A Memorable Tết 2023 in Tân Châu

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January 28th 2023
Published: January 28th 2023
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Here I am again - in Tân Châu, my wife’s home town, celebrating Tết, the Vietnamese New Year. This is perhaps my 14th annual Tết visit to Tân Châu . Thuy has been part of my life since 2005 – for many years my girlfriend, since 2013 my wife – and, when Tết arrives, she always returns to Tân Châu to be with her parents, sisters, son, grandchildren, nieces and nephews. Although Tết is, in many ways, an alien festival to me (I can’t speak Vietnamese and do not understand the Tết customs), I feel it is my duty to be beside Thuy during the week of Tết.

If I make Tết sound like an endurance test, that is not so. I get vicarious pleasure from the knowledge that Thuy is delighted to be back home with her family. I love being in the countryside, next to the rice fields, in the house that I have given to Thuy. I love the peace and quiet and clean air after the hurly-burly and pollution of HCMC. I love being left alone to read my books, while Thuy and her family socialize and perform the New Year rituals.

This particular Tết has been an unqualified success. I've done nothing except read books, contemplate nature, eat good food, drink banana wine and sleep well. I needed a rest. Prior to Tết, since late August, I’d been working continuously at AIS (the Australian International School). When AIS broke up for the Xmas holidays, I immediately began a three-week stint at AIS Winter School (extra schooling for students whose parents wanted them out of the house during the daytime), finally finishing on January 13th. Quite a gruelling stretch for an old man like me. The money I earned paid for my mother-in-law’s hospital expenses (she needed a throat operation).

We travelled to Tân Châu in a taxi – five hours from door to door - on Wednesday January 18th, four days before Tết officially began. There were just the two of us, myself and Thuy, and bagfuls of gifts for the family. Tết is an expensive business – a colossal waste of money, a cynic might say.

The first evening in Thuy’s vast country estate was blissful – a lovely change from our small apartment in the metropolis. And from then on, I've been happy. I've done no walking and have travelled nowhere – just stayed in the house silently relaxing. I say ‘silently’ because almost nobody here speaks English, and I do not speak Vietnamese. If I were here for months on end, the lack of English conversation would surely get me down, but for a week and a half it’s not a problem.

My daily routine in Tân Châu has been on tramlines: wake up around 7am, switch on my laptop, wash, check email, have breakfast al fresco (plate of mixed fruit and mug of tea) and then read my book. During the 11 days I've been here I've literally gone nowhere (except 200 metres up the road to Thuy’s parents’ house) and done nothing except read books, eat, drink, mooch around Thuy’s estate and use my laptop. I have felt no need for adventure.

Reading books has been the centrepiece of my stay here. The first book – ‘Waiting for Sunrise’ by William Boyd - was given to me by my actor friend, Daniel Foley. It is beautifully written but a spy thriller and therefore not really my cup of tea. The second book was Hardy’s ‘The Mayor of Casterbridge’, an old favourite, which I read for the sixth time. I love sitting in my armchair gazing out at the fields adjoining Thuy’s house. They used to be rice fields but now I see no rice growing; instead there are a variety of crops – red flowers (‘paper’ flowers) sold for decoration, maize, banana trees, beans, mango trees, lemongrass and plants I cannot identify.

Over the years Thuy’s property has metamorphosed into its present form. The interiors of the two houses are much the same, but the former karaoke building is now a hotel. The karaoke earned very little money except during Tết, so Thuy converted the rooms into hotel rooms. She charges guests 100,000 VND (4 USD) for an overnight stay. There is no TV in the rooms and no air conditioning, and Thuy tells me she cannot charge more than this. Before Covid, she had many guests, who spent their time at the casino on the Cambodian border 30 minutes away, but since Covid custom has dwindled.

Another change is the roof covering the vast open area overlooking the fields. For several years it was thatched – very pretty to look at but expensive to maintain, because the thatch needed replacing every few years. Then the local police ordered her to get rid of the thatch and install a corrugated iron roof because, they said, the thatch constituted a fire hazard. At the time I was furious, but now I'm glad. The iron roof is sturdy and does not rot like the thatch. We should have had an iron roof in the first place.

Thuy used to have a restaurant serving food and beer to customers, but not these days. The beer has gone entirely because it occasionally caused trouble. One never-to-forgotten evening during Tết, a crowd of young drunks who had been singing karaoke went on the rampage. There was a big fight, eventually broken up by the police. Shortly after that, Thuy decided that selling beer was more trouble than it was worth. Thuy’s place no longer serves food, except to hotel guests who are content with homely fare.

In her restaurant heyday, Thuy had a very good strategy for attracting custom: she employed a bevy of pretty women as hostesses. This brought the men in. Thuy gave the women free board and lodging and paid them nothing. The only money they received were tips from male customers. Very often there would be nothing more than chit-chat and mild canoodling between the men and the hostesses. Sometimes the men wanted to have sex, in which case the couple would go to a nearby hotel. Thuy would not allow prostitution on her premises. I wrote a blog some years ago describing these goings on, and an irate reader commented that Thuy’s place was no better than a brothel. I wrote back explaining that the only money Thuy made was from the sale of food and drinks. The women she employed were hard up and very happy to earn money in this way. Symbiosis – everyone was a winner and nobody got hurt.

Three years ago a disaster befell Thuy’s restaurant. It collapsed overnight. I well remember a tearful Thuy receiving a phone call from her nephew, Viet, telling her of the overnight collapse. The original building was not built on solid foundations and, after a decade of rainy seasons, had subsided. We took out a two-year bank loan in order to fund the rebuilding. I am happy to report that the new building is good for another hundred years. When the time came each month to repay the bank loan, I used to curse our luck but today, whenever I return to Tân Châu, I regard the interest the bank charged as money well spent. The lovely open outdoor area, which used to be a restaurant, is where most of the socializing is done, where the children have acres of space to play and where I have spent this Tết reading my books.

On the second day of Tết, Monday, most of the women wore red dresses, red being the lucky colour. Thuy’s aged parents (both in their eighties) received gifts of money in lucky red envelopes. We had various visitors, mostly family members. Thuy has seven sisters (the Pleiades, I call them) and innumerable nieces and nephews.

On the third day of Tết it was the birthday of Viet, Thuy’s nephew, who lives free of charge with his family in one of her houses. In return, he looks after the place and has spent a lot of his own money on trees and shrubs and other decorations. He is the ultimate handyman, having learnt his trade from his father, who was the brains behind the construction of Thuy’s houses. For the birthday dinner, everyone (except for me on my chair, because I find sitting cross-legged irksome) sat on the concrete floor next to the fields, ate seafood and drank beer. Every few minutes, people clinked glasses in the traditional way, uttering the time-honoured “Mot, hai, ba, yo!” I gave Viet a bottle of champagne, which he and another man polished off. I have never appreciated champagne so stuck to beer. The karaoke man arrived with his machine, and now the microphone was passed around to anyone who wanted to sing. It is amazing how many traditional songs the average Vietnamese person knows. I don’t enjoy karaoke but get vicarious pleasure from watching the Vietnamese sing their hearts out. Thuy sang several times and urged me to have a go, so I chose English songs I'd sung before, melodies that the Vietnamese like: ‘Yesterday’ by the Beatles and ‘Hotel California’ by the Eagles. Everyone clapped when I'd finished. I think they were glad the torture had stopped. I then contemplated singing a third song, which is available in karaoke format: ‘The Laughing Policeman’ by Charles Penrose, a song I used to hear on the radio in the 1950s. However, deciding it would be too bizarre for my audience, I shelved the idea. There was a great deal of dancing after the meal, but the music was abominable, so I went to bed early.

On Wednesday morning, the fourth day of Tết, I had to perform an unpleasant duty. Thuy’s eldest sister, aged 55, is very sick in hospital. Both her body and mind have deteriorated alarmingly. Thuy attributes this to a bad dose of Covid, but I think not. When I visited her in hospital a year ago, it was a terrible shock to see this once vigorous woman, a pillar of the family, reduced to a weeping, moaning shell. This time was less distressing because I knew what to expect. The sick woman is in the cheapest local hospital, where a doctor sees her once a day. Her husband, the architect of Thuy’s houses, looks after her day and night. She cannot walk and has no hope of recovery. How long she will linger on is anyone’s guess. As well as Thuy and myself, there were three of Thuy’s sisters present and Thuy’s mother. How terrible the mother must have felt looking at her first-born child in such a parlous state. Having done my duty, I said goodbye to the invalid, shook hands with her husband, and departed on the back of a motorbike.

On Thursday I had a dreadful fit of sneezing – hay fever brought on, no doubt, by my unfamiliarity with the pollen-heavy country air. Some Loratadine tablets, purchased at the chemist’s, gave me instant relief.

The remainder of Tết – up to Sunday morning, when we left in a taxi – was uneventful. I finished reading ‘The Mayor of Casterbridge’ on Friday and wrote a long blog about it. On Saturday morning I went for a walk in the fields adjoining Thuy’s house and viewed the crops at close quarters.

While I have been immersed in literature or writing stuff on my laptop, Thuy has been playing cards. She and her sisters love to sit on the floor of the open area playing endless games of cards on a straw mat. Their favourite game is called ‘casino’. They play for small amounts of money. Much healthier, I think, to be playing cards than gazing silently into a smartphone. Everyone here, including Thuy, owns a smartphone, and some people, the youngsters especially, use them to excess. Playing cards is better because of the social interaction involved. Sometimes there is a fierce dispute over something, and voices are raised. Sometimes there is laughter. A good old-fashioned healthy game.

Now a few words about another change in Tân Châu. The Little Green Bee-eaters, which used to feed all day in the fields immediately in front of Thuy’s open space, have all gone. My expert birdwatcher friend, Derek, tells me they are not seasonal, so it looks as if they have gone for good. Perhaps the new-fangled crops, especially the red flowers, are not to their liking, so they have relocated. It used to give me great pleasure to recline in my chair, book in hand, watching these beautiful creatures darting from their perches in search of bees and other flying insects. Not all is lost, though, because the pair of Greater Coucals are still there. I hear their liquid bubbling several times each day and occasionally glimpse one scudding low across the fields.

I enjoy a wee dram in the evening, and my staple in Vietnam is banana wine – in Vietnamese, rượu chuối. In HCMC I always have a vat of it to tipple from. Here in Tân Châu the best banana wine is made by Ut Mai, the policewoman who lives opposite Thuy’s house. It has a distinctive and very pleasant flavour. This holiday I have gone to her house several times, glass in hand, to beg some of her wine, and she has always obliged.

The food in Tân Châu has been exceptionally good. I always have a light breakfast of mixed fruit. For lunch and dinner I have alternated between pork ribs, chicken legs, chicken curry and delicious roasted goat meat. The resident guard dog, a black mongrel bitch, is always there to grind and gobble up the bones I throw to her. This is the only dog in Vietnam that likes me. In HCMC, I am constantly being growled at and threatened by unfriendly curs. As well as meat, Thuy has given me plenty of fresh vegetables and, for ballast, rice or baked potatoes.

Vinh has visited me twice. He is an impressive young man who spent four years in Japan, during the time of Covid, working on his PhD, which he wrote in English. Vinh was my translator at our wedding. In Tân Châu, he is the only person I can have a decent conversation with because nobody else here speaks good English. My wife speaks a very little English, enough for me to make her understand simple things, but I cannot converse with her freely, as I can with Vinh. He is currently working at a university in HCMC, and he returns to Tân Châu whenever he can to be with his parents.

It’s been a memorable Tết. In the past we have been more adventurous, going off on motorbikes to local beauty spots or by taxi to the beach at Ha Tien, but I needed a good long rest, and that is what I've had. My wife has enjoyed herself immensely, and I cannot suppress the thought that she is much happier here - surrounded by her family, cuddling her baby grandson, playing cards, visiting her beloved mother - than she is back in our HCMC apartment. I too have been happy here, but I'm essentially a HCMC person. I need the conversation of my English-speaking friends and I need to work. Here in Tân Châu there is no way for me to earn money, as there is in HCMC, where the international schools are. I am very different from my country-born wife, but we are lucky to enjoy the best of both worlds: a nice apartment in the city and a place to live in the countryside. Roll on Tết 2024 in Tân Châu!


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