A Vietnamese New Year’s Reminiscence

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.

A red and gold Vietnamese ox paper ornament, for the Vietnamese Lunar New Year celebrations (left) and aperson rides a motorbike on a street in Ha Noi, Vietnam, at night (right).

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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!

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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.

Where in the World?

Photography & text © Tricia A. Mitchell. All rights reserved.

Published by Tricia A. Mitchell

Tricia A. Mitchell is a freelance writer and photographer. Born in Europe but raised in the United States, she has lived in Valletta, Malta; Heidelberg, Germany; and Split, Croatia. An avid globetrotter who has visited more than 65 countries, she has a penchant for off-season travel. Tricia has learned that travel’s greatest gift is not sightseeing, rather it is the interactions with people. Some of her most memorable experiences have been sharing a bottle of champagne with distant French cousins in Lorraine, learning how to milk goats in a sleepy Bulgarian village, and ringing in the Vietnamese New Year with a Hanoi family. She welcomes any opportunity to practice French and German, and she loves delving into a place’s history and artisanal food scene. A former education administrator and training specialist, Tricia has a bachelor’s degree in elementary education and a master’s degree in international relations. She and her husband, Shawn, married in the ruins of a snowy German castle. They’ve been known to escape winter by basing themselves in coastal Croatia or Southeast Asia. Her writing has appeared in Fodor’s Travel, Frommer’s, and International Living.

18 thoughts on “A Vietnamese New Year’s Reminiscence

  1. What a wonderful experience and memory. This shared humanity…sipping tea and sharing treats as well as meaningful conversation is indeed a symbolic way of remembering Tet. And of course the ox ornament proves it. Beautiful post and accompanying pictures telling the story, Tricia.

      1. I did, Lynne, and found it to be quite inspiring! A year or so ago, I was surprised to read that Mortenson had been accused of mismanagement of funds and fabricating some of the book’s happenings. Here’s hoping that the allegations were unfounded, but a quick search of the web today turned up headlines that weren’t pleasant.

  2. I love the Vietnamese New Year lucky money and guest tradition. I have several Vietnamese friends and I am in awe of their customs. I love them. What a remarkable and cherished togetherness you had. Lovely post :)

      1. No, I have only eaten their fabulous food! One of these days when we all have time I will ask them. They work hard outside of their homes with their own businesses; plus having children/family. Possibly one day :)

    1. Terri, I do have a weakness for sentimental objects because of the special memories they elicit. I’m a self-described nomad and nester. :) As an extensive traveler yourself, how have you managed the trinkets you have or haven’t picked up along the way?

      1. Hi Tricia, Early on we had an extensive collection of trinkets. But fortunately we realized we wanted to “travel lightly” whether we were wandering or nesting. We donated, sold and gifted everythingexcept a few fun, momentous items. We only own enough to simply furnish our little condo (aka Basecamp Gallivance). Now we just turn the key and head out any time we want, for as long as we want. What about you two?

    1. Bashar, I haven’t been to China during the New Year’s celebrations, so I can’t say for sure. Both the Chinese and Vietnamese are based on a lunar calendar, though. Travel reinforces the notion that there’s so much to be learned!

  3. a beautiful story Tricia! And I love your sentiment about travel: “serendipitous events, cultural immersion, and the opportunity to mingle with unassuming citizen diplomats.”

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