For my family, Lunar New Year – tet in Vietnamese – is the most important celebration of the year. My parents used to host huge parties where the men would get wildly drunk discussing politics and recalling the past, and the women would gather in the kitchen chatting about their day-to-day lives and preparing plates of food.
I fondly recall the abundant food of these occasions. Colourful fragrant salads and home-cooked contributions such as chao huyet – rice congee with small cubes of congealed pig’s blood and cha gio – deep fried spring rolls, the kind using rice paper instead of egg pastry that would break into dozens of pieces when bitten into. More traditional offerings included sticky rice cakes filled with fatty pork and yellow mung bean, and Chinese-style sweets that came in plastic red octagonal containers (the eight-sided figure ‘promoted prosperity’). New year sweets do not particularly look fit for human consumption. I would carefully avoid the sugary lotus seeds and worse still were the watermelon seeds, which weren’t even sweet at all. The red pith always left a bitter taste. The one delight in the red octagon was the slivers of candied coconut I’d happily chew.
The coming of the Lunar New Year was also marked by the arrival of a store-bought roast pig, with its head and hooves intact. It was always ordered from the same butcher in Cabramatta, which did a roaring trade around the new year. My father would ritually offer the purchased pig to the spirits of the land through an elaborate ceremony in the kitchen involving incense, prayers and cognac. Conveniently, he would down the cognac after it had been ‘offered’.
Even though we’re Catholics, Vietnam’s ancient animistic beliefs are alive and well in our suburban home, and mainly through my father. He converted to Catholicism in his twenties to marry my mother, who was from a Catholic family. Before that he had been a Buddhist. And predating both religions is the first true system of belief he was exposed to, Confucianism, which underpins the annual offering. The pig is offered to the spirits that look after the land we live on – a bit like councillors with the authority to make local decisions. Above them is their boss – God. He entered into this system when Catholicism became my father’s religion; there’s no God in Buddhism. My father believes there is a hierarchy in the spirit world, like any good Confucian would.
He doesn’t expect me to do what he does every year, though I know he’s sad that the ceremonial offering to the spirits will likely die with him. I’m sad too…but it’s not just me that’s discontinuing the tradition.
When I was in Vietnam last year, I told my aunt – my mother’s only sister still living there – about my father’s animistic ritual and she scoffed. “No one does that here anymore.” It was certainly hard to believe that there was room for spirit offerings in the hustle and bustle of Ho Chi Minh City, where spirits would have to jostle for space alongside everyone else. In Vietnam’s main metropolis, the sacred seems to be largely subdued by the sound of revving engines and the incessant roar of capitalism.
I came back to Australia and reported my aunt’s claim that no one still makes the offering to the spirits, that it was an outdated tradition. My father was visibly annoyed. “Only educated people still follow these rituals, I wouldn’t expect your aunt to be someone who knows anything about this tradition.” The ultimate Vietnamese put-down – not being educated. My mother confirmed that her sister wasn’t the kind of person who would know anything about ancient traditions.
However, in Vietnam, there are still vestiges of tradition everywhere you look, but my no-nonsense business-oriented aunt is not one for overly ethereal rituals…well, except for the Catholic ones, that is.