by P.Q. Phan
When I was a kid, Tết was my favorite holiday season of the year for many reasons. I had a month off from school and spent most of the time with family, friends and relatives. Best of all, Tết was a time when I became more helpful than my other adult family members because of my special talents: making bánh chưng. Fifteen days before Tết I was asked into the group whose job was to prepare this special food for the season. I would sit there and boss people around, and ask them to assist me with what I needed. For a kid, that was cool.
The fifteen days before Tết is the most festive and exciting time of the year. Most kids around me, including my classmates, were busy composing The Letter to the Ambassador of Heaven while I was more excited spending time to observe changes in the city of Đà Nẵng. People repainted houses, fixed their broken windows due to the stormy season. I strolled around to find out what opera troupe was about to come to town. Those who spent their time to compose the letter were busy collecting memory of the past. On the reverse, I looked forward to what was going to happen in the future. In this respect, Tết is a special season that reflects how differently people perceive life. Some are happy because they had a good past year, others inspired because of what is coming in the future.
Everything around me was exciting because Tết is the season that people update their wardrobe. Children get new clothes and adults get better clothes—not because they need it, but just to celebrate the new year. Of course activities like these are not something you can put in The Letter to the Ambassador of Heaven, which means that Tết is all about the future not about the past. Tết is a time of high anticipation and expectation. Fifteen days prior to the New Year’s Eve, everyone would spend a majority of time to prepare for it. It is like a season that people look forward to the most during the year. They appeared to forget everything, even the haunting of war. Regardless of whether they were poor or rich, and how busy or nervous they were in wartime, they did their best to prepare for the greatest New Year celebration they could have.
After fifteen days of anticipation, the New Year Day is the lowest point because right on that day, even though you get up at 8am you already know that there is nothing else to look forward to. Who would look for the Second Day. And the Third Day is like the end of it all.
What I am trying to say is that Tết is a special season when I truly thought about the future. This is special because I don’t know of any other culture that has the same thing. Most people in the West countdown to celebrate a fulfilling past year but not necessarily to be inspired to think about what the future can bring the following year. Perhaps my anxiousness for the future was not typical because I saw my friends spending a lot of their time collecting their own past memories and not enough time anticipating and imagining the new year.
What I also liked about Tết is that it is the time when the countryside could offer much more than a city could. For the city Tết is a high time for commerce, people sell and buy but not necessarily to share. City goods are full of mứt and bánh chưng made in factories. On the contrary, the food in the countryside is finely crafted, and hand-made by each individual family. On top of that, people are happy to invite you in for a bite. Because I was a kid, this treat occured more often than it did to adults. In the countryside, Tết brought a completely different outlook to people’s life. Villages became much more alive because people didn’t have to work and could just enjoy life.
What comes with food is music. As a composer now, the word ‘Tết’ in my memory is almost identical to ‘the season of music festivals.’ The most special sounds came from the Tết activities in Đà Nẵng and its countryside. During this time, the đình was filled with their big strange sounds of the quadruple kèn, trống, and cồng chiêng; the séance house nhà đồng bóng submerged in the agitated loud haunting sounds of music from the medium attempting to communicate with their patrons’ dead loved ones before the year’s end. The opera troupes flourished during Tết because it is the only time of year that many talented musicians who were busy working during farming season can now perform for fun while making some money. During working season they can only perform excerpts or scenes from operas. During Tết, many families can perform together and do larger repertoire. Even doing it daily. Then every night, the theaters become open air exhibitions of a broad repertoire of hát bội. Tết is the time when music was most heard with performances covering various functions from religious rites to light entertainments and formal theatrical works. My love for Tết is inseparable from these musical activities as long as I live. Looking back, I realize that the more I love Tết the more I love music and this long-term love affair with music from Tết is the seed of what I become today as a composer.
In the countryside, the atmosphere was even more excited as the air was filled with exuberant and joyful sounds of bài chòi game. People sing bài chòi like rappers these days. Bài chòi is an incredible activity embodying highest vernacular culture of Vietnam. It is similar to bingo in the U.S. but much more sophisticated. The game is a very collaborative art form between poetry and music. Those without primal knowledge of the game always lose because they cannot figure out what number is called, nor are they able to figure out the riddles. Winning the game bài chòi often requires a deep knowledge of history besides the common sense. If you don’t have both, forget it. As a child I would care less about these demands. It was fun enough to observe people screaming and yelling ecstatically having fun playing the game. It is the highlight of Tết.
All things considered, what is Tết to me? It is about the two most important elements. One is its cultural spirit and this spirit shows through activities people carry out, like hát bội or bài chòi. Tết in Vietnam was the highest point of cultural life particularly in music. Two, Tết is the time to inspire people to think about the future.
-- The Vietnamese version of this article was written for and published by the Việt Tide Magazine Tết Edition 2017.