A day of miracles

(No.1, Vol.4, Jan-Feb 2014 Vietnam Heritage Magazine)

Mien Tay Bus Station, Ho Chi Minh City, where tens of thousands of people depart for their hometown for Tet every year. Photo: Pham Duc Long.

Worshipping on
New Year’s Eve. Photo: Nguyen Ba Ngoc.

The final day of a year gone by — to me, that is the most special day; it is even more special than the first day of the year. On that day, all Vietnamese people, regardless of where they are and what they are doing, find a way to return to their ancestral homeland. And if they cannot go back, then in their hearts, they trace the road home in their memories. Ever since I was young, I had to live far away from home, and, whenever the days approaching Tet drew near, my heart reverberated in a strange emotive voice. The sound stirred my spirit and memory and became strangely immaculate. It often roused me from sleep at night as if I were an insomniac old man. Everyone who works or lives far from their ancestral land lies awake, anxious to return to their native land for Tet, and every such person frequently reminds themselves, ‘I must return in time for the eve of Tet.’
The ‘thirtieth on the eve of Tet’ is a manner of speaking that indicates the final days of a year gone by. The final days can be the 29th, the 30th and another day during the twelfth lunar month. It all depends on each year’s calendar. But that is not the important thing. The most important thing is that the last day evidently has a beckoning — a beckoning of what, no one can clearly determine. Perhaps it is the beckoning of reminiscence, of our umbilical cords, which our grandmothers buried in the garden in our paternal homeland when we were born, of days of puerility, of the firewood stove, and of gardens in the yellow bloom of rapeseed flowers. It resembles water’s beckoning of fish, forests’ beckoning of wild animals, and the horizon’s beckoning to the clouds. We search all means to return home, even if we only return in nostalgic yearning. If someone were not to have a moment in which to turn around and look back towards their ancestral village on those days, then such a person would not know to where they would cast their gaze.
During the last days of a year gone by, not only do people in the family await the return of family members who have travelled afar, but my fellow villagers, too, look forward to the return of all native villagers who have gone afar. Those final days often seem like a miraculous occurrence. There are those who have lived in distant lands all their lives, yet suddenly come back all gray-haired. Whenever a child who has gone far away like that comes home, the entire village knows about it. Thus, that person becomes the focal character in the village during those sacred and warm days. Truly, whenever a person who has left the village for too long then returns, the whole village celebrates as if that person had died and now suddenly comes back to life. My mother usually cooked banh chung (square glutinous rice cakes) on the last day of the year, and at times, sitting by the pot for the cakes, she would count up and see how many villagers in distant lands had returned that year. In whichever years many people like that return to the native village to celebrate Tet, my village folk are elated, as if those people are bestowed by Heaven. Such happiness I only understood once my head of hair was specked grey. Some people leave the village to foreign lands in search of a livelihood for half a century before returning. Coming back to the head of the village, they drop down and cry. Whoever in the village sees them cries as well. Such weeping is a great happiness that some people in their entire lives never get to enjoy. Because some people leave the village without ever sending any bit of news, they might possibly have died. However, there are many who have not died, but are unable to come home.
I have a relative who is currently still living in Danang. He served in the French army and went to the South in 1954. After 1975 [when the Vietnam War ended], his relatives hoped that he would return home, but he never came back. I sought him out for a visit when I went to Danang on business. I asked him why he never went back home even once. He broke down wailing like a little child and said, ‘It’s impossible for me to return home. I won’t be able to return until I’m dead.’ He didn’t explain to me why, but I could understand even if only vaguely. There are also those who do not return home until the end of their lives. They are overjoyed like a child and go visit the whole village. After that, they lie down to sleep, never to again awaken in all eternity. They are the blessed ones. They were able to return to peacefully lie in rest for thousands of generations in their ancestral land.
Do you believe that miracles still happen in life? I have complete faith in them. The last day of a year gone by is a day of miracles. One of the miracles on this day is that it can bring all deceased people back to life.
In what places such miracles occur, I do not know. However, miracles do take place in my home village. Whenever the afternoon rolls around on the last day of the year, villagers carry incense out to pay respects to their dead relatives. They invite the departed back into their homes to celebrate Tet. On that day, immediately after lunch, my father would remind me to guide my children and grandchildren out to invite my family’s departed relatives home to celebrate Tet. My siblings, along with our children, get neatly dressed and eagerly go into the fields at the village’s end. On the afternoon of that day, everything is reserved for two tasks: inviting the deceased back home to celebrate Tet and preparing the New Year’s Eve meal offering.

Duong Lam Village, Son Tay District, Hanoi.
Photo: Nguyen Anh Tuan

On the way out to the graveyard, the villagers who meet one another all ask the question, ‘So you’re out to invite the “elders” back to celebrate Tet?’ If someone, due to some matter of business, goes out to the graveyard late, then other people ask, ‘Why are you out inviting the “elders” home to celebrate Tet so late?’ The word ‘elders’ here means all of the departed. Going out to the cemetery to invite the departed back home to celebrate Tet is just like coming to the district bus station to greet family members who have gone afar on their return. When my children and grandchildren were still little, I took them out to visit the graves for the first time and told them to invite the ancestors home to celebrate Tet. My son asked me how people who were already dead could come back to life and return home. He questioned with the fear of a child who heard of a graveyard ghost story at least once. However, coming up to the present when my son is 22 years old, he still believes in them just as I do, not because he believes them as if he takes faith in fabulous stories, but rather because something truly holy, truly intimate, and truly easeful has been gently laid upon his soul.
The whole village graveyard, on the last afternoon of a bygone year, bustles with people coming and going. They light incense, fold their hands in worship and pray, inviting the deceased to come home early in time to partake of the New Year’s Eve meal along with their living relatives. And every time, I see the departed in fine scarves and dress speaking and laughing happily and urging one another to return home early.
Many times when I sit to ponder, I wonder whether or not I really see with my own eyes the departed on the last afternoon of the year and whether I just hallucinate or imagine it. But regardless of what it may be, in my heart, I have truly met all my village’s departed souls again, since, at such times, a dear, warm feeling overwhelms me. And throughout the afternoon on the last day of the year, all the way up to the last minute of New Year’s Eve, in my mind constantly echo the sounds of the inquisitive greetings, laughter and gossip of the departed. On that day, I never harbour in my heart any trace of lamentation towards my departed relatives, including those who passed away when still very young. Precisely thus do I see them still living in full. And that feeling is only on the final day of a year. Is that a miracle? It is completely a miracle.
*Mr Nguyen Quang Thieu is a well-known writer and based in Hanoi

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