Missing the old, discovering the new

FOR A HOST OF REASONS, THE WAY FOREIGNERS CELEBRATE WESTERN AND VIETNAMESE HOLIDAYS DIFFERS FROM HOW LOCAL PEOPLE CELEBRATE THEM.

By Shilpa Palsule on December 07,2017 11:37 AM

Missing the old, discovering the new

Photos: Kim Cuong

The end of the year is upon us; a time when everyone in Vietnam is busy planning for the festive season. Vietnam and its people, though, are always in a festive mood and always ready to celebrate, whether it’s a weekend or a special annual festival. And they’ll always encourage you to be part of any wonderful celebration.

The first festival of the year is ‘Tet’, or the lunar new year, held sometime during January or February under the solar calendar. If you’re a foreigner who chooses to head back home during the kids’ summer break later in the year, the Moon Festival, or The Mid-Autumn Festival, will bring a festive mood. The Mid-Autumn Festival celebrates the harvest but is dedicated to and mainly celebrated by children, marked with pretty handmade lanterns and sweet delicacies like cakes. The city is decked out, and shopping malls, schools, offices and, of course, apartment blocks do their share in organising colourful events for the kids.

‘While Tet is the most popular and biggest festival, it took me many years to understand what the Mid-Autumn Festival was about,’ said Kavita Jain, who has been living in HCMC for many years now. ‘There’s a lot for children to do all around the city. Free events are organised at shopping malls, parks, and schools.” She added that it’s interesting to see each year how the entire country is decorated for festivals, whether it’s the Mid-Autumn Festival, Christmas, New Year’s, or Tet. As a music teacher, she remembers how one parent graced her with a beautiful flower bouquet on the occasion of Vietnamese Teacher’s Day. It was a lovely gesture, she said, that took her back to her student days.

‘Being an Indian, festivals mean a lot,’ she went on. ‘It’s a time you spend with family and friends, preparing for the festival together and creating memories.’

Missing the old, discovering the new

For Suzie Ingram, a teacher at Canadian International School who moved to Vietnam last year, ‘holidays always represented time spent with family and eating meals together. When I moved abroad I had to change the way I celebrated holidays because I would be away from my family, so I couldn’t do my traditional holiday activities. For me, Christmas is now the hardest holiday, because I would normally be off from school for a few weeks and all of my family would travel to be together for Christmas Eve and Christmas Day.’ Christmas, she believes, isn’t celebrated as widely here; there is no cutting of Christmas trees or snow, but she enjoys time with friends and getting a small Christmas tree and decorating it for the holidays, replacing family dinner with travel with friends. ‘I haven’t experienced New Year’s in Vietnam but I know that it’s not that different when you are travelling or living abroad because there are still celebrations.’

She is looking forward to Tet, which will be a new experience. She loves the way her Vietnamese friends and colleagues share traditions and explain the way the holiday is celebrated. ‘I think it’s important to continue traditions from home but also to celebrate and embrace interesting new holidays and festivities taking place in the country where you live,’ she added.

For me, every festival and tradition is a way of keeping your roots. Wherever you may live and whatever you may be celebrating, it’s always family and friends that make a celebration worthwhile. Diwali is the biggest festival of the year in India. People take off from work and join their families. It’s a festival of lights and for us it mostly means lights, fireworks and yummy food and snacks that are only made at this time of year. And new clothes too. Ever since we came to HCMC we have always celebrated Diwali with friends, who are now part of our family. The festivities aren’t the same but the fervour is. Though we don’t celebrate Christmas or Tet, our family takes these times to go on holidays. The most anticipated is Tet. Every year for the past seven years in HCMC, Tet has been a time for a family holiday, either in Vietnam or elsewhere.

‘I THINK IT’S IMPORTANT TO CONTINUE TRADITIONS FROM HOME BUT ALSO TO CELEBRATE AND EMBRACE INTERESTING NEW HOLIDAYS AND FESTIVITIES TAKING PLACE IN THE COUNTRY WHERE YOU LIVE.’

Another wonderful thing, and something I haven’t seen in India, is that the cities are virtually deserted on the first three days of Tet. I like the way how everyone, from housekeepers to senior officials, take time off from work and spend it with their families. The fact that people are eager to be with their families is awesome. The flipside, of course, is that many places close for those first three days.

Back in India, people try to meet their family at festival time but the cities are never empty during Diwali. And even people who go away from their home still decorate it and keep it flooded with lights.

This is very familiar to Eri Redfern from Japan, who said that many leave the city for Tet and head back to their hometown, making the city quiet and empty in a way never seen during the rest of the year. She compared Tet with New Year’s Eve in Japan, which is a family affair. ‘It’s quiet and family-focused, with everyone visiting temples and shrines on New Year’s Day,’ she said. Christmas in Japan is more couple focused, she added, like New Year’s Eve in the US. Christmas is also a time when mostly couples spend time together, and sometimes kids receive gifts.

Marietta Csontos, who hails from Hungary, has a lot to say about the year’s biggest festival in the West. For her, Christmas here is a completely different experience. She began by saying how different preparations here are compared to Hungary. ‘Something that I miss here is Christmas songs pouring out from the radio from the start of November,’ she said. ‘The feel of the preparations and the Christmas vibe is not the same.’ Another difference is that it’s not cold and snowy in HCMC but hot and sunny instead. In order to make Christmas in Vietnam the same for her kids as in Hungary, she follows all the traditions she followed as a kid. ‘We celebrate St. Nicholas Day on 6 December, when kids put their shiny boots on the window sill for the night,’ she explained. ‘St. Nicholas leaves gifts in children’s shoes if they’ve been good throughout the year. On the 24th, the family gathers at the table and has roast duck with mashed potatoes and purple cabbage. After dinner, it’s time to open the presents placed under the Christmas tree by Jesus and the angels.’ Special Hungarian meals for the occasion include stuffed cabbage rolls, roast turkey, fish soup, and a characteristic desert: walnut or poppy seed cake rolls (beigli). While she can recreate the festivities, however, she misses visiting her family.

Tet is another time she spends with her family in Vietnam since it’s quiet and peaceful in the city. Her and her family love to stroll around, looking at the decorations and flowers. She thinks the Dragon Dance is something that shouldn’t be missed by anyone living in Vietnam.

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