Hand-written signs started to appear on the doors of cafes, bars, restaurants, museums and shops saying simply, ‘Closed for Tet’. By New Year’s Eve, that was it, even the Old Quarter was on shut down. I knew this was going to happen but with the pavements bare, the roads empty and the shop shutters down, the streets of Hanoi were unrecognisable. I felt lost even when I knew where I was.
Our hotel had been winding down for Tet since we arrived over a week before the official start of the holiday. Staff began to disappear: first there was no maid to bring fresh towels and then there was no one to make breakfast; the man who hung around reception, security I suppose, starting stealing bits of furniture during the night; a strong smell like rotting fruit started to emanate from the basement; the manager took off his ill-fitting suit and took to watching Chinese soap operas on YouTube.
Every motorbike in Hanoi seemed to have a miniature orange tree and/or a pink blossom tree strapped to the back. In one of the cafes I used to hang around in the owner installed her orange tree around me. It was far too big for the space but I minded my own business, drank my coffee and pretended not to be paying any attention until the whole thing toppled over and crashed over my head. I apologised for being in the way.
There was the sense that lots of exciting things were happening around us, we just couldn’t be totally sure what they were. The manager and receptionist, the only two people left in the hotel besides ourselves, invited me to eat their New Year’s Eve meal with them. It was a whole chicken, hacked into pieces and a huge Banh Chung cake, a heavy roll of glutinous rice, pork and beans rolled in banana leaf and dipped in sugar, courtesy of one of their mothers. It tasted okay but I could feel the weight of it settle in my stomach like a bag of sand. I kept eating out of politeness but had to decline the kind invitation to chew on the chicken’s head.
The day of Tet came along and we desperately looked for somewhere open and, as always, the cinema was. I had my first and last 4DX cinema experience in a multiplex that can only be described as having more money than sense but by the time we emerged the sun had gone down which meant I could finally have a drink.
We ate dinner and set to work on some £3 cocktails in a bar curiously named the Polite Pub, maybe the first actual bar we had been in in Hanoi because the Bia Hois are so much morefun. The drinks tasted like they’d been mixed at a high school house party and I noted that it was only 8pm, 4 hours until the fireworks. When we went into the pub the sky was light and the streets were quiet and when we left the sky was black and the streets were crammed. Thousands upon thousands of people made their way to the lake’s edge for the fireworks and we tried but failed to blend in with the crowd.
The fireworks were louder, more glittery and exciting than usual, thanks in part to the three cocktails I had drank but mostly to the atmosphere of thousands of people, genuinely thrilled to be welcoming in the New Year. Strangers shook our hands and it felt like a real street party, one we were invited to, right in the centre of the capital city.
The party continued until the small hours on the streets of the old quarter where fires blazed with paper money, old ladies sold helium balloons shaped like goats and women pushed cans of beer into your hand and demanded you sit on one of their plastic stools. I bought a balloon and had it in my hand for around ten seconds before a giving it to a toddler whose pudgy little hand grasped for the string over its grandma’s shoulder.
Everything was intensified, electrified with a shared feeling of New Year joy. Absolutely no-one, even those with small children seemed to have any intention of going home. Time flashed by the way it does when you’ve had too much to drink and find yourself talking rubbish to strangers but at some point a police van pulled up and ten maybe twenty policemen jumped out. They kicked plastic chairs and tables away from the street and with their shouting somehow silenced the music that seemed to be coming from ten places at once.
The women dragged us to our feet and took the drinks from our hands. On New Year. Imagine. Pretending to stack away their childrens’ garden furniture they murmured that we could sit back down again as soon as the police left. This happened two more times and each time it got funnier, like extras on a sketch show we went through the motions and waited for the canned laughter, until the fourth time round when everything changed.
This time the police were serious, there were more of them and they were more aggressive, shouting at us all and throwing the furniture around. The beer sellers knew they had pushed their luck too far and told us to go back to our hotels but it was still funny. Nothing could spoil this night, even a truck full of pissed-off policemen.
The thought that we could be breaking some kind of law was the farthest thing from our minds as we grabbed any drinks we had left on the table, told our new best friends Chuc Mung Nam Moi (happy new year) for the hundredth time and tried to work out which way was home.
We wandered back to our hotel through the ashes of a thousand ceremonial fires and fell into bed, a little after 3am, regretting the hangover that I could already feel was on its way, but feeling crazy happy too. The Vietnamese really know how to do New Year.