My Tết holidays this year were enjoyed in Dắk Lắk Province at the home of my Vietnamese friend's parents, introduced in this previous posting. A subsequent posting presented their home as a typical rural Dak Lak house.
Since the Tết Nguyễn Đán season is all about the gathering and visiting of family and friends, we spent many hours at parties before and after the first day of the lunar new year (7 February in this year 2008). The pre-Tết parties were more lavish large affairs, with a variety of food. On Tet (the first day of the lunar new year) and the days after, individuals travel around to the homes of relatives, friends, and neighbors. Since everyone is on the road, dropping in at random unannounced times, the visiting parties are much shorter and don't involve much food. There are always a beer or two, or a glass or two of rice wine, followed by liters of green tea. Available at every home, and usually only during the first days of Tet, is a platter of watermelon seeds (hạt dưa) and ginger candies (mứt).
Vietnamese crack open the seeds with their teeth at a rate of one every 5 or six seconds, leaving the shells on the table or the floor. Since no sweeping is done in the first days of the new year (in order not to sweep out the good luck of the new year), the result is a huge pile of shells on the floor. I never did get the hang of cracking and extracting the seed in one smooth motion like the Vietnamese do.
The big pre-Tet parties were the real peak experiences for me. They were opportunities to meet the extended family and friends in one or two parties so that I had familiarity with them in advance of the smaller after-Tet visits.
Most of these large gatherings used propane gas burners for hot pots of broth, in which the various meats and vegetables were cooked. I particularly liked the fish and the various pork innards.
Like most Vietnamese meals, the food is very healthy with well-balanced portions of vegetables and grain (rice, of course) to offset the meats.
The guests sit down cross-legged on the floor in a circle around the perimeter of the room.
The younger women and the children sit in the adjacent room. These were the women that prepared and served the meal.
The great-grandmothers join the men in the main room. Most of the men are 35 or younger, members of the Vietnamese baby-boom beginning in 1975. There are very few great-grandfathers remaining in these families. The ancestor altar always features the portrait of the grandfather or great-grandfather husbands of these grandmothers. There are also few family members my age, including women. It turned out I was the second oldest male in the room (at age 61), which was a shock to me since I constantly live under the impression I am still in my thirties (and not out of vanity -- I just continue to think that way -- I still haven't grown up psychologically -- and all of my Vietnamese friends are in their late 20s or early 30s).
I also had the realization that these families came from the northern province of Nghệ An, the birthplace of Hồ Chí Minh. The men my age might have fought in the American War (my friend told me his father did at the tail-end of the war on the nothern side (he is five years younger than me)), and certainly the grandmothers would have experienced to some degree the French and American Wars. Like many Vietnamese (and many American veterans), they don't talk about the war years. On the whole, in my opinion, the Vietnamese are very present and future oriented, and optimistic that the new year brings good luck, so they don't dwell on the past. When meeting new family members and friends, they would ask where I was from, and the answer that I was an American always brought big smiles and handshakes.
It certainly helped that I was able to keep up with all of the toasts and chugging of beer. Getting right down to it, the food is only a companion to the real event -- the beer or wine, and the toasting for good luck.
I was down at the "young end" of the party. The young man next to me is a medical doctor.
No one seems to get really drunk at these events, and Vietnamese do not seem to get belligerent at all when they do have too much to drink. The smiles never end.
I am very grateful to my friend for inviting me to his parent's home, where they accepted me like a member of the family. Even though we do not speak a common language, there was no barrier to the hospitality and love they extended to me. And these are all people of great humor and sociability -- I was proud to be accepted among them.