New Year On The Banks Of The Hat River

....At midnight on New Year’s Eve, religious services were celebrated at several places to mark the transition from the old year to the new. It was traditional in our family to observe also, at that time, the custom of “the first caller”. That most important event usually took place, for other people, in the morning of the new year. In our case, however, it was just after midnight that the first caller came.

According to popular belief, the fortune of a household in any one year would depend on the first person to call on it at the New Year. But how to choose the right person, one who could bring good luck to your family? One could pick someone rich, or in high office, or with a distinguished background, or just a good friend, but how could one be sure whether he had good luck or not? Furthermore, a person might have it one year, but another year, because the stars which governed his life were positioned differently, his luck might change completely. For the same reason, to be invited to be a first caller could be embarrassing. One was touched by the honor, yet the responsibility was overwhelming. What would that family think, if some misfortune befell them? Our own family, fortunately, had no need to ask anyone to “first call” at our ancestral home, for as a rule my grandmother herself was our first caller, and it had been like that every year for as long as I could remember. Our good or bad fortune thus depended only on ourselves. We did not owe thanks to anyone, nor could we blame anyone. How and when did that tradition of ours start? And why was it that the first caller was my grandmother and not my grandfather, the head of the family? I do not know the answers but wonder whether that was not a piece of advice given by an astrologer or a Chinese geomancer.



As midnight approached, we celebrated a service at our ancestors’ altar, then grandmother led a family delegation to the village’s Buddhist temple. The night was as black as ink. We followed one another, guiding ourselves by the flickering light or a kerosene lamp and taking care

not to step outside the brick lane. The small temple was an island of light, overflowing with people. Grandmother made offerings to the altars and spent a long time praying. When she finished, it was midnight and the first day of the year had begun. Firstly, from somewhere in the village, a string of firecrackers exploded. Another explosion was heard, then another. The noise came from all the hamlets. Village guards at the gates beat their drums. After presenting our good wishes to the bonze, we returned home, bearing gifts of food and flower. The iron gates were closed and grandmother called out for someone to open them. My father, her eldest son, was waiting. He greeted her and invited her to be the first caller to tread on the soil of our ancestral compound. She obligingly accepted. The same ritual was followed each year. And her return, a service was held at a specially erected altar in our compound, in honor of the celestial envoys who were looking after the affairs of the earth. The envoys were believed to be replaced every year at Tet. The service was to farewell those who departed and to welcome their successors. After that service, everyone went immediately to bed, so as to be up early the next morning.

The first day of the year was one day when no one could linger in bed. A lazy start would augur badly for the whole year. Even as children, we would not wait to be woken up by our parents. After breakfast, we changed into new clothes. My great-grandmother and grandparents wore red brocade dresses. Other men and boys had blue ones. Women and girls came out of their room in beautiful long dresses of red or pink velvet. During the year, I usually wore western style clothes. Tet was the only time when I dressed in the national costume. I felt a bit strange and clumsy in white trousers and a blue brocade dress, with a black turban around my head, but soon got into the special mood of Tet. The ceremony in front of our ancestors’ altar began. My grandfather knelt down to invoke the spirits of our ancestors. He called upon them to protect the family and help its members in their endeavours during the New Year. Four times he knelt down, touching the ground with his forehead. Then he bowed three times. Following him, my great-grandmother, then grandmother and the rest of the family performed the same rite. We did so at two places, the central altar for the Nguyen ancestors and the smaller altar for our maternal ancestors. Last to go in were the children and I well remember that it was an occasion for uncontrollable mirth. Our obeisance to our ancestors was interrupted by giggles, and we would be rolling on the mat instead of kneeling down. Such a thing never happened at services commemorating the death of an ancestor. No doubt the fun and excitement of Tet had something to do with it. Family elders looked on and laughed too. Normally, an irreverent attitude before the altar would be severely reprimanded, but this was the first day of the year. Parents abstained from scolding because to do so would bring bad luck both to them and the children. Any manifestation of temper had to be avoided on that auspicious day. After the religious ceremony, my great-grandmother and grandparents went to sit on the two carved wood settees in the middle of the altar house. There, they formally received the good wishes of family members and gave to each of them money wrapped in red paper. This was called the ceremony of “welcoming another year of age”.

... The second day of Tet was marked by visits...

... The ceremony of “sweeping the tomb” took place on the fourth day. By tradition, it started at dawn. Late starters were viewed with disapproval, for one must not make the ancestors wait on that day of all days in the year. I can not recall my grandfather participating in the ceremony – perhaps this was on account of his age – but all male members of our family were there. From an early age, I had been allowed to join the party. Going out in the open fields, when everything was quiet and still and the promise of a new day lay ahead, always gave me a special feeling of elation. Winter in the north meant a persistent drizzle and a penetrating cold. Our party of twenty people or so was led by a cousin of my father, who belonged to a senior branch of the extended family and had held the position of Deputy

Mayor of Kim Bai. I called him Uncle Deputy. My great-uncle the mayor, although a Chu and not a Nguyen, was also in the party, because over several generations the two families had intermarried and some ancestors were common to both. The misty rain was all around us. Flat and empty fields stretched far into the still dark horizon. We walked in single file on the narrow paths that served as boundaries to the rice fields. It was slippery, our feet were wet and our clothes spattered with mud. But in the gentle light of dawn, the countryside assumed a poetical beauty. Like an ink painting, shapes and lines were indistinct and the colors but different shades of grey. Villages appeared vaguely in the distance. The fields were silent, no sound of bird or animal could be heard. Here and there, silhouettes of men in single file were seen, carrying on their shoulders shovel and hoe. They were fellow villagers on the way to perform the same ceremony as we. Only short greetings were exchanged with them; it was as if everyone’s mind was turning inwards and towards the past.

We visited all ancestral graves, starting with that of my great-grandfather. The graves were mounds of earth, some still as large as newly built tumuli, but others and more ancient ones had been reduced to the size of a tea chest standing solitarily in the middle of a field. At each grave, we used hoe and shovel to clear the grass and weeds. Then, we built the earth up and made the mound square and upright again, before lighting incense and offering prayers. Lastly, votive papers were burned. Elders recalled the time and life of the ancestor buried there to the young people, for whom each year’s ceremony was an occasion to learn something more of the family history. Some graves lay within our village’s boundaries, others lay farther away in the neighbouring villages of Kim Lam, Cat Dong and Van Quan. Although the graves covered a period of three centuries, their actual number was not high because many generations of ours consisted of only a single branch. By the time we had finished, it was only mid-morning. On our way home, we passed by graves which had been weeded and hoed. Red incense sticks were planted on them, some still burning. Ashes of votive papers floated around. While earlier in the day they had looked forlorn in the fields, the graves seemed to have acquired a life and warmth of their own. A few, however, had been left unvisited and the mayor would tell us their sorrowful stories: the family line had ended or the descendants had all left the village. Often, he stopped our procession, went over an untended tomb, cleared it and lit some sticks of incense over it. The Story of Kieu contains a famous passage about the young Kieu who, on the day of sweeping the tombs, saw an abandoned grave and took pity on it. She enquired and was told that it was the grave of a songstress, long renowned for her beauty and talent. But the songstress died alone and destitute. Only a kind-hearted admirer came to give her a simple burial and since then, no one had ever visited her grave. “How fragile was the fate of those blessed with beauty!” lamented Kieu. Little did she know that her own fate would not be so different from that of the songstress. That passage was one of the first that I learned from the Story of Kieu. During our own “sweeping the tomb” ceremony, I saw that my great-uncle was also moved by the same feelings as the heroine of our best loved literary work.

The ceremony over, we left Kim Bai. It was customary for my mother to return to her own family on the fourth day of Tet. My parents took us back to Hanoi and from there; they went to her village, which was only a few kilometres away. Not all the children accompanied them, only one or two each time. They stayed there only for the evening meal. In the countryside, the Tet festival would continue until the seventh day of the New Year, when the poles were taken down. But schools in Hanoi resumed one or two days earlier, and to us, going back to school marked the end of Tet.

Extract from”A Vietnamese Family Chronicle – Twelve Generations on the Banks of the Hat River” by Nguyen Trieu Dan, McFarland & Company, Inc, Publishers, Jefferson, North Carolina, and London.

N.B. Copies of the Vietnamese version of this book are available through AVWA offices.