THE ROAD SOUTH

FEBRUARY BROUGHT THE RAINS. It was my fourth winter in peacetime Vietnam, and Hanoi lay under a blanket of thick mist. The days were gray, and long stretches passed without a trace of sunshine. Everything felt damp and cold. I wore a sweater under my rain gear for the daily fifteen-minute bicycle ride to Au Lac Cafe and, farther down the street, my office. Motor scooters barreled through puddles in the Old Quarter, drenching me with sheets of water. Had that happened in the States, I would have given drivers the finger. But in Hanoi it didn’t bother me. The whole city got wet on these winter commutes, and it was a small price to pay for the privilege of not owning a car and being able to bike everywhere.
I’d take refuge en route to work under an umbrella on Au Lac’s patio, and my waiter-friend Dai—a former boat person who had spent six years in the refugee camps of Hong Kong—would pour me a cup of Viet¬namese coffee and bring me that day’s edition of Vietnam News, which contained little news but devoted many columns to the accomplishments of the Party. Two or three times a week Dai would ask me if I was going to leave Hanoi for Tet, assuming that, like many expatriates, I’d use the lunar new year holiday for a trip to Bangkok or beach resorts in Danang or Nha Trang. I’d tell him no, I was staying put. Tet was my favorite time in Vietnam. I liked the quiet streets, the festive mood as families gathered to share sumptuous feasts and to honor departed ancestors. Tet marked the communion of man with nature, the coming of spring, when heaven and earth were in harmony. It was like New Year’s Eve, everyone’s birth¬day, and Christmas Day wrapped into a single three-day festival. It recharged the people’s spiritual energies, and all Vietnamese carried to the grave memories of their happiest Tet.
“Why would I get out of town?” I asked Dai. “Tet is everything I like about Vietnam. Sandy’s even got a kumquat tree.” (It was the local equiv¬alent of a Christmas tree.) This pleased Dai, and he said to me one day, “Careful. You’re beginning to sound like a Vietnamese.”
For a good many years after the American War, Hanoi’s dour commu¬nist cadre frowned on Tet. They considered it bourgeois. Its religious overtones made them uneasy. They criticized the spending on gifts and preparations as more in keeping with the excesses of capitalism than the frugality of socialism. The tradition-bound Vietnamese paid no heed— asking them to give up Tet was like telling them to stop watching TV or drinking beer—and the government eventually had to make an abrupt about-face, embracing the holiday with enthusiasm. As the first Tet of the new millennium approached, Dai told me the prime minister had given every government worker a $7 bonus. Over coffee one morning he translated an editorial in Nhan Dan for me.
“Bid farewell to Canh Thin, the Year of the Dragon,” the paper said. “Vietnam is proud of its achieved landmarks. . . . [Tet] brightens the in¬tellect and strong will of the Vietnamese people. . . . The first decades of the twentieth century saw . . . the oppressed nation stuck in a dead alley. Fortunately the foundation of the Communist Party of Vietnam in 1930 cast aside the dark clouds of oppression and slavery.”
Now Vietnam was midway between the winter solstice and the spring equinox. The Year of the Snake was a day away. Astrologers spoke opti¬mistically of the future; the stars, they said, were properly aligned. In mil¬lions of homes, families took their last baths of the year, to wash off the dirt of past misfortune. They held send-off ceremonies for Ong Tao, the kitchen god, who ascends to heaven on the eve of each new year to give his report to the Jade Emperor on the moral conduct of household mem¬bers. More than 150,000 Vietnamese who lived abroad had come home to spend Tet with family. Planes and trains between Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City were booked solid for a week. Hanoi merchants had stocked up 700 tons of pork and beef, more than 2 million bottles of rice wine, and 26,000 gallons of peanut and other cooking oils. The only Tet deli¬cacy missing from the markets was rat, whose population had been rav¬aged by recent floods in the Mekong Delta and Vietnam’s antirat campaign.

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