Around about this time in January the UK press tend put out articles naming the year’s official most depressing day.
Their logic cites a combination of things such as the dreary winter weather, or the inevitable financial whiplash of Christmas spending. More often than not the offending day in question is January 23rd (which is unfortunate in our household as this is, and has always been, Lou’s birthday.)
This year in Vietnam will be a quite different affair though, as 23rd January is Chinese New Year and subsequently, due to Vietnam being one of the many countries embracing the lunar calendar, local life in Saigon over the past weeks has been 100% focused on celebrating the beginning of Tễt (the official name for the New Year here) and the 4 days of public holidays which accompany this.
As previously described in this blog, December here was wall-to-wall Christmas eye candy. On every street you’d find precariously hung fairy lights, young Vietnamese men dressed as Santa and smoking cigarettes, shops and restaurants blaring out festive carols on a 24/7 loop.
However, all of this was simply a dress rehearsal for Tễt, which is by far and away the country’s main celebratory event of the year. In the lead up to it, markets are awash with eager customers, all looking to stock up their larders and decorate their homes with yellow flowers and ceremonial fruit.
During Tễt it is customary to visit families and friends, and many of Saigon’s residents will be heading to the countryside over the next week. Roads, railways and airports are at full stretch, laying on additional services to meet the demand. All of which pales into insignificance when compared to the situation in China. I read this morning that the Chinese “Chunyun” – it’s annual migration of people prior to the New Year – accounts for the biggest human migration in the world. Over 40 days, approximately 2 billion trips are made.
Tễt officially heralds in not just the new lunar year, but also symbolises the beginning of a new time of fortune and prosperity for the Vietnamese. If your 2011 was not so forthcoming, then you need not worry, as Tễt has the power to etcha-sketch away any previous negativity and create a blank sheet upon which the next chapter of your life can be painted.
Superstition plays an important role in day-to-day life for the average Vietnamese citizen. They have so many different lucky names, numbers, colours etc that some Vietnamese will not even venture out of the house on certain days of the lunar month.
Whether seen as more pragmatism rather than superstition, like many Southeast Asians, the Vietnamese would not consider making a major decision, whether it involved marriage or building a house, without considering the lunar calendar. I am careful on each first day of the lunar month not to go into a shop early in the morning, as shopkeepers here believe that their first customer on that day will determine their luck until the next month. Quite often shopping here, I’ll go into a store for something and leave empty handed – which is simply the worst kind of customer in terms of dictating fortune.
During Tễt, such superstitions continue in full swing.
The wearing of white clothes is a no-go area for example, as white is the colour traditionally worn during funerals. Forbidden, too, is the eating of duck meat (deemed to bring misfortune) or shrimp (in case one would move backwards in life, like a shrimp). It is bad luck to put your rubbish out on Tễt, as this could mean you are throwing away luck. The sweeping of the house on Tễt itself is also forbade (Lou – please note!) which is probably just as well given most people spend the build up to Tễt scrubbing and painting their houses to prepare for the New Year itself.
As you can imagine, these few snippets just scratch the surface of all the many formalities, beliefs and eccentricities which come with the passing of the lunar New Year. For an interesting fuller list of more – including information on the optimal colours in which you should have your toilet painted to commemorate the Dragon – try this link: http://www.superstitionsof.com/chinese-new-year-of-the-dragon-2012.htm
For me, it is a privilege simply to be living in a country where celebrating the lunar New Year is so important, and to finally start and understand why.
I may be late in wishing you all a traditional Happy New Year, but let me be the first to wish you good fortune and happiness during the Year of the Dragon.