Chuc mung nam moi! – New Year’s Eve in Vietnam

by Plai Plong

The last sun rays of the day shone through my metal barred window. I moved a little to the left and peeked through the dusty window. The sky was perfectly blue with only a few puffy clouds that glowed in an intense orange. It had been a beautiful day and the evening was going to be even better. I yawned and decided to stay in bed for a little while although that meant that I had to endure my neighbour’s poor tune selection. I shook up my pillow, closed my eyes and silently sang along to ABBA’s Happy New Year till I fell asleep.

“piep-piEP-PIEP!” the nerve wrecking sound of my mobile alarm clock pushed me back to reality. It was already dark outside and a quick glance on the watch only confirmed my guess. It was late! In fact it was nearly time to go. I jumped out of my bed and went for a shower. I was still rubbing my hair dry when I heard a familiar voice shouting my name in front of the house. “Floooh – Floooh!” Grabbing the key for the gate on my way, I ran to the small balcony and stared down into the dark alley. It was Le, a good friend who I knew since day one of my stay. I threw down the keys and signalled him to wait downstairs. I fired the towel on my bed, put on a shirt and after a last glance at my room I hit the light switch and flew down the stairs.

The engine of the motorbike hummed underneath us and Le drove swiftly through the dense traffic. Both of us were hungry and we still needed to pick up his girlfriend and her friend before we could eat dinner. While passing the other motorbikes I noticed once again that this truly was a special day. Everyone was in his and her finest clothes, with a fresh hair cut and new shoes. The bikes were wiped down and although it was dark you could see them shine in the pale light of the street shops. The numerous cafes and restaurants were absolutely packed and I could hear the cheering of the men that had already started to drink beer. We passed the market where people were still rushing to buy flowers, fruit and vegetables to survive the next three days. The air was thick with diesel fumes from all the motorbikes but I could still smell the burning incense from the small home altars and the aroma of the delicious food that boiled in large aluminium pots on the pavement. I took a deep breath, relaxed and patted my stomach. It was time for Nem.

I jumped off the bike and Le and the other two parked their bikes on the pavement. For some seconds I watched the sweating woman working on the hot grill. The embers were glowing in an intense red and were so hot that I even started to sweat from standing two metres away. The minced beef that was wrapped thinly around wooden sticks sizzled quietly. Oil was dripping into the crackling embers and I could smell the aroma of the beef. My mouth watered. Le’s girlfriend, Hanh, spotted four empty chairs and we quickly sat down before anyone else could come and snatch them away. We ordered and a few moments later the tiny plastic table was bending under the weight of the food. The countless beef sticks were piled on a large plate in the middle of the table surrounded by two smaller plates with rice paper and Vietnamese vegetable on it. Hanh was ready with cleaning the chopsticks and handed me a pair that were nicely wrapped into a small paper serviette. After a hearty cheer I took a large gulp from my beer and dug into the food. A grabbed one of the very thin sheets of rice paper and put it into the palm of my hand. After stuffing it with leafs, green banana slices, cucumber pieces and meat I rolled the rice paper and content to a thin sausage and dipped it into warm peanut sauce. I felt very happy at that moment.

There was still some time to waste before the “big event” at night so we cruised through the streets heading slowly to the flower market close to the large war memorial. The main street that led to the market was jammed with motorbikes, cars and trucks. Breathing was hard work and my lungs nearly crumbled from the toxic diesel fumes. I looked around me. Entire families were on motorbikes cruising aimless around just like us. The small children, tightly embraced by their mothers, were standing on the motorbike seats and smiled happily. The pavement was clustered with street vendors selling balloons, flowers and snacks. I had just waved to a small boy on the motorbike next to me when I turned to the right and saw a crowd of people that had gathered around a stand. We drove so slow that I had enough time to jump off, run to the stand and find out what all the fuzz was about. I elbowed my way through the crowd and had to smile when I saw what the guy was selling. Tulips from Holland! Unbelievable but true. The price was tremendously high and there were two big fellows with earnest faces guarding the already fading flowers. Most people just marvelled at the bunch of about a dozen red and yellow tulips not having enough money to buy them. Only few even tried to bargain but most of them gave up very soon. The night was still young and the vendor had still enough time to find a good paying customer.

Back on the bike and a few hundred metres further we finally reached the flower market. We left the motorbikes at one of the street sellers and wandered around the market for a while. I felt like being in a beehive so much was going on. Sellers and buyers yelled, laughed and cursed while bargaining for one of the many orange trees that were left over from the last days. Everything needed to be sold that night. A buyer’s dream. The cyclo drivers, that usually sat idle on the street side, were rushing around loading their cyclos with metre high trees and bushes. Even after they had disappeared in the crowded street I could still hear their swearing and cursing over the heavy load. For a short moment I recalled my visit to the same place just two days ago when it was quiet and filled with only a few people. Just like them now, I had bought a small orange tree which is the symbol for the TếT celebrations in the central region. Since then, I had had a small tree on my balcony whose tiny oranges were too sour to eat but looked great. I also bought the obligatory light cord that, wrapped around the short branches had blinked for two days and nights straight announcing my readiness for TếT to the whole neighbourhood!

A quick glance on my watch revealed that there were still two hours to go. We walked back to the bikes and took some small roads to the centre. Ten minutes later the four of us were sitting in a beautifully decorated coffee shop. The girls drank milk while Le and I drank Ca Fe Sua, strong black coffee mixed with sweetened condensed milk and ice cubes. Some time ago I tried to remember how many times I had been to a coffee shop in Vietnam but I gave up soon. Drinking coffee in Vietnam is something really special or actually it is not! It is so common to go for a coffee that not a day had passed by where I did not drink a coffee. It is reason enough to stop working for most Vietnamese. I had never been fond of coffee but honestly I had to admit that these people know how to make good coffee. It comes in so many different kinds that there is an entire menu to choose from when you visit a coffee shop. Solely drinking coffee is boring for most young people so they eat a very famous snack while chitchatting about their school and daily life. They nibble on roasted red melon seeds. It is a specialty for the TếT celebrations but they are so popular that they are served all year round. So we sat there nibbling on the seeds, drinking, talking and playing small games. Time passed quickly and at quarter to twelve we paid and left the place.

We were right on time and still walked up the bridge when the fireworks started at midnight. It was stunning! I was told that it would be great but for some reason I had had the idea that “those poor Vietnamese” could not stage a spectacular firework. Well, I was completely wrong. This happening rocked and was far better than the ones I had seen for the past two years in Berlin. The bangs from the exploding rockets were echoed with “OOO’s” and “AAAH’s” by the cheering crowd. Twenty minutes later my neck felt stiff and I was still looking fascinated in the sky. I wanted more but did not need to wait for long before finding something new that caught my attention. While still rubbing my neck and peeking with one eye to the sky, I saw how all people on the bridge were rushing back to the street and their motorbikes. From one minute to the next the, with people packed, bridge was empty. A quick look at Le was enough for him to enlighten me about the further plans of the night. It was Pagoda time! We followed the mass of people and threw ourselves into the traffic.

There was a small group of policemen on the crossing who tried their utmost to control the traffic chaos in some way. One of them had a speaker and yelled, no he screamed, orders into his microphone. All his efforts to prevent the motorbikes from driving on the main street failed although the motorbike drivers in his direct surrounding did not dare to disregard his orders. I liked his motorbike very much and for some reason it reminded me of the television series “Chips”. It was a white bike with two side bags and a blue sign on top of his front wheel that read “Police”. We drove behind his back and made it without being bashed into the forbidden street.

Since all the pagodas were packed with people we decided to wait for a while and to meet up with some friends of Le. We met at a crossing. A group of ten persons was welcoming us loudly. After saying hi to everyone we talked about the events of the night. One guy started to give everyone of the group his hand followed by some words. Finally he came to me and after giving me some lucky money, a new and crisp 5000 Dong note, he wished me all the best for the New Year.

Finally we went to the pagoda to pray for good luck, wealth and happiness for our families and ourselves. At the entrance old women were selling incense and branches of a special bush that was supposed to bring luck. We bought two packs of incense and one lucky branch and thereby took special care that the leaves were not disfigured. I passed the entrance arch and stood in front of a golden kettle filled with sand and hundreds of smoking incense sticks. I heard the dull sound of a drum and the monotonous singing of the monks from somewhere in the back. Le divided the two large packs generously and I got a large bunch of sticks which I lighted in a small fire place beside the entrance gate. After praying in front of the kettle and leaving some incense in the sand, I moved further into the yard of the pagoda and stood in front of a huge Buddha statue that had an impressive halo around his head. Blinking circles that grew and became smaller again illuminated the head of the white statue. Around the statue numerous flower and fruit bouquets were placed. Also here stood a golden kettle with countless incense sticks in it. I prayed and left some incense sticking in the sand. Then, after a hint from Le’s friend, I continued with sticking incense around a number of old trees and plants.

By now it was two o’clock in the morning and all of us were hungry. It was not difficult to find a street eatery that was still open at that time. We sat down and enjoyed chicken soup with rice. While we chatted and made jokes, I watched a small girl that was standing next to the neighbouring table. She was dressed up in a pink skirt with white sleeves and white fur collar. Out of her sleeves dangled a pair of white gloves that were swirling wildly up and down while she was playing with her balloon. Her hair was braided and her ponytail was whipping around. Her dad, a bolding middle aged man, was slurping his soup away and did not pay much attention to her. He only mumbled some answers to her questions. This girl seemed so out of place that I still wonder about her appearance today. I continued eating and was very soon disturbed by a boy trying to sell me a pack of chewing gum. I was not interested and neither was anyone from my group. A few minutes later I heard a familiar voice: “Yoh, Yoh! Shoeshice!” I looked around and saw a boy I would already know by name if I had liked him. Daily, he and some friends were walking the city streets selling stuff for shoes. He was always trying very hard to sell me something but it never worked. Also this time he tried everything without much success though. However, this time was different somehow. It was New Year’s and TếT was starting tomorrow so he gave up to wave his shoeaccessory kid in front of my face and started a conversation. I practiced some Vietnamese and he repeated all words he knew in English. It was fun and after some minutes he smiled and said goodbye.

Everyone was finished with eating and it was time to go home. It had been a long day! So everyone said goodbye to each other and the group split up into pairs to go home. I mounted Le’s motorbike and we headed home too. Both of us needed a rest! TếT had started and three days of action and fun lay ahead of us! YEAH!

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