*The Debatewise Blog
Tet with a Non-VietnameseI was scurrying in front of the arrival gate at Tan Son Nhat airport. My friend ought to have checked out already because it was displayed that her flight had arrived. It was very hot and sunny, a typical day at Ho Chi Minh City. “There she is!” Alice, in her verdant green tee, smiled a big grin and gave me a warm hug after jamming through a line of tourists. We took a cab home. Because it was the first time I had taken a foreigner friend home, I was both carried way and worried the night before that she might not feel comfortable living in a real Vietnamese household. Cultural shock, that is quite understandable. Anyway, I had cleaned up the house and stocked up the fridge with a variety of food in case she would miss the Western cuisine, so it would at least not be awkward.
It was only two days before Tet. Wanting to show her as much as possible the biggest holiday in Vietnam, I took her around, trying to be at my best informative. “Fake clothes, house and vehicles are burnt so that our loved ones in the other world could receive them. See this dollar bill! The yellow paper symbols gold, and the white one, silver.” Alice stared at me in amusement. She later confessed that the first time she saw those things burnt was in her neighborhood in Hanoi a few months ago. “I thought it was such an insane thing to burn clothes, but then I realized they were not real ones,” she confessed. Although she did not look quite convinced, or rather did not quite believe, in the practicability of the practice, she joined me in burning those fake items.
“Okay, now both of you can get in!” Alice and my younger sister, born in the year of the dog and the year of the horse, were the first visitors to my house this year. This practice is meant to bring prosperity and good luck to the family throughout the whole year. Alice seemed quite happy that she had brought prosperity and good luck to my family this year. She beamed at me and said, “Now you’re all lucky.”
The first day of Tet was spent at my paternal grandparents’ house. The house was noisy with my little cousins playing around rambunctiously. “I’ve never seen such a huge family!” exclaimed Alice as soon as she realized almost thirty people were there. “So this’s what I mean by “huge”.” I turned to Alice, continued, “Tet’s also the biggest family gathering. It’s like Christmas in Europe and America, I guess.” Then came the food! Alice is quite an easy eater and loved almost everything. She tried all that she did not know, and her favorite is pickle, the one eaten with “banh chung” (rice stuffed cake). She did not quite like baloney but never said no to mango. “There’re many kinds of fruit I never saw before I came to Vietnam,” she told me when I gave her a star-fruit. “Like rambutan fruit, dragon fruit and logan.” Plus, contrary to my initial thought, Alice loved white milk sold along the streets and acclaimed that it was the best white milk. It relieved me to see her enjoy almost everything because I was worried that she might be picky about food.
We went to the flower fair at night. Alice heard about it from one of my great aunt and insisted that we would go there. The cab left us at the rear of the fair, and we walked inside. It was after a day of good food, so we were both happy to have a walk. Alice loves taking photos as long as she is not in those. Knowing that, I kept teasing her by asking, “Do you want a photo?” before moving to the second part,” I mean without you in it.” She would give me a look meaning “You know what I mean, don’t you?” Then both of us would laugh. Her favorite part in the fair was the lanterns. “You love lanterns that much?” “Yes, very much. I’ll have some in my own house,” she smiled a big smile while enthusiastically expressing her affection for the hand-made lanterns.
It took us about one and a half hour to get home from the flower fair. Of course, we walked. On the way home, I let her try other kinds of sweet like “com dep”, “banh nuong” and “bo bia ngot”. Alice did not have much appetite for the first, liked the second and was in love with the third. “Bo bia ngot” is the name for a kind of sweet rolls. The wrapper is opaque white, unlike the translucent rice paper used for spring rolls and egg rolls; and the stuffing includes dried coconut (Jeez, Alice loves coconut and anything that has coconut in its name!), sesame and thin sugar bar (Despite the name, the sugar bar is crispy and does not hurt the teeth! :D). After the first roll, Alice decided that she would have another one immediately.
Alice looked quite tired. “OMG, it was so noisy I couldn’t help,” she confessed after we got home. “It’s really different in my hometown in Germany.” I listened tentatively as she went on,” I don’t understand why people were so noisy.” “Ah, come on, we were playing cards. And that wasn’t noisy, mind you! It’s a whole lot noisier at other houses.” She rolled her eyes to high heaven as though I was giving her the most glory details from an imaginary place. “Ha, not everything is perfect.” I tried to enlighten the conversation, “At least, you liked being given lucky money, don’t you?” I grinned. “Hum, you know how to get me, don’t you?!?” I still remember Alice almost cried when she got her first lucky money from my mom. “It’s just nominal, but it’s to bring you good luck,” said my mom before she reached the greeting part and handling the little red envelop to Alice.
“Let me know when you come,” we hugged each other good-bye before she checked in. I know Alice is easily moved at the air-port (actually, she told me that she can’t stop tears from rolling down on her cheeks to see people at the air-port), so we both made the “painful” part as quick as possible. “Okay, I will. Take care!” Then she lifted her back-pack up and got in. She did not look back, yet she must have been smiling. Or perhaps tears were full in her eyes…
Quynh Van Duong, Vietnam