One aspect of life abroad that can be both fascinating and frustrating for expats is that of Public Holidays.
Here in Vietnam there are nine weekday holidays, of which we’ve so far had 8.
Having arrived ‘post event’ in 2012, we decided to stay put for TET this year, despite the hugely conflicting advice about the wisdom (or otherwise) of such a decision, particularly given the proximity of our house to Phu Tay Ho – the main temple in Hanoi which is dedicated to the Mother Goddess. Changing date in accordance with the Lunar Calendar, TET this year was celebrated between 9th and 14th February and the whole area around the temple was turned into a cross between a carnival and carnage. Next year we will be going somewhere quieter – anywhere that doesn’t recognise this as new year.
On the 19th April we had a day off for King Hung’s day to commemorate the first King of Lac Viet and this week we enjoyed a two-day break. 30th April was Vietnam Victory/ Reunification/Liberation Day (depending on your affiliation/geographic location) to mark the fall of Saigon and the reunification of Vietnam in 1975. And yesterday, 1st May, was International Worker’s day which celebrates the economic and social achievements of workers throughout the year (not sure how these achievements are measured or whether they’re just assumed?).
Unlike in the UK where all Bank Holidays (apart from Christmas and New Year) are shifted to the nearest Monday – public holidays fall on the ‘correct’ day here so it is not unusual to have a Tuesday and Wednesday off – as we’ve just witnessed.
The reason that I find these holidays stressful is because they are completely alien to me. I can’t always work out what is being celebrated. I’m conscious that sometimes even the name of the holiday can be cause of contention – as in the case of Reunification/Liberation Day. And it’s extremely hard, as a foreigner who doesn’t speak the language, to work out how the Vietnamese celebrate or enjoy said holiday.
I’m reminded of my first Introduction to Islam lecture at the University of Manchester when the lecturer posed the questions – which Islam, when, where and for whom? His point being that, like much in life, there is no one ‘right’ answer – Islam is many different things to many different people. So too is the way of celebrating national holidays.
TET is the big one – similar to the Western Christmas – with presents, food, food and more food, some alcohol, spending time with people you don’t necessarily see the rest of the year, rituals, traditions and an enormous amount of pressure. It is, for the Vietnamese I’ve spoken to at least, both expensive and tiring and something approached with very mixed feelings. Sound familiar?
The last two days have felt like a weekend and so today must be Monday, which for some reason everyone else is calling Thursday! Hubby was off work but you wouldn’t have known it thanks to the constant beeping of his Blackberry and because he works in an international consultancy firm with colleagues around the world blissfully unaware that he was ‘on holiday’.
Which brings me onto the topic of how expats celebrate public holidays in their host country. Many, particularly the more seasoned foreigners and those with children, simply flee. Hanoi in particular engenders this desire because whilst it’s an amazing and vibrant city, it can drive you crazy with its constant noise, dust, humidity and general air of disorganisation. Depending on the length of holiday many people take the chance for an adventure exploring parts of Vietnam they haven’t previously visited, others head for a beach or 5 star resort and recharge their batteries beside a pool. Some friends of ours took advantage of one of the great deals offered to foreign residents and enjoyed a ‘staycation’ at a beautiful hotel on the opposite side of town to where they live and work.
We seem to be a little slow on the uptake and have so far been here for every public holiday. Now that we’ve enjoyed experiencing them – in that strange twilight zone between not being a local and not being a tourist, we have both agreed that we’ve ticked the box marked ‘Experience Public Holidays in Vietnam’ and will, in future, take the chance to be tourists in another city, enjoying everything that that entails. Staying put has meant that we’ve paid more for pretty much everything we’ve bought as local shops and restaurants all raise their prices at holiday time and we haven’t been able to enjoy the fresh ingredients we’ve become used to because, for example, the dairy producing the milk we like was closed for the holidays and the markets and small traders we usually buy from simply didn’t bother opening.
So here’s to our next public holiday, Monday 2nd of September when we’ll be celebrating Vietnamese Independence Day on a beach somewhere, or maybe even in Cambodia, Taiwan or Japan.
Well, I’m not sure about the fever bit but from this distance the whole Vietnamese new lunar year is very confusing. I guess it’s one of those where you really have to be there to understand it.
I thought it was one week long celebration with festivities and a carnival like atmosphere everywhere. Reading Twitter posts and chatting virtually to a couple of friends out there – both expat and local – it seems that actually everything shuts down and the best way to enjoy Tet is to go away!
Next year I guess I’ll ‘get’ it a bit better. Or will I?!