The Tết Nguyên Đán season (Tết) in Vietnam welcomes the lunar new year (similar to Chinese New Year), but most importantly, celebrates the family and its ancestors. Vietnamese, including those from overseas, take this time out to return to the home of their parents or grandparents. Therefore there is a huge migration of people up and down the country as Vietnamese travel from their work residence to their hometowns. Most workers are given two weeks or more off for this season, so this time is also recognized as the single vacation time available over the work year.
Almost all manufacturers suspend factory operations during this season, and many small businesses such as restaurants close. The normally busy markets close for at least four days, if not longer in rural areas. This means that Vietnamese must prepare for Tet by laying in a stock of food and supplies. Since home decoration for Tet is also important, this combination of preparing food, buying and installing decorations, and buying gifts or accumulating a supply of "lucky money" gives the preseason the same kind of pleasant anticipation that we westerners usually associate with our Christmas season preparations. And Vietnamese look forward all year to the reunions with their families and childhood friends back in their hometowns.
To westerners in the cities that must deal with closed restaurants and the hustle and bustle in the markets, Tet can become a burden. Therefore many expats (many of the them being teachers on a forced vacation) take this opportunity to travel elsewhere in Asia. Last year, I was in Vietnam for my first Tet season, and I enjoyed the freshness of the experience and the lavish decorations of flowers and lights in downtown Saigon. The season did go on for too long a time, however, and I missed my normal sources of restaurants and cafés. I did not look forward to staying in the city again with its energy lost.
This year, I was very privileged to be invited by a Vietnamese friend of mine to travel to his parent's farm in beautiful rural Dak Lak Province, 30-some kilometers out of the province capital of Buôn Ma Thuột.
This became a rare opportunity to see and experience how the majority of Vietnam's population on rural farms live. The result for me was one of the peak experiences of my life, tempered with the occasional tedium of constant visiting and never-ending food and drink that comes with too long of a season.
We began by leaving Ho Chi Minh City five days prior to the new year. Since most factories had just shut down, there was a rush of Vietnamese for the buses and trains leaving for the rural hometowns. We had secured bus reservations in advance, so we missed the chaotic crush at the bus ticket counters. Normally, my friend would be taking one of the crammed minibuses to Dak Lak, but I prevailed upon him to upgrade a bit to a standard bus operated by Mai Linh so I would have room for my longer legs. Luggage must also be kept to am minimum, since travel by minibus or motorbike in Vietnam does not allow lugging around much bulk. Vietnamese travel with very little since they wash clothes by hand daily. Of course I had my computer and camera, so I was overloaded. Upon arrival in Ban Me Thout (the former name for Buôn Ma Thuột), we borrowed a motorbike from my friend's uncle and biked the road to the home village with luggage and all on the motorbike.
Vietnamese often say that the country is poor, especially the rural farmers. In economic terms, this is probably correct. My friend's family own a hectare of land upon which they grow coffee, pepper, and green tea. With a harvest of 5 metric tons of robusta green bean coffee annually, they gross only US$10,000 per year at current prices (US$2.05/kilogram). But this family seems to have everything they need, including a masonry house, home-grown vegetables and chickens, and satellite TV.
In comparison with city families, they sacrifice a level of comfort and extra toys, but their demeanor and hard work indicates they are satisfied with their lives so long as their children successfully graduate from a university and find jobs in the city. And that is what has occurred for their first three children including my friend, who is now an accountant for a company in HCMC. One 12-year old child remains on the farm.
We visited many relatives and neighbors in this area, and all homes had about the same level of standard of living.
The family welcomed me with the friendly hospitality characteristic of Vietnamese, and I couldn't have been better cared for. On the other hand, the main business at hand was execution of the Tet customs, and I was encouraged to participate fully in the activities like a Vietnamese and a member of the family rather than as a western guest with accommodations made to defer to western tastes and comfort. So much the better from my point of view and curiosity about common Vietnamese life.
The family owns no vehicles other than a motorbike, so I was surprised to see such a large "parking lot" in front of their house.
It was explained that this expanse of concrete is helpful for drying the coffee beans (seeds) after the berry husks have been threshed off.
Lots more to follow in the coming days.....