It’s official, the Year of the Golden Goat is upon us. Hanoi is slowly returning to its usual levels of crazy and people are returning to work – I know because, as I write, I’m listening to the rumble from one of the many building sites that encompass my flat and have been blissfully silent for the last week. Restaurants are opening again, and we made it all the way through the week without running out of drinking water, though the bread situation became desperate. For those that are unfamiliar with Tet, it is the lunar new year celebration in Vietnam, which generally falls on the same day as the Chinese new year. It’s a huge celebration here, and also marks the start of spring.
The weeks leading up to the holiday were bizarre. The roads somehow became more hectic, new toy shops sprang up around the city and on the back of every scooter was a cherry blossom or kumquat tree. Perhaps strangest of all, though, people everywhere began to offer contradicting advice to get us through. It seemed everyone we know had booked a holiday to a sunnier part of Asia. Given that most of the ex-pats here are teachers, and that the Tet period is given as a holiday from school, this is hardly surprising. What was surprising was that every teacher was going for a different reason. Some were leaving because the city is insane during Tet, declaring it’s close to impossible to get around as the roads come to a standstill with tooting scooters. Others were leaving because the city becomes a ghost town, insisting that we buy enough food to last us a week as they promised not a shop or restaurant would open. Others, it seemed, had never stuck around to find out what happens, and never intended to. After seeing in the new year with some Vietnamese friends watching the fireworks over West Lake and exploring a nearby pagoda, we turned in for the night.
When I woke up the following morning I’m not entirely sure what I was hoping for, a city brimming with celebrations or the ghost city so many people had promised. When I woke up there was silence. No beeping horns, no drills, just sweet, sweet silence. And so it continued for the next few days. Restaurants, shops and supermarkets were all closed, bia hoi corner was not. Surviving the city during Tet is easy; buy plenty of food in advance, get a pack of cards, and drink beer. For those that were invited to celebrate in villages outside of the city, it may be a bit of a different story. I read a fantastic post on Hanoi Massive, a Facebook page for travelers, ex-pats and locals, about surviving the Tet holiday in the countryside. Since the holidays have finished I’ve been flooded with hilarious stories of unsuspecting westerners who could have used the advise. So, here is the ultimate guide to surviving Tet in the Vietnamese countryside.
This survival guide is accurate not only for Tet, but for any drinking-heavy festival, celebration or party throughout much of South East Asia, where it is commonly considered rude to refuse a drink. If you find yourself in such a situation, follow these rules and you might make it home in one piece!
First up, let’s talk about food. During a day of Tet celebrations, you’ll likely be whisked from house to house, each insisting on a full meal. So, tip number one is ABC – always be chewing! Take small bites and make them last. Chew even when there’s nothing in your mouth. Just don’t stop as long as there’s food being served, unless you want to be rolled home at the end of the day. Another tip is to begin mentioning that you’re full way before you are. Drop the odd hint here and there, “I’m starting to get a little full”, “that looks so good, but I can only manage a tiny piece because I might explode”. Throw in the odd belly rub, puffed out cheeks, I’m so full look for added authenticity.
If you survive the mountain of food, your next hurdle is the dink. Remember, in many Asian cultures, including Vietnamese, it’s considered rude to turn down a drink, and you’re expected to join in with each and every cheers (which come every 3-5 minutes). Given the frequency of the toasts, I would recommend only drinking when invited to do so. Even sticking to this rule, you may not make it out alive! Try not to find yourself cornered away from the main group, this will more than likely result in extra toasts, as everyone invites you to join them.
Next, let’s talk about placement in the group. At every Tet gathering there’s a red-faced grinning man, usually clutching a bottle of home-made rice wine. He is drunk, and he wants to destroy you and anyone else he can. So, you have two choices, the safe choice is A- avoid him at all costs. Don’t make eye contact with him, don’t speak to him and definitely don’t sit near him. Option B is a high risk, high reward strategy, so tread carefully. Be the guy or gal that takes over from him, fill peoples glasses as soon as they’re empty, particularly the red faced mans. It’s risky, but if it works you’ll be able to drink half the amount you would if someone else was doing the pouring.
Another high risk, high reward strategy is to keep an empty/half empty can of beer next to you, and use it to oh-so-slyly displace rice wine. This comes with a big warning, if you get caught you’ll never make it home. This is certainly one that can be used at any drinking heavy celebration throughout Asia, and indeed, the rest of the world. I might add on to the end of this, that it’s probably more successful to use this one at the beginning of the evening: As you become more and more intoxicated, you may be less and less subtle than you think.
Something that I’ve never quite managed to get on board with is putting ice in beer, which is pretty popular in many parts of SE Asia. Tet, and other similar celebrations are the exception. Water that booze way down, please, I don’t care if it tastes nasty, so long as it doesn’t come back out the way it went in, thank you.
Stick with these tips, and 18 hours of eating and drinking later you might just about be able to stand! Final tip, keep an eye on your designated driver throughout the day! What tips would you add to the list?