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When the going got tough, Tết got going

(No.1, Vol.3, Jan-Feb 2013 Vietnam Heritage Magazine)

Every year, as the pages from my block calendar peel off, bringing me towards another New Year, my mind is once again filled with nostalgia about an old Tết. The Tết in my memory begins with the days of my childhood in a small house nestled under a coconut grove on the outskirts of Bac Lieu Village in the Mekong Delta, Southern Vietnam. Those were the days of hardship, yet my parents worked hard so that Tết could bloom brilliantly for all of us.
I was born in 1973 and grew up during a time when poverty was common among most Vietnamese families. It was just after the American War in Vietnam and most families struggled to make ends meet. Everyone I knew didn’t have much to eat, all year round, and the children had to do all types of odd jobs to help put food on the table. Like all my friends, for the entire year, I looked forward to Tết. Tết was the only time when we could eat good food, didn’t have to work hard for an entire week, got a new set of clothes, and even got some lucky money.
In my memory, Tết preparations started months before lunar year’s end. In September, my father tended our pond to make sure that our fish would be ready for Tết. We planted chillies, onions, cabbages, and leafy vegetables which my mother and I would bring to the market to sell in order to buy the many necessities for our celebrations, such as pork, dried green peas, sticky rice, dried shrimp, fruit, firecrackers, and offerings for the ancestors’ altar. It we were lucky, there would be enough money left for my parents to buy each of us three children a new set of clothing.
A few weeks before Tết came, my father studied the weather patterns, talked to his friends and decided on the day when the leaves of our mai tree (ochna integerrima) would be stripped. I watched in amazement as the barren tree started to sprout countless green buds, which grew fuller and fuller as Tết drew nearer. My father monitored the watering of his tree every day. If mai flowers bloomed brilliantly during the first day of Tết, our family would be blessed for that entire New Year, the same effect peach flowers had when we used to lived in the North. My father taught me that the progress of the tree’s budding could be controlled by the way we watered and fertilized it. When the buds were growing too fast and could bloom too early, the tree needed to go dry for a couple of days. Conversely, when the buds were progressing too slowly and there might be no flowers on Tết, the tree received extra attention and extra fertilizer from my father.
Regardless of how poor we were, Tết was the time to look good and feel good, so every year we scrubbed and painted our house around two weeks before Tết came. My brothers and I moved our wooden and bamboo furniture out to our front yard, gave it a good wash, splashing water at each other while we worked. We then crawled into the most tattered clothes that we owned and started to paint our walls with white paint – a liquid which we had mixed ourselves from limestone powder and water. We laughed and joked while we worked, feeling happy as the gleaming white spread under our hands.
After the house was scrubbed and cleaned, I spent hours helping my mother prepare a special pickled dish. We had gone to the market the day before to buy onions and scallions. They had to be fresh, still attached to their leaves and roots. More importantly, they had to be the right bite-size. Bringing them home, we washed off dirt and mud before soaking them overnight in ash diluted with water. As I sat with my mother in our front yard, the onions and scallions no longer stung my eyes as I picked them up, peeling off the outer layers to reveal their glistening whiteness. While we worked side-by-side, I talked to my mother about our plans for the New Year, about the food we would cook, and whom my parents had chosen to be the first person to step into our house on the first day of Tet.
Many hours of squatting on low stools to prepare our pickled dish always made our backs tired and sore, but as we spread the peeled onions and scallions out on thin tin trays to dry them in the sun, we felt happy to watch our white vegetables grin back at us. They looked like flowers that had sprung up from the earth, like the purest type of beauty. While waiting for them to dry, I gathered small twigs to start a fire in our kitchen while my mother measured and mixed vinegar, sugar and salt into a pot. We boiled and cooled this liquid mixture before pouring it over our onions and scallions, which we had arranged artistically into glass jars. From time to time, I would help my mother carry these jars out to the sun, to make sure that our pickled onions and scallions would ripen in time for Tết. They always made the perfect side dish, to be savored with dried shrimp, sticky rice cakes, and boiled or stewed meat. Their fragrant sour-sweetness would melt in our mouths and helped our digestion.
The week before Tết was the busiest, but also the happiest, time. One of the most exciting events was to drain our pond to harvest our fish. We had no motorized pump back then, only a bamboo bucket to which we connected two strong ropes and took turns swinging water out of the pond. Our hands would grow tired and hours passed before we saw fish jumping up and down, trying to escape the shallow water. Our pond was not large, but large enough to reveal different secrets each year. Besides the tilapia fish which my father farmed, we also often found mullet, catfish and perch.
I remembered that for quite a few years, I was not allowed to go into the drained pond to catch fish with my two brothers. Standing on the pond’s bank, I burned with jealousy as I watched my brothers jump around in the mud; their faces were blackened by mud, their teeth white in the sunlight. They screamed excitedly each time they got a big fish, lifting it high into the air while it wiggled madly, before throwing it onto the bank, towards our direction. My job would be to scoop the jumping fish into a bamboo basket, before releasing it into a large tin bucket filled with water. Sensing that I was unhappy, my parents would tell me that catching fish with bare hands was not a task for a small girl like me. Of course, they were right. My brothers’ hands were often injured. One year, a catfish pierced its sharp thorn into my brother’s finger. He left us and ran towards the house. When I found him half an hour later, he was under his bed, clutching his hand to his chest, crying like a baby.
But the thrill of catching fish was too great for me to resist. When I was 12 years old and tall enough, I was allowed to go into the drained pond like my brothers. I remember touching those slippery, fast creatures with my fingers, I remember pinning them down to the mud and catching them by their gills. I remember how my brothers and I counted our fish and put the best ones into the large tin bucket. We filled the bucket with fresh water and tied it behind my mother’s bicycle so she could bring these fish to the market to sell. Smaller, less expensive fish would be stored in a large earthen jar, ready for our Tết.
But Tết would not be fully ready without mứt dừa, or candied coconut ribbons. As someone who had a monkey gene in her and could climb well, I was shouldered with the responsibility of picking several fresh coconuts from our trees. Our small garden was filled with fruit at that time, and my favorite was the coconut trees that spread out their protective arms over our house. These trees bore much fruit all year round. They were not too tall, but tall enough to challenge my climbing skills. As skillful as a monkey, I quickly got up to the tree’s top, leaning my body against the biggest leaf while selecting those conconuts which gleamed with several golden stripes on their dark green skins. The flesh of these coconuts would be right: not too thin and not too tough. Hanging on to the tree with one hand, my other hand would swing a sharp knife to chop the chosen cocunuts from their stems. They made happy thumping noise as they felt to the ground.
Just like catching fish for Tết, making candied coconut ribbons was a happy family event. My father and brothers chopped, then peeled away the thick outer layers of the cococuts. We then drilled a hole through the hard shells, tilting the fragrant milk into a large bowl. Later, my mother would reward each of us with a glass of delicious coconut milk. The rest of the milk would be put aside to make stewed pork and eggs in coconut juice – an essential Tết dish, but unique to the Mekong Delta.


Boiling chưng cakes for Tet in Hanoi, early 20th century.
Photo: From the archive of Nguyen Anh Tuan

Making candied coconut ribbons was fun, but it was also a test of skill and patience. After separating the white coconut flesh from its hard shell, we cut the brown, inner-skin away, then shaved the coconut flesh into thin, long ribbons. We then dipped these ribbons into hot water, drained them and then mixed them with white sugar. Our neighbors often added food coloring to make red, pink and even green coconut ribbons, but we preferred ours to be white and natural. After a few hours, when the sugar had completely dissolved into the ribbons, I would make a low fire in the kitchen for my mother to cook the coconut ribbons in a large frying pan. To help the sugar to crystalize, she needed to be skillful in stirring the ribbons occasionally with a long pair of chopsticks, giving them an equal amount of heat while not breaking them into shorter pieces. My job was to keep the fire very low, so as not to burn my favorite Tết dish. About an hour later, we would have a basket full of long, curly coconut ribbons, crystallised in their sweetness and fragrance.
As the mai tree’s golden flowers started to bloom, a breeze from the nearby ricefields would waft into my face and cause heightened sense of excitement. I knew Tết was about to knock at our door when we started to prepare ingredients to make our traditional sticky rice cakes, or bánh chưng. Bánh chưng is a must-have for Northern Vietnamese during Tết. My parents, who had migrated from North to South Vietnam during the ‘70s, embraced their roots by making bánh chưng every year while our Southern neighbors prepared bánh tét. Both of these sticky rice cakes use the same ingredients, including sticky rice, dried green peas and pork. However, bánh chưng is wrapped with lá dong (phrynium leaves), which grow abundant in the North, while bánh tét is wrapped with lá chuối (banana leaves) which you can find anywhere in the South. In addition, bánh chưng is square and thick, while bánh tét is long and round. Lastly, while bánh tét could have a “sweet” version (made with sweetened bananas), bánh chưng only has a “salted” version of pork and green peas.
The night before the important day of making our bánh chưng, I helped my mother soak dried green peas overnight and removed their skin. We also soaked sticky rice and separated good grains from brown and yellowish ones. My brothers squatted in the yard as they helped my father split bamboo stalks into thin, flat strings. These strings would be used to tie the leaves around our cakes. My mother explained that bánh chưng needed to be boiled for hours so plastic or nylon string would not be healthy.
Once these tasks were complete, my father would ask me to help him cut down phrynium leaves from our garden. When we moved South, my father searched and searched for phrynium plants, which were hard to find and harder to grow in the South. We cut the precious leaves from their stems, piled them up gently, and brought them to our yard to wash away any dirt and insects. We took care so that no leaf would be torn. Softening them under the sun or over hot coal, we set them aside as we made the final preparations.
On a large working area, my mother had spread out a clean, large plastic sheet. My brothers and I helped arrange phrynium leaves, bamboo string, and large bowls of marinated pork, dried green peas and sticky rice in the center. As we had no fridge, my mother had woken up at 5am that morning to go to the local market to buy the best pork available. The best pork for bánh chưng needs to be fresh and have the right balance of fat and lean meat. Bringing it home, my mother washed, cut the pork into large pieces, then marinated it with freshly ground pepper, fish sauce and salt.
One of the extraordinary things about my father is that he can’t cook anything (except for boiled and fried eggs), yet he is a master at making bánh chưng. While my mother, brothers and I struggled to form our bánh chưng into square shapes, using wooden molds to help us, all my father needed was his bare hands. He started by arranging several phrynium leaves on the plastic sheet, then topping it with the sticky rice, green peas, and marinated pork. Covering his artwork with several other phrynium leaves, he folded the four sides, tugging the leaves into each other so that they made a perfect square. He then tied the square cake with the bamboo string he had made with my brothers. My father said that the strings had to give space for the rice and dried green peas to expand when they were cooked. Yet these strings had to be tight enough for the rice not to leak out its wrapping. My father told us that in Northern Vietnam, where the weather was cold around Tết and families didn’t have refrigerators, bánh chưng would be released immediately into deep wells or ponds after they were cooked. Resins from phrynium leaves, once meeting the cold water, would form a thick protective layer over the cakes. Ponds and wells would act as refrigerators, keeping the cakes fresh for many weeks.
My father was so famous for his bánh chưng-making skills that many of our relatives and friends often asked us to make bánh chưng for them. While there was a lot of work involved, we did not mind since it would be more economical to make and boil over 30 bánh chưng at one time, sufficient for 7 families and for the entire duration of Tết.
After we were done with wrapping the bánh chưng, my mother took out a big pot, which she had borrowed from our rich neighbor. The pot was large and expensive, thus in our whole neighborhood, there was only one neighbor who could afford it. Families took turn to borrow the pot to boil their bánh chưng and bánh tét, while the owner did not mind. You see, although we were poor financially at that time, we seemed to be rich with generosity towards each other.
For the boiling of bánh chưng, my brothers dug a hole into the ground and my father started a fire, with the biggest logs possible in the corner of our garden. We boiled bánh chưng throughout the night, and for the first time in a whole year, my brothers and I were allowed to stay up all night to look after the fire. We huddled against each other in the dark, telling each other scary ghost stories, then giggled and huddled even closer to each other. In the early morning, we scooped out the small bánh chưng, which we wrapped ourselves, and had them for breakfast. They tasted delicious, even though they looked a shame compared to my father’s perfectly square cakes.
My father knew a lot about bánh chưng, because he is the eldest son of my grandparents. He also knows a lot about the rituals of worshiping ancestors, because our ancestors are believed to follow him, the eldest son, from North to South. On the last day of the old year, my father cleaned the family altar and arranged a special display, which included flowers, bánh chưng, an incense bowl, a bottle of homemade rice liquor, and fruits of many colors. My mother and I cooked special Tết dishes, such as boiled chicken, glass noodle soup, fried fish, stewed pork, fried vegetables, and sticky rice in red gourd. We offered our food to our ancestors around 5pm and after our ancestors had “eaten” this sumptuous meal, we gathered and enjoyed the best food of the year. The cutting of my father’s bánh chưng was almost a ceremony by itself; after untying the bamboo strings and peeling away the outer leaves, we arranged the strings across the cake’s green surface. Turning the cake upside down, we held the two ends of each string, pulling them towards each other, thus cutting the bánh chưng into square or triangle pieces. The taste of my father’s bánh chưng still remains in my mouth until today; fragrant and savory. It tasted perfect, together with pickled onions and scallions which my mother and I had prepared.
After cleaning up, I would clutch my mother’s hand as we walked to a nearby pagoda. Holding burning incense in front of my chest, my eyes closed, I would pray to Buddha to bless me with lots of lucky money that year.
Once we returned home, my brothers had hung our firecrackers on our front door, anxiously waiting for the time to set fire to them. I wish I had joined them then, because firecrackers would be banned a few years later, hence the disappearance of this long and special tradition. But at that time, I helped my mother as she hurried to set up a tray of offering, laden with fruit, flowers, liquor and incense. I carried the tray with her to our front yard and lit the incense. Watching how long my mother prayed to Heaven, I sensed how important this simple ceremony was to her and to our family. I felt that all the gods were coming to join us and my ancestors were there with us.
Finally, the New Year approached with the almost faint sounds of firecrackers from far away, then moving closer and louder towards us. My two brothers would fight for the right to ignite the firecrackers, while I stood, frozen in fear, my hands over my ears.
We woke up very early the next morning, with yellow mai flowers blooming brilliantly in our tiny living room. Burning incence filled my senses, and my happiness soared. Firecracker remnants covered a blanket of pink and red on our front yard, and the front yards of our neighbors’ houses, as well as our street. We were not allowed to sweep anything away for the first day of the New Year, so as not to sweep our luck away. I admired this red and pink carpet all day, as it twirled up in a passing wind, or lay quietly under the gold, yellow and white of chrysanthemum and mai flowers which seemed to be blooming and ushering all of us towards a better future.
I put on my new dress for Tết, a dress I had wanted all year long, while my brothers burned left-over firecrackers in our front yard. When my parents were ready, they called us into the house, handing each of us a red envelop containing our lucky money, blessed with their New Year’s wish. We would bow our heads, wishing them health, luck, success and happiness, before busting out of the house, waving the red envelopes on our hands.
But we were not allowed to go into any neighbor’s house unless we were specially invited. Our luck for the whole year depended on the fortune and character of first person who stepped his/her feet into our home on the first day of the New Year. My father often chose a senior neighbor, whose children were successul and who had a gentle and cheerful personality. The neighbor would often come before 7am on the first day of Tết, bringing my parents lots of good wishes and a red envelope for me, since I was the youngest member of the family.
Around noon our house would be filled with greetings from relatives and neighbors. Everyone visited the house of everyone else in the neighborhood. We served our visitors green tea and candied coconut ribbons. Our family members took turn visiting the houses of relatives and friends, making sure that someone was always home to greet and take care of unexpected visitors. Snacks and food were served around the clock. All the food my mother and I had spent many hours preparing came in handy; even though we were prohibited to cook during the first day of the New Year, we could always serve our guests a good meal with our bánh chưng, stewed pork in coconut, as well as pickled onions and scallions. When the cooking resumed on the second or third day of Tết, we would cook sweet and sour soup with our fresh fish, and serve our guests the freshest vegetables from our garden. Our house was an endless flow of chatter and laughter while I sneaked occasionally into my parents’ bedroom to count how much lucky money I had received. Thinking back, I realize that my parents were very strict raising me, and hardly ever showed their emotions during our daily lives. It was only during Tết that I saw their tender side. Tết allowed me to be a bit naughty and not be scolded or punished, and Tết allowed me to accompany my parents whenever they visited their friends.
Many Tets have gone by, but my mind is still clear with memories of one particular Tết visit with my mother. She had taken me to visit one of her good friends who lived on the other side of the rice field from us. I remember that we walked along the vast rice field which spread out its green arms towards the horizon. The sun was setting, tilting light onto my mother’s long, black hair. White cranes flew up, dotting the blue sky with their flapping wings. We walked in the fragrance of rice and the perfume of a spring that embraced us from all directions, and I wished then that I could go on like that forever and ever beside my mother.
These days most Vietnamese families, including my own, no longer have time to prepare for Tết in the traditional ways that we used to. Still, regardless of how busy we are, we still set aside time to enjoy Tết with our loved ones. Families are united for Tết and friends who may not see each other for the rest of the year will meet and enjoy a meal together. Perhaps Tết is important for all Vietnamese, because it reminds us of how happiness can derive from our cultural heritage and how wonderful it is to stop running after our desires to be rich, at least for a few days, and enjoy what we already have.

Nguyen Phan Que Mai
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