The approach of
(Lunar New Year) is marked by an abundance of decorations in the street and traditional food in the shops. You can almost smell the coming Lunar New Year.
For Vietnamese people, Tết is an occasion not only to enjoy the change of year with family and friends but also the chance to thank the gods, spirits and nature, to visit friends, relatives and teachers, and to remember and honor their forebears.
Long ago, the phrase "sắm Tết" (buying for Tết) was spoken with passion by Vietnamese housewives - not that they had much money to splurge on Tết treats for themselves or the frequent guests they made welcome in their homes.
For the very poor, "sắm Tết" could be a real burden. Families would save up all year so that they could buy something special for themselves, their relatives, and their guests at this most special time.
In olden days, the anticipation would begin to simmer months in advance of the holiday.
Even in the harried, upbeat world of today with all its commercial culturalism and globalization, the lead-up to Tết is still a vibrant time in the countryside.
Now that incomes have risen substantially in Vietnam, most people have deeper pockets and no longer buy the cheap mÃ¥ng and miến (dried bamboo shoot and transparent noodles) months before Tết.
Less budget-minded than before, they go about their preparations quietly and rarely engage in animated chatter with their friends and neighbors about what shopping bargains are available where and how best to scrimp and save for Tết.
In the Vietnamese countryside, the important days for Tết shopping at the big provincial markets are the 23rd and from the 27th to the 30th of the final lunar month. This is when rural dwellers hunt for home decorations, prepared food and the essential ingredients for cooking up a feast.
The harvest done, villagers travel to market to prepare for the most important holiday of the year. It's an exciting place to be, a hive of activity, chatter, color and fun.
What a Tết market offers
The atmosphere of Tết is in the air already as people flock from the remote villages to the big markets. Many set out early in the morning to buy gifts for friends and future in-laws. Farmers bring the best produce from their fields and gardens to the busy world of the Tết market.
These shopping excursions offer a window into Vietnamese culture and customs.
A typical chợ Tết (Tết market) is characterized by a true abundance of gạo nếp (sticky rice), lá dong (green leaf), rice wine, flowers and all kind of food, fruit and decorative plants for Tết. The 23rd is special as that's the day for buying cá chép (carp) to release later on as an offering to Táo quân (the Spirit of the Kitchen).
Nowadays, the Tết markets feature more and more imported goods alongside the traditional fare.
Special Tết markets
Closing out the old year, a Tết market is not just for serious shoppers but for everybody to breathe in the festive air and enjoy the colorful spectacle.
Big flower markets are common as Tết approaches. One such extravaganza filled with spring blossoms and bonsai trees is held along the Yen Phu road near the villages of Ngoc Ha and Quang Ba in Hanoi. They call it a "flower road market" and each year it seems to stretch out along the road farther than ever (three kilometers at last count).
Two or three weeks before Tết is the time to visit the "flower road market" to buy house plants or a Ä‘á»— quyên (Rhododendron) tree in bloom. Needless to say, it's full of sightseers revelling in the spring atmosphere.
A Tết market in Vietnam's uplands is especially exotic. Starting early in the morning, a seemingly endless line of locals on foot, horseback or motorbike snakes into market, filling the stalls specializing in mèn mén (boiled corn powder) and thắng cá»‘ (horse innards soup).
In Nam Dinh Province, in the north, a special market is held from the seventh day of the new lunar year called "Chợ Viềng" or "Chợ Ã‚m Phủ," which means "the market where you can meet the dead."
Besides shopping for beef and antiquated farming equipment at Chợ Viềng, it is said that people can meet and talk with their dear departed on the evening of the seventh and the next morning, if they are lucky.
Visiting a Tết market is a fascinating experience, full of sights, sounds, scents and emotions.