When I unpacked the wide-eyed, red and gold Vietnamese ox ornament last week, it reminded me why I love travel: serendipitous events, cultural immersion, and the opportunity to mingle with unassuming citizen diplomats. With today being the Vietnamese New Year, or Tết, it seems fitting to reminisce on a Hanoi happening from my travel memory bank that epitomizes all three characteristics.
On a chilly January evening in 2009 – the year of the ox – I’d briefly stepped away from a gathering of globetrotters at a hostel in Hanoi, Vietnam. Earlier in the evening, I’d been mingling with travelers from Ireland, England, and Korea who were celebrating Australia Day, yet I was more curious how the Hanoi residents were ringing in Tết in the homes on the streets below. Having been in Vietnam in the days leading up to the country’s most popular holiday, I’d observed locals as they crammed groceries, party supplies, and delicate pink peach-blossom branches onto jam-packed motorbikes. Amazingly, nuclear families managed to squeeze on them too!
As I strolled through Hanoi’s dark, mostly-sleepy streets, I spied vignettes of families celebrating together in store fronts that doubled as homes. As I rounded one corner, my inquisitiveness gave me away. I made eye contact with the family inside, and before I knew it, I’d been ushered into their home, with hearty Chúc mừng năm mới (Happy New Year!) greetings.
The family graciously shared cups of green tea, a shot of plum liqueur and finger foods, ranging from nuts, to salty crackers, to pumpkin seeds.
The family’s eldest daughter, who spoke impeccable English, handed me a red envelope filled with coins, while explaining the Tết ’lucky money’ custom to me.
When one of the male family members heard that I was working in Europe, he mentioned that he’d previously lived in the former Soviet Union. Reminded of the Cold War, my country’s shared past with Vietnam, and my uncertainty weeks before about how I would be received there, I privately reflected upon just how remarkable our meeting was.
Before I left the family’s home, the eldest daughter walked to the bundle of peach blossom branches and removed its paper ox ornament. On lined notebook paper, she scrawled new year’s greetings to me, neatly folded the message and tucked it into the ox’s pocket.
When I rediscovered the message last week, along with the cheerful ox courier, it brought a smile to my face, as well as a renewed desire to return the kindness I’ve been extended during so many of my travels. A fitting resolution for this Vietnamese New Year…
To my Vietnamese friends and readers, I say, Chúc mừng năm mới, and all the best in the year of the snake!
Note: Group photos courtesy of my Vietnamese hosts in Hanoi. And yes, I’m sporting a ‘bindi’ (traditional Indian marking). As part of the evening’s earlier Australia Day celebrations at a costume party, I wore a silk Cambodian shirt and pants, with a bindi thrown in for good measure. It’s the best I could do given the mishmash of international clothes in my backpack.