Monday, January 30, 2006

A letter from Hanoi to no one in particular, somewhere else, on a late January day

The Lunar New Year (Tet Vietnam) approaches

Back in my hometown Dublin, people often complain about the pre-Christmas madness – a result of the annual hype, commercialism, wintry weather, frantic shopping and the obligatory drinking – but perhaps they should be thankful the city is home to a mere 1.2 million people.

In Hanoi alone, the capital of Vietnam and the second largest city in the country, the population before the Lunar New Year Festival, known simply as Tet, swells to well over 4 million.

As a result of a constant urban-rural shift no one is really sure of the exact statistic but at times it feels like every single one of them is driving down the same road.

Vietnam's Tet holiday is best described as Christmas, New Year and Easter all rolled into one. People must give thanks to family, ancestors, house spirits, cousins, colleagues, and last, but not least, their boss.

And now with an economy accelerating towards prosperity, for the first time in the country's recent history, people can afford to celebrate.

With seemingly the entire population out shopping, the traffic, normally obscenely congested, grinds to a halt all over the city.

Near Hanoi's West Lake, on the way to the Water Park, the streets are lined with Tet-decorative plants – kumquat trees, apricot blossom trees and cherry blossom trees – and colossal pots, large enough for a plump Ali Baba to take refuge in.

As folk stop along the road, to browse and haggle, sometimes while still driving, the traffic comes a cropper. The din of beeps, shouts and motors seems to affect no one.

Blocking a bus and a string of SUVs with NGO plates, a young boy ties a kumquat tree with thick-rubber strips on to a middle-aged woman's Honda Dream.

The bus, lurching inches behind him, seems to be growling and grinding its teeth, like a Miyasaki-cartoon creation. The boy, blithely unawares, skilfully completes his task in a minute.

Afterwards, with the squat tree wobbling in the wind, the woman throttles off into the traffic while her daughter, shoved on the pillion, wraps her arms around the rump of the kumquat-pot.

At night the trees and pots remain, and in the misty rain and chilly air, the sellers sleep on two plastic-chairs pulled together, or play cards with a co-worker under the nearest street light, while trucks steam roll down the open road.

The Year of the Rooster is about to end and after a year long battle with avian flu, chickens are back on the menu. The public at large seems to think the potential pandemic has been packed off, with a nice dollop of irony, to a distant land called Turkey.

During the day, on patches of green, groups of men on their hunkers gamble on fighting cocks. A passing Australian tourist doesn't miss the opportunity for an innuendo.

Near the old quarter, home to one of the highest population densities in the world, where houses sit behind houses and living rooms are on the pavement, children play football with plastic sandals ignoring the scores of motorbikes driving past.

Restaurants heave with punters winding up to the festival. From inside a goat restaurant – considered to be sort of a local form of virility therapy – the guttural cries of "1, 2, 3, drink!" can be heard at one in the afternoon.

Inside men are swigging shots of goats' blood and goat balls liquor with huge grins spread across their reddening-faces.

As they leave, they light cigarettes, check text messages, and disappear into the swarming traffic. Not one of them wears a helmet.

According to one locally based injury prevention centre, at this time of year in Hanoi there may be up to ten times the normal rate of deaths on the road.

In newspapers Western developers try to show cultural sensitivity by saying there is no better time than the Year of the Dog for investment and growth.

Meanwhile, foreign directors of companies resign themselves to dwindling productivity as staff rush off to pagodas and fortune tellers.

All year long people have been borrowing good luck from the spirits and gods. Now they must remember to say thanks.

Red flowers, incense, fruit and fake-paper dollars sit in piles by street corners near pagodas. Offerings are also made to the ancestors in family altars where cigarettes, whisky and oranges - any kind - seem to dominate proceedings.

Gift baskets have become popular in recent years in Hanoi. Consisting of Lipton tea, Nescafe, cigarettes, Milo, ABC crackers, Pringles and cheap Bordeaux; there is not a single authentic Vietnamese product in most baskets. Popular families will end up with 20, while thrifty families play pass the parcel with them.

Everywhere people window shop for decorations and food – dried fruit, candied fruit, traditional bean cakes, and sticky rice - while driving their motorbikes.

A husband and wife point at shops, bickering over prices to each other, with all four eyes looking away from the road they drive straight ahead.

Those running out of petrol are never far away from someone with a 2-litre bottle of fuel. But the price is hiked from VND22,000 ($1.5) to about VND30,000 or more. Why?

“It's Tet already,” a street side seller says with a cute smile a week before Tet. Everyone needs to make a little extra.

A 13th month salary, or Tet bonus, is common for Vietnamese staff. Though, it is said that employees, to maintain favours for the following year, buy lavish gifts for bosses, or even just pass them an envelope, as a goodwill gesture. What comes around goes around.

Soon the mass exodus begins. New Year falls on January 29th this year. Anyone from outside Hanoi makes their way home. Planes, trains and buses in every direction to the countryside are all booked up.

Many pay for the cheap seats and stretch out on the floor at night. Cabins are packed with a multitude of gifts, trees, liquor and the sounds of happy chatter.

Some will sleep, while others smoke, sitting over hot tea, their legs jigging with excitement. For Vietnamese people, there is no place like home.

At the airport Viet kieu (overseas Vietnamese) return for the holiday. Such the pressure to show they have prospered abroad it is said the less financially successful ones rent out expensive watches and gold ear rings for the trip.

The city will empty out in a matter of days and the mood of the country will be transformed. An American writer, Dana Sachs, said for the best part of the year the Vietnamese follow the Western calendar, but for one week they follow the moon. Everyone is blissfully distracted.

After the intense build up every single one of them deserves a break. Throughout the year many Vietnamese have no leisurely Sundays, bank holiday weekends or summer breaks to the seaside.

So as the country finally puts its feet up and dreams of the year ahead, with all the trimmings, the streets of Hanoi are as close to deserted as they'll ever be.

Who would expect the Year of the Dog to begin with the all too unfamiliar sound of silence?

From the archives, if you miss or remember the kumquats


michaelkelly Kelly said...

lovely stuff K'Nowla, I feel like I'm there

pittstop designer said...

Hmmm, the odd thing this year the roads seem pretty busy after New Year's Day. ah well, that's progress for ya.

elliott said...

Tren len!