Most readers will have heard of a full moon party. It may have begun in Bali or Thailand but inevitably found its way to Vietnam, with many of the younger among you having already experienced a festive night out by a bonfire on a tropical beach under the stars.
But how many of you, I wonder, have heard about the tradition of the Vietnamese full month party? You may need to be well linked into Vietnamese life to know about and probably be married to a Vietnamese person to have experienced it. Allow me to explain.
The Vietnamese day thang (full month) party is a tradition that has much in common with the Chinese custom of ‘manyue’. Both celebrate a newborn completing its first full lunar month in the world. This means 28 days for a girl and 29 for a boy. Why the difference? Maybe because baby boys are weaker than baby girls. I asked some Vietnamese people this question but nobody could give me an answer any more than they could answer why baby girls wear pink and baby boys blue. Anyhow, the point is with infant mortality rates high in the past actually surviving the first month was something to celebrate. A month also gives a baby some time to build up immunity to germs before being exposed to a lot of people fussing and breathing over them. It is only at the full month party, under Vietnamese tradition, that a baby is given a name, which is announced to the world.
Both men and women are invited to a day thang though women are usually in the majority. I thought about what happens in my own English culture. Our ceremony - a baptism - is mainly religious. We wait more than a month, sometimes a lot more, before asking the church to accept the baby as a Christian and the parents and godparents swear to guide the baby to the light. Some people, but certainly not all, will have a small party afterwards at home, at which the baby is admired. A male-only party in the UK is known as ‘Wetting the baby’s head’, where the father has a few drinks in the pub with his mates to celebrate the newborn. Many Americans have the custom of a ‘baby shower’, which like Halloween preserves an all-but-died-out European custom. This is mainly for women only and goes back to Victorian England, when a new mother might be showered with gifts when friends opened a parasol above her head.
Nobody actually voiced it, but at the day thang recently held at our house what was actually being celebrated was more the survival of the mother a month after a very difficult birth, which was had by Caesarean section. She had lain in hospital for two weeks and there were times when we feared the worst. My wife, the grandmother, broke down in tears on occasion. Thereafter she was quite weak in bed at home. But, happily, on the day of the day thang she was mobile again and looked well on the way to a full recovery.
Hien, the mother, is my stepdaughter, but having lived with us since she was 14 the ‘step’ no longer enters my mind. Likewise, though for the purpose of this article I may be ‘in loco grandparentis’ I am naturally called the ‘Ong Ngoai’, or maternal grandfather, of young Lana. We have been calling the baby Lana since before she was born. She does of course have her official Vietnamese name but the custom in our family is to give new family members easy to pronounce English nicknames. My wife was particularly proud on this day to present her first granddaughter to the world - her other grandchildren being Ken, Henry, Sammy and Tommy.
My wife laments that in the south of Vietnam a day thang is usually only a small affair. In the centre of Vietnam, from whence she hails, they can be as lavish as a wedding. Indeed, I remember the fanfare of my natural daughter’s full month party 15 years ago in Dong Hoi. As I was working with the local government at the time there many local dignitaries in attendance.
This day thang came in two sittings. The father’s family is from Tay Ninh, about two hours drive away, and came for lunch. They comprised the grandfather and uncles and aunts of the star of the party. The paternal grandfather is already with us in HCMC and has been helping to take care of mother and child.
The table was set with a hot pot as the centrepiece. It was filled to the brim with tomatoes, mushrooms. water spinach lettuce and herbs, making quite a broth. We ate vegetarian as the guests are of the Cao Dai faith. There was sticky rice, tofu made to look like luncheon meat, vermicelli, and something otherwise only seen at breakfast time: French baguettes. I was a little surprised to see prawns on the table, but they are not considered to be meat. I was also surprised to see cans of beer, as I had thought Cao Dai members were teetotallers. The most enthusiastic drinker at the party, apart from myself, amazingly turned out to be the paternal grandmother.
Quite a feast my wife had prepared but much more lavish was the table set next to our family shrine. The centrepiece of this was a whole glazed roast chicken. This was for the ancestors, who would of course not fail to attend, if only in spirit, this celebration of the continuance of their bloodline.
When the baby appeared the ‘bonging’ began. The verb ‘to bong’, I hope, will enter the Oxford dictionary soon after the publication of this piece as a rare loan word from Vietnamese. It means to cradle a baby in your arms and sway it. Plenty of snaps were of course taken for the family album, including, I am proud to relate, one of the two grandfathers together bonging the baby.
The day thang resumed at dinner with just the core family and two female neighbours. It was more subdued but I am happy to say I got to partake of the scrumptious crispy roast chicken without too much complaint from the ancestors.
When we visit a foreign land we always have our list of must sees and must dos. For Vietnam it might include ancient Hoi An town, Hue’s Forbidden Purple City, or the marvels of Halong Bay. However, there are just as many lasting memories to be had from encounters with a country’s intangible heritage. These are usually unexpected, such as coming across an ethnic minority band playing on the Opera House steps or witnessing a wedding procession in a country lane. A Vietnamese full month party is a private family affair that fits into this category and although hidden from view it is an everyday affair. Dear readers, may the God of Serendipity grant you the chance to witness Vietnam’s intangible heritage too.