When I unpacked the paper ox ornament last week, it reminded me why I love travel: serendipitous happenings, cultural immersion, and the opportunity to mingle with “citizen diplomats.”
With today being the Lunar New Year (called Tết in Vietnamese), it seems fitting to reminisce on a special memory that I made while visiting Hanoi, Vietnam back in 2009.
It was a chilly January evening, and also the beginning of the year of the ox. I was staying at a hostel in Hanoi and had been attending a costume party, where globetrotters from around the world were celebrating Australia Day. I was enjoying mingling with fellow travelers from South Korea, Ireland, and England. However, I was curious how the Hanoi residents were celebrating Tết (the country’s most popular holiday), so I left the hostel’s social gathering.
Having been in Vietnam in the days leading up to Tết, I’d watched locals preparing for days—effortlessly packing bags of groceries, cartons of party supplies, and even pink peach-blossom branches onto their motorbikes. Incredibly, even multiple family members managed to ride on these jam-packed motorbikes at the same time!
After I left the hostel’s social event, I strolled through Hanoi’s dark, mostly sleepy streets in search of Tết celebrations. Using my peripheral vision, I spied vignettes of families celebrating together inside store fronts that doubled as homes. As I rounded one street corner, my curiosity must have been apparent when I made eye contact with the people inside. Before I knew it, I’d been ushered into their home and showered with cheerful Chúc mừng năm mới (Happy New Year!) greetings.
The family then graciously shared cups of green tea, a shot of plum liqueur, and snacks ranging from nuts and salty crackers to pumpkin seeds.
At one point, the family’s eldest daughter, who spoke impeccable English, handed me a red envelope filled with coins. She then explained 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 own country’s history with Vietnam, and my uncertainty weeks before about how I would be received there, I privately reflected upon just how remarkable this meeting was.
Before I left the family’s home, the eldest daughter walked to a table holding a vase filled with peach blossom branches. She removed a red-and-gold paper ox ornament from one of the branches, and on lined notebook paper, she scrawled new year’s-greetings to me. She then neatly folded her paper message and tucked it into the “pocket” of the ox ornament.
When I rediscovered her message last week, along with the cheerful ox courier, it brought a smile to my face. I also felt a renewed desire to somehow return the kindness I’ve been extended during so many of my travels. Perhaps that’s a fitting resolution for this Lunar New Year…
To my Vietnamese friends and readers, I say, Chúc mừng năm mới — all the best during the Year of the Snake!
Note: Group photos courtesy of my Vietnamese hosts in Hanoi.
Earlier in the evening, I’d attended a costume party at a hostel, hence the ‘bindi’ decoration (a Hindu marking) on my forehead.
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Photography & text © Tricia A. Mitchell. All rights reserved.