is repeated after every 12 years. I was born in a year of Dog, and this 2016 is a year of Monkey; which might explain why you catch Monkey symbols on the Internet with the title lunar new year festival along the side.

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So, I am sure there are more interesting things you might have heard from other Vietnamese people or seen on media. But here are the most 10 things common and closed to me, thinking about my own culture’s festival. It is always the hardest while living abroad when you have to be alone at the family-reuniting time. I have been living away long enough to get accustomed to it, and I know a few more people living away even longer than me; but it has always managed to creep into us in a way – the homesick feeling. I felt it at Christmas time. Today, I felt it looking at my parents through the laptop screen. What can be more confusing about the feeling so closed to them but also so far?

I would not have thought of writing this post, if not for my dad’s saying. I cannot promise to him back then I could do exactly what he said, but nodding along. What I know and he doesn’t is my state for the time being. Nevertheless, maybe he does not have to know, at least not today, not this week. All he needs to know and I need to remember is I am given a second chance to celebrate a new year. I celebrated before with my Western friends, in Western culture and I claimed I did not actually feel a new year had reached. How many of us got this lucky as an Asian, to have a second chance for stepping into a new year?


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