Viet Nam has changed my relationship with coffee shops. They used to be a space where I worked and entertained my friends. Then, recently, they became a sort of anthropological space where I encountered a religious event which brought me to another level of appreciation and respect for local culture.
That local culture is called Tet. The Coffee shop where I encountered is called ABC.
The ABC coffee shop in Ha Noi, Viet Nam is a fusion of Asian and Western atmosphere. It has some Western characteristics like those found in Starbucks and some that might only be found in Viet Nam. By the former I mean comfy-soft seats, satisfying internet connection, people sitting by themselves with eyes fixated on a laptop or book with earphones on, casual outfits of course. Meanwhile, the latter characteristics are that the majority customers [mostly female] are wearing nice clothes, nice shoes and makeup on. Also, 90% of the Vietnamese customers are in a group with friends or family. The activity they engage in the coffee shop itself ranges from chatting, playing board games, holding a meeting, chilling with their lovers, napping, or eating sunflower seeds, or even just playing with their phones and smoking.
Such contrasting coffee shop features exist side by side at the ABC coffee shop. From my usual seat in the corner I can see a few European-looking customers in casual outfits. They sit quietly by themselves with eyes glued on their laptop or book and earphones on. And on the left side, just a few steps away, there are groups of three to six Vietnamese customers in lovely outfits gathered around a rather large table, lavishly chatting and laughing, or watching something on YouTube without earphones attached. You are most likely familiar with the kind of scene on the right. But, the one on left could elicit a glance or two out of curiosity. Or, it could be out of slight irritation that makes the glance more a “can you please tone it down” gesture. But, if you have been living in Viet Nam long enough, you might just be okay with it.
At lunchtimes, the whole of Viet Nam goes quiet. Between 12 and 2 pm, it’s nap time for the Vietnamese in general. Vietnamese customers who come during these hours are often by themselves, popping in to take a rest on the comfy sofa areas; or, if they don’t fancy a nap, they take a moment to rest, munching on sunflower seeds, eating food they brought or ordered from outside.
Such are the common views to be found at the ABC Coffee. These scenes have been on my mind a lot recently, and have made me see coffee shops in a completely different light. Indeed, it all changed on the second day of Tet when, coincidently, I was at the ABC. That day not only upgraded my relationship with cafes to another level; it also helped me see the beauty inherent in the local tradition called Tet.
Tet, short for Tet Nguyen Da, is the Vietnamese Lunar New Year festival. It is usually celebrated either in January or February, depending on when the first day of New Year in Lunar Calendar arrives. During Tet, all businesses are closed for seven to ten days, which makes it near impossible to hunt down open restaurants and coffee shops. My landlord even advised me to ‘stock up’’ on supplies before the festival began, such is the extremity of the situation! Here in Ha Noi, People get busy preparing for Tet about a week before the actual holiday. At this time, found ubiquitously across the city are ‘new year gates’. These are banners exclaiming the new year greeting “Chuc mung Nam Moi,” reminding locals and visitors alike that Tet is just around the corner.
Inside the cities, pavements are transformed into temporary marketplaces, selling flowers and plants associated with Tet celebration such as Cherry Blossom, Apricots, and oranges. Shopping malls are flooded with people hunting for new clothes to be worn on the new year, ornaments to decorate their houses, and foods for Tet. It is also one of the best times for shopping, as every store offers discounts of up to 70%. With all these activities going on, the traffic becomes even more chaotic than usual. Vehicles move at a snail’s pace, Tet plants and decorations balancing precariously atop wobbling motorbikes. Take a gander around the streets during Tet and, you will spot houses, offices and other public spaces decorated with red and yellow ornaments such as lampion, flower, plants, small flags and, of course, the Viet Nam flag.
Meanwhile, inside people’s houses, families become preoccupied with cleaning the house and ancestor altars, and preparing continual offerings for the ancestors’ spirits from the last day of the year to the third day of the new year. The offerings they prepare during these times of the year are more special than the usual type of offerings people do twice a month. The offering during Tet has more flowers and fresh food every day. The women of the house are expert at preparing both these offerings and the special Tet dishes such as Bánh chưng. Most often, the whole family also go on visits to the family members’ and ancestor’s graveyards before Tet. They go to clean the graveyard, to pour some water over it, to spread flower petals over the graveyard, or leave flowers at the feet of the tomb. And, of course they pray for them.
On the first day of the New Year itself, people gather with their family to exchange “lucky envelopes (money?)”—a Tet themed envelope with paper money in it, starting from 10,000 dong to any number you want to put. This exchange is viewed as the most important Tet ritual because the lucky envelope represents the wish for a prosperous and lucky year ahead . A native Hanoian told me about it at length:
“That envelope represent for lucky money means you will have more money, Successful, basically it’s the same as wealth. It based on unreal story from China. Like Chinese they have a story about it, mainly to put a ring of coin to the children during new year so evil may not touch them. If you tell this original story from Chinese to any Vietnamese, they will refuse, and say that they never heard of it. And not many Vietnamese ever heard of it. [It’s] Vietnamese culture but not many people thinking as it was in Chinese in the past. We turned into our own way long time ago Vietnamese understanding. They [Vietnamese] give envelope, not because of reasons as they did in china. They [Vietnamese] give envelope to all age Not only children….”
“…. But in the past [in Viet Nam], it supposed to be coin, not paper money like nowadays Envelope. We switched to paper money 100 years ago. may be. Since I was small we did not use coin. Until I was 13, 2003 or 2004. But, they switched back to coin again. They did 1 time, but it last 2 years, people don’t like to keep it cause it heavy and not convenient. So they switch back to paper. May be 14 years ago. They produce coins for 1000, 2000, 5000, 10000, but it lasted for 1-2 years. [because] at the same time we still had 1000, 2000 paper money. People rarely use coin. So, 2 years after, government took coins back and never used them again. The main thing about [lucky] envelope is the way Vietnamese use it is different from Chinese one [that Vietnamese give envelope not only to children]. Even now, Chinese also give envelope to all age.”
She explained that older members of the family give lucky envelopes to younger members. For instance, “my grandpa will give lucky envelopes to my mom and me and my brother. Then my mom will also give envelopes to my grandpa.” The exchange moves downward: her mom then will give lucky envelopes to their children. Similarly, older siblings in the family often the same to their young ones. This ritual also extends toward children in their neighborhood who may visit during this period.
Another important ritual people engage in the first day of Tet is buying salt. It symbolizes a hope for prosperous year ahead. “Why salt?”, I asked a Vietnamese friend of mine.
“…You know in Viet Nam we have this saying đầu năm mua muối, cuối năm mua vôi meaning buy salt in the beginning of the year, buy lime at the end. Vôi is lime. Like cacao, they usually use to paint the wall..it will help to erase bad things, bad spirit they believe, that’s why usually bought at the end of the year, aiming to let go all the bad things. Buying salt at the beginning of the year will bring luck to the house and help family members to be more connected, to live in harmony. and we also use it in rituals in Pagoda, salt is something you can never live without.”
On the second and third days, people put on their new clothes and go to the Pagodas to pray for a lucky year. Another Vietnamese friend of mine says, “people start going to the Pagodas to pray on the New Year Eve, usually after watching the firework displays.” During these days people also visit friends, usually already having met their relatives at the grandparents’ house on the first day., So if you happen to be in Viet Nam on these Tet days, you would see many people in their nice clothes on the streets, or you would see houses widely opened, showing scenes of families chatting and enjoying the delicious Tet delicacies.
It was on the second day of Tet, at the ABC coffee shop, that I accidentally participated in such a special moment. I came there with my usual intention to grab a coffee and get some work done. As it was still Tet celebration, they opened only the first floor.
I sat at the very end of the room. There was not much going on in the coffee shop; a few customers sat at the other end of the room, playing with their phones. After a while, the owner of the ABC came in with two men. They sat at the table two chairs away from me. I saw them talk with one another; I didn’t take too much notice. Then my eyes stumbled upon the cookies and cakes on their table. Wait a minute, I thought to myself; they are not customers. I took my eyes off my book and subtly threw intermittent glances at their direction. The two guests spoke to the ABC owner respectfully, making a slightly bowing head movements as they talked. Finally, they shook his hands, stood up, and left. They must be either friends or relatives of the ABC owner, I concluded. And those cakes, cookies, and beverages on the table are amongst Tet food I have read online. It then clicked in my head: This place, after all, is also where the ABC owner and his family live. And today is the second day of Tet. People are supposed to visit their relatives or friends.
As I held my gaze, observing this interaction, a palpable and yet unnamable feeling seeped in. I am participating in Tet ritual, I thought to myself. I somehow did not feel like a customer at that very moment. The fact that ABC is also the residential place for its owner suddenly became interesting to me. I think it was the familiar living room format of the coffee shop which facilitated me to have such an insider experience of that Tet’s ritual: the living room has no partition whatsoever. It put me in the same space with the guests. The proximity made the experience intimate, as if in some way I was part of the family.
Later that day, on my way home, I had a similar feeling when I saw a father and a son in their suits riding bicycles (presumably to visit their relatives or friends). There was a certain kind of beauty that emanates from the two men in suits on their bicycles; it was a precious moment to witness I felt humbled and embarrassed at the same time just by seeing their dedication to their cultures. In the past, I’ve personally done anything I can to escape participating in similar social conventions involving family visits. I was leaning toward some of my Vietnamese friends who see Tet rituals as unpractical considering the money you spent on flowers and food, especially for offerings, that will end up at the dumpster next day.
But in this moment, I could see the social power and functions of local culture such as Tet for people who hold on to it. In the case of Tet, its significance lies in its religious element. The religious aspect of Tet is encapsulated in the activities of praying and giving donations to the temple some people engage in, in the offerings to the ancestors’ spirits in the house, in the visits to the ancestors’ graves, and in other forms of reverence one pays to the elderly. These are religious activities as far as they centered around the idea of Divine other in the form of spirit and its celestial virtues. One may argue that these religious gestures are what Pure Land Buddhist Shinran and Honen referred to as the ‘miscellaneous acts’. Majority Buddhists in Viet Nam are Pure Land Buddhist, after all. Within this view, the religious gestures themselves are meant to evoke good karma. They are activities which are believed to bring one closer to and/or to enter divine realm [the Pure Land]. Yet, not the one which result in the rebirth in the Pure Land.
The offerings, the flowers, foods, and money sacrifices and other forms of reverence appear to be a simple way to pray to god. It is so simple that it often deceives us into thinking of it as unintelligible, superstitious, or even devoid of reason. So, it is no surprise if some people may suggest an abandonment of traditional religious practices on this basis. This simple way to salvation seems similar to the bhakti yoga [devotion]. It exists presumably to accommodate to followers who, for one reason or another, have no access to the other two means to salvation which are claimed to be more sophisticated. The first is what the Bhagavad Gita refers to as jnana yoga, the way to know God through knowledge [philosophy in Platonic sense]. And the other is karma yoga, the knowing god through work.
I think it is safe to say that local cultures such as Tet have a certain degree of intelligibility and practicality. They may be simple and repetitive, and yet they are not devoid of reason. On the contrary, local cultures can be important assets for countries which are on the journey to become “modern”: they can offer something that might complement modern values and other forms of progress they wish to adopt. That is so, especially because modernity may come with unexpected results such as social or spiritual alienation. It is these possible alienations which the continuing practice of local cultures might be able to answer. Last but not least, their simplicities fit modern people who have limited time for more sophisticated and intellective practices, such as meditation and philosophy related practices.