Imagine if in the U.S. the 4th of July, Christmas, Thanksgiving, and New Years were all combined into one holiday. Imagine how epic that would be. Well, ladies and gentlemen, that’s what Lunar New Year is like in places like Vietnam, China, Singapore, Malaysia, and South Korea. I remember when I studied abroad in Beijing five years ago, I was there at the tail end of the lunar new year celebrations. You knew people were still celebrating because of the constant sound of fire crackers going off at all hours of the day and night. Whether it was 8 p.m., 1 .am., 6 a.m., or 1 p.m., you would hear the loud bang bang of fire crackers.
One memory that stands out about Lunar New Year during that time was when my study abroad friends and I were walking around at night and decided to light off some fireworks. We went to a fireworks stand, picked out the biggest barrel, and the fireworks guy told us to 1. light them off away from trees. 2. be at least 50 feet or so when the fireworks went off. We took our gigantic barrel o’ fireworks to a park, lit it, and started running. The fireworks went off right on top of us. Maybe I remember it wrong but I’m pretty sure sparks from the fireworks were coming down on us. We basically lit off the kind of fireworks you see when you go to the park. It was crazy.
This year, I was lucky to spend Lunar New Year in Vietnam with a couple of friends visiting from Seattle. I had two weeks off for the new year. I spent the 1st week traveling and decided I wanted to spend new year in Tra Vinh, the city that I’m living in currently. I’m really happy I did. Being Chinese American, my family celebrates Lunar New Year but as you can imagine, growing up in Salt Lake City, Utah, there wasn’t a lot going on besides getting together with your family, eating, lighting incense and praying in front of the ancestral shrine, and receiving red envelopes filled with lucky money. I was lucky to have a big family growing up to celebrate with but since my family has been in the U.S. for awhile now, lunar new year has turned into a secondary holiday. We don’t get time off to celebrate the lunar new year in the U.S. so week-long celebrations that happen in Asia are condensed into one evening over dinner. That’s all we get.
In Vietnam, the Lunar New Year is called Tết and it’s the most important celebration in Vietnamese culture. I was pretty excited to celebrate Tết in Vietnam. I wasn’t disappointed. Tra Vinh is a pretty small town. There’s no movie theater. Two modern supermarkets. One fast food restaurant. One main road. A handful of traffic lights. A lot of temples and pagodas and a pond. For the lunar new year though, Tra Vinh was transformed into a lively city. The streets were lined with people selling flowers and fruits, kids were practicing and perfecting their lion/dragon dances, people were cleaning and decorating their houses, and the markets were filled with people as everyone was preparing to ring in the new year.
Lunar new year is typically celebrated over a few days. New Year’s Eve, New Year’s Day, and the day or two after the new year begins. Everyone goes back to their hometowns to celebrate. A lot of eating and drinking is involved. People worship their ancestors at this time in front of their ancestral shrine, cook special new year’s food. On New Year’s Eve, people will typically stay up until midnight to ring in the new year. On New Year’s Day, most shops will be closed and people will spend the day with their families. The day after New Year’s day, people will spend time with their friends and relatives.
Lion dance practice:
On New Year’s Eve I wandered the markets in Tra Vinh looking at all the new year’s decorations and the flower market that lined the streets. On New Year’s Day, I watched a lion dance at someone’s house, visited a bunch of temples of pagodas, and celebrated with friends over several meals. The day after New Year’s Day I was invited over to a friend’s house to celebrate. The best part of Tết for me was just being able to soak in all the excitement and festivities enjoy the air of happiness throughout the city.
Since I had some friends visiting me from Seattle for the holiday, I decided to give one of my friends a real Vietnam experience by teaching him to drive a motorbike. We took to the motorbike course on the campus which is similar to the sort of course you would have to drive if you were to take your driver’s license in Vietnam. Below are a couple of videos of Martin and me attempting the dreaded figure 8. The figure 8 is like the parallel parking of motorbike driving in Vietnam. From what I’ve heard from my friends, people learn the figure 8 just so they can pass their driving test and if they were to try the figure 8 now, they would not be able to do it. You have to do the figure 8 twice, stay in the lines, and keep your feet off the ground the entire time. If you mess up any of the before mentioned things, you fail. It’s way harder than it looks. While I can drive a motorbike, my figure 8 skills are seriously lacking.