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the Lunar New Year, by bicycle

The Lunar New Year (also sometimes referred to as the Chinese New Year) is called Tet in Vietnam. It’s easily the most important holiday of the year, and the preparations for celebration are carried out much like Christmas in the States…probably why I found them so overwhelming. This includes (but is not limited to):

  • Special Tet food, most famous being the banh chung cake
  • Tet cards, all in the same color scheme, exchanged and given to children
  • Certain plants, grown specifically for the holiday: poinsettia, potted kumquat trees, and budding peach blossoms
  • Tet edition soda, candy, paper towels, and anything else
  • Tet decorations for the tree, home, street.
  • Conspicuous consumption, the purchasing of new toys and new clothes and new jewelry. Parents feeling inadequate if they’re unable to do this freely.
  • Increased inter-city travel
  • Large family banquets

Probably 30-50% of Hanoi empties out on the eve of the New Year, since its pretty common for everyone with family not from Hanoi to return to the hometown. For the first three days of the new year, the city is mostly closed, empty, and serene. It’s harder to find vegetarian food and harder to do anything social other than in the touristy Old Quarter, and most expats seem to take Tet (and the week off that most companies and schools give) as an opportunity to travel; to head to the beach or back to the UK or to the mountains for a road trip.

Having just returned from the US two weeks prior, I had absolutely no urge to leave. Andrew and I hunkered down, bought a bunch of food to cook, a pirated TV series on DVD to watch, and rented bicycles for the duration of the holiday ($3/day). We both biked a lot in Madison, and neither of us had been on a bicycle since. Our first day with the bicycles, technically New Years Eve, we spent riding leisurely around West Lake (about 11 miles)…stopping for tea, juice, lunch and photographs. It was in the high 70’s, sunny and breezy…a far cry from the weather currently being experienced by family in Vermont, New York, and Minnesota. Not a bad day, all in all.

Seeing Hanoi by bicycle is wonderful, and for people who live here I think it’s an especially important lesson. Traveling by motorbike (and even more by taxi) allows you to speed past so much of what is fascinating about Hanoi. The city is mostly flat, and a single-speed bicycle makes it accessible with very little effort. I thought I’d be nervous about wading into traffic on the vehicle that is at the bottom of the totem pole (bus>SUV>car>full motorbike>electric bicycle>bicycle), but it was quite fluid, even in the busier areas. We meandered. The bicycles had baskets, perfect for throwing your sweater when it gets too warm or the veggies you just purchased for dinner. You couldn’t pay me to travel by bicycle during the 5 months out of the year with the temperature hovering in the 90s and 100s, but right now…it’s perfect.

Our holiday extends into this week; neither of us have to start working again until Friday. This has meant we get to sleep in, watch a fair amount of Seinfeld (the aforementioned now-corny TV show specially selected for holiday bingeing), reading on the balcony, cooking delicious things. Today we took Ethel to the park for a walk, some mango and a fresh coconut (the last one was just for us) and tonight we’re making falafel.

It has been wonderful, after all the running around done in January, to get to spend so much time together, uninterrupted.  We talk about plans for 2014, for the things we want to accomplish, places we want to go, things we want to do, people we want to be. More tea, more vegan meals, more mindfulness and meditation, more yoga, more adventuring out of our Hanoi comfort zone, more new friends, more trips to the park with Ethel, more active pursuit of the lives (life) we want.

Of course, I’ve included here a selection of photographs from the past few days.


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February 2014
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