Quỳnh and I returned to Hà Nội for Tết 2019. Visiting for Tết, as I would come to learn, is completely different from visiting any other time of year. Businesses close for the week, streets are empty (because the businesses are closed), and every sign and advertisement is wishing you “Chúc mừng năm mới!”
Ngày 1 / Day 1
3 airports, 8 in-flight movies (New York to Korea without sound), and 21 hours in the air and I finally land at Nội Bài airport. One might wonder as to why, with such an itinerary, I would watch movies without sound. Dear readers, the answer is simple: I had my headphones plugged into wrong jack.
As I (and consequently the fella next to me) learned, the headphone jack is not standardized across manufacturers. Sitting in the middle I had a jack to both my left and my right, so I picked based on my last flight. I received the in-flight announcements, and intermittent sound that didn’t match up with what I was viewing. Of course, that’s because I was listening to whatever the guy next to me was playing!
Well, by this time I had forgotten about the jack to my left and the guy to my right wasn’t saying anything so I figured perhaps I just had a busted screen. After those movies I’m not any closer to being a lip reader, but I’m muuuuch better at making a narrative!
C’est la vie.
I landed at Nội Bài, greeted with that familiar humidity and men in green uniforms. At the customs line I figured I would try the Vietnamese I’d been practicing all month. I approached the officer and, beaming with pride, hit him with the clearest Vietnamese I could muster. He smiled and said nothing, looked over my passport, stamps me, and says “…. đội mũ…” I had missed the first part of what he said, but I understood mũ (hat) but doi? I thought “doi” meant hungry! Oh no! So I did like any foreigner would do: Smiled and laughed. I know he said something about my hat– my inner optimist thinks he liked my hat, loved it even. As it turns out, the Vietnamese have three words for wear. He used one of the two I didn’t know. Since I missed the first part of his sentence, my memory shall always be that he liked my hat 🙂
I found my luggage, walked into the busy arrivals area where mom & Quynh awaited me.
To make things easier, we booked an Airbnb through a friend and stayed in the Nghia Tan neighborhood of Hanoi. Our homestay, Hanoi 1991, was clean, fun, and perfectly located. As I arrived around lunch, mom made a delicious multi-plate meal (all vegetarian) and watched us dig in.
Mom’s banquet included Tết-staple Bánh Chưng (sticky rice cake), braised radish and vegan Viet ham, bún (rice noodle), mushroom pate, and toast! Now, no meal in Hà Nội is eaten properly unless you’re on some kind of children’s furniture- so we busted out the tiny blue plastic table that would be the site of every home cooked meal in the house.
Quỳnh warned me we had a lot of folks to see today. Feeling the onset of food coma rapidly approaching, I teased my body with a quick nap and a hot shower. Within two hours of lunch, we were off to meet Ông Hùng (Grandpa) in Mai Dịch.
His smile wide, “Xin chao!” passes his lips with a hug following close behind. He asks me a question as he surreptitiously lights his cigarette. (His granddaughter has been lecturing him about smoking)
“Coffee or tea?”
Not one to wait for the indecisive, Ông brings me instant coffee and readies tea. You know, just in case.
Visiting Ông is always a good time. Smiles and laughter come easily, wine and tea flow freely. The unmistakable aroma of Vinataba cigarettes fills the air and in a flash every memory of our previous visit passes before me.
Though we expected to have a meal with the Mai Dịch family, Dad was out in the province and Co Xuyen was teaching. We opted instead to enjoy a table full of Tết snacks and bring each other up to speed on the goings on of the last month. As cigarette number two folded in the ashtray, we saw ourselves out and headed to Grandma’s for dinner.
Readers, in case you don’t know: Tết is a holiday where you are obliged to go around to visit everyone you know to wish them well. With family you’ll eat meals and in between meals you’ll go “Chúc Tết” (read: well wishing). During said well-wishing, you will be watered and fed (sometimes liquored) regardless of your stomach’s capacity. My advice? Make it work!
Grandma lives in a flat down an alley across from Hồ Chí Minh’s mausoleum. Many of the alleys in this area look identical. My landmark here is a street vendor selling Bia Hanoi and cigarettes. Quynh told me once that this same vendor has been there since she was a kid– I hope this vendor is hear for a while because without her I’m lost.
When we arrived, Grandma and Dì Trang had cooked their butts off. In typical Joe and Q fashion, we were a bit late (eek!) but everyone was lighthearted and glad to see us. My cousins Tú and Vũ were there and seemingly tuned into grown men in just two years! Tú looks like a Viet rock star. Honestly, I’m envious of his look– I look like Gomer Pyle and he could be Viet John Stamos (90’s John Stamos, of course).
Sisters Bông and Ỉn (pet names for kids) also grew up overnight. Both had been so small only 20 months ago, now they were walkin’, talkin’ people!
Dinner was had with everyone gathered around the tatami mat eating and talking. Though I was full to the gills with airplane food, lunch, beer, and tea; the food was too yummy to say no! Finishing dinner, I listened intently (but none-the-less confusedly) to the conversation. I didn’t understand much of it, but basically everyone was nominating me to get Grandma to come upstairs and take a group picture. It took a fair amount of begging, some butchered Viet, and a lot of cramming but we got a great picture in the end.
Mom, Q, and I headed back to the home-stay and ended the night with some flower gelatin mom bought (yes, more food!). It might be the food, or the dimly lit room, or the occasional scooter passing within inches of the door, but it hits me that truly I’m back in Hà Nội. It’s hot, it’s noisy, and it’s polluted. Traffic is crazy and I’m sleeping on a bamboo mattress. I love it.