Celebrating Tet in Hanoi, Vietnam
The Adventures of The Roving Route #20
Hanoi has been a lot different than both Thailand and the Philippines. Though we are roughly on the same latitude, the temperature has dropped to the point where we can see our breath at night and it pretty much poured the entire time we were in the city. As Tet was going on, we extended our stay in order to experience it however, it didn't work out quite the way we were hoping. First, the 6 day holiday pretty much shuts down the entire city as everyone returns to their home communities or spends time with family. The restaurants that do stay open, mark up their prices at least 20% as they know there will still be the demand in the city centre. Secondly, the celebrations were very family-based. With the exception of the fireworks and Dong Da on the 5th day, locals spend their time sitting around long tables eating and drinking in their storefronts or on the street. With many attractions closed, and the constant downpours, most of our time was spent getting set up for our few months in Vietnam.
On the 5th day of Tet, there is a big event on the grounds of the Temple of Literature. The name comes from the fact that for centuries it was one of the top Vietnamese schools. Starting in the 11th century, the university was the first to be opened in the country and was based on Confucian ideologies. There are two main courtyards within the temple and each held different events this week. The first courtyard was at the base of the House of Ceremonies at the centre of the complex. Facing a large statue of Confucius, dozens of women dressed in gold, lined a red carpet where a lion dance was performed. As Vietnam has been ruled by China several times, there are strong ties between traditional Chinese elements and northern Vietnamese folk religion. These two sets of dancers dawned yellow and red outfits and had a long choreographed dance with seemingly impossible jumps and movements.
The second courtyard, surrounded by the reconstructed classrooms, held a dragon dance. Here 8 older men carried a long dragon through an intricate routine. It was incredible to watch how lifelike the movements were as the dragon zigzagged its way around the stage. Some of the men carrying it had to be over 70 years old with long thin gray beards but they seemed unfazed by the speed or weight that was required.
Across the street from the temple was the Calligraphy Festival. As Tet is the start of the New Year in Vietnam, it was traditional to come to the Temple to have calligraphers write wishes in Han Chinese characters. These intricate art pieces are then hung in the house helping to bring those wishes to life. Today, there are dozens of stalls set up with mostly older male calligraphers ready to help start your year off right. Each was incredibly skilled often with numerous massive wall hangings showing off their skills. Some were mainly dedicated to just the Han characters while others added elements such as cherry blossoms or bamboo into their designs.
As we are having a special guest join us in Vietnam for a week in mid-February, we wanted to stay put somewhere in northern Vietnam until they arrived. After some searching, we found Tam Coc a small town a few hours south of Hanoi that seemed perfect. After a short train, we instantly knew we made the right call. The town is super relaxed and while it mostly caters towards tourists, the locals are fantastic. Not only that but the scenery is unmatched. Tam Coc is known as the "inland Halong Bay" as hundreds of rock karsts stick straight up from the rice fields.
We arrived and headed to our small homestay where we were greeted by the warmest hospitality. Green tea, kettle corn, pumpkin seeds, and bananas were all brought to us before they even knew we had a reservation! Though the gentleman spoke very little English, we made conversation while finishing our tea. Only once we were finished did he bring us to our bungalow, the largest room we have had in our 3 months. Including an incredible breakfast of pancakes, fruit, Vietnamese coffee, and smoothies, we cannot complain for just $15/night!
As we are here for 2 weeks we wanted to see the place we would stay prior to booking it so our next day was spent wandering into what had to be over 20 homestays to see how they compare to our current place. At each one, we were greeted with similar hospitality. Even with a language barrier, we had great conversations and many cups of tea. Thanks to a generous Christmas gift from David and Sam, we were able to splurge on a bungalow set within a garden of fruit trees and flowers that overlooks the family's rice fields with the mountains just behind them. To top it all off, the sun sets directly out our window between two major cliffs! From the outset, we know this is going to be the perfect place to be our office for the next 2 weeks!
The hospitality of the locals goes way beyond the homestay owners as we find out daily. Walking down the street the other day, we were stopped by a woman who had just returned home from her rice field. She is going to be opening her own homestay in a month so she really wanted to practice her English and invited us to see her house. She had a gorgeous little garden where she immediately set out tea, cookies, sweets, and pumpkin seeds. After talking for about 10 minutes we moved inside and met her husband and son where more food was offered. Here she showed us hundreds of embroidered items that her family has spent hundreds of years making. Embroidery was passed to her from her father who learned it from his parents who learned it from their parents, etc. so it is safe to say it is in her blood. Her works were incredible! Some were simple white lace napkins, while others were baby shirts and even large wall hangings of people working in the rice fields. Her family was incredibly nice and her English was surprisingly good. The hospitality is even in the younger generations as well. All kids say hi and wave with big smiles. One little girl even ran past us saying hi, and then came running back a few minutes later with a bag of chips that she offered us! We honestly cannot believe that we are lucky enough to be in this spot for the next couple of weeks!
We continue to explore this area while getting some work done. Nothing is truly planned which is our favourite part about how we travel. Cheers from Tam Coc, The Roving Route