Hey Ho, Tet’s Go!

The Tet holiday for an expat can be a slightly strange experience. A little like arriving at a party that has been hyped up for weeks only to find a few people at the venue playing party games whose rules they are unwilling or simply unable to explain, and although you are made to feel welcome you can’t shake the nagging suspicion that the real party may be tomorrow or may have in fact have been yesterday, that you’ve failed to understand the subtleties of the dress code and despite many assurances to the contrary, you were supposed to bring that bottle of wine after all.
So it was that I approached my second Tet with some trepidation.
As a result of this confusion I decided to accept any invitation from a local so as to try and better understand the whole deal. I thus made the spur of the moment decision (read: promise, to a Vietnamese) that I would definitely visit the hometown of a friend from work sometime during Tet, at least for one day.
Now Tay Ninh is not exactly a journey of Magellan-like distances, however, a 200km round trip with a passenger (all 45kg of her) in one day is a fairly decent day’s motorbike ride on Vietnamese roads.
The day started well enough, I met my passenger Trinh at the designated spot, simply described to me as “the place you bought the TV”, right on time, and we were away.
With assurances such as “of course I know the way, I’ve lived here 15 years, I am Vietnamese!” my mind was at ease and I focussed on the relaxing day ahead.
It was after taking a left turn at the edge of the city that I felt worry creeping up from the downstairs department, up through the gut instinct area and onwards into the grey matter. “I’m sure the sun rises in the east” I thought to myself, “it’s on our left” I observed inwardly, “we’re heading south, Tay Ninh is north west” I muttered softly, “WE”RE GOING THE WRONG WAY!!” I screamed above the highway noise. A quick stop for directions confirmed that we had in fact been going the wrong way since the left turn 15km back. We eventually got back to the city limit 45 minutes after the initial wrong turn, Trinh, unfazed, simply smiled and said “ok, now we go.”
Tay Ninh is famous for three things apparently, the large Cao Dai pagoda that many locals and tourists visit, a mountain with a Buddhist temple on the top (and a fun park at the bottom) and the production of a special type of rice paper, which to this foreign mouth felt like chewing on a sheet of A4 covered with salt and chilli.
I’d been warned that I was to be the only foreigner to have entered the house in 35 years, I now believe that I may well have been the first foreigner in that whole village for a generation.
The welcome was great and I felt very honoured, the family of my friend Kim Tri were wonderful people. Once the introductions were over lunch preparations hit code red, this was going to be a feast.
Now a 100km motorbike ride tends to shake up the internal organs a little and a quick trip to the brasco was urgently needed. “Just go out through the kitchen door” I was told, “just turn to your left” I was also told, what everybody neglected to mention was that one metre outside the kitchen door were three of the largest pigs I have ever seen. I realised then what a unique experience this was.
Kim Tri’s father later told me, somewhat dejectedly, that they only weighed about 250kg and that I should have seen the one he just sold that was 350kg! He was visibly swelling with pride as he told me this.
Lunch with the family was fantastic as expected and having your beer constantly topped up was enjoyable but probably not the ideal preparation for the ride home.
Now what is it with uncles? Every family seems to have one who is always late, always far drunker than anyone else and always insists on making sure that any guests get as drunk as he is. Needless to say, pathetic excuses of “no sorry, I’ve got a long ride home” explained in broken Vietnamese weren’t going to cut it in this company, especially at Tet. Resistance was indeed futile. So later, after numerous rice wines, I was allowed to leave the table thinking a short rest might be in order. “No” I was told, “now we go climb the mountain, then go to pagoda, then you can go home”.
It dawned on me that this was not actually the relaxing day in the country I had signed up for but the rice wine kicked in and along with it the second wind, off to the mountain we went.
The mountain has a theme park with no discernable theme and it was absolutely packed with Vietnamese, and of course one Australian, but it was a lot of fun. It is little disconcerting though when the only things taller than you in a very crowded space are a couple of giant, fibreglass chickens.
The Cao Dai pagoda just needs to be seen. Some will love it, others will hate it, I actually thought it was great. If Gaudi had have been Asian the Sagrada Familia may have looked like this.
As the clock struck 8pm Trinh and I finally set foot back in district 3, Hcmc. I could hardly walk for the next hour, was dying for a beer and I was absolutely filthy but I felt incredibly lucky to have had the chance to experience a small part of Tet like a local.
To flog an earlier metaphor, I still have no idea about the rules of the game or even its exact name but I’ll always be thankful for being invited to run out onto the field to try and participate.
To Trinh and Kim Tri & family a huge THANK YOU.

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