Notes From Hanoi: Post-Tet Bling, Wise Men and Orion Pies For the Gods

water chestnut

Water chestnut ladies.

I’m surprisingly comfortable with having no clue what’s going on around me.

I’ve spent most of my adult life in countries where I’m not only far from fluent in the language but am also illiterate and still learning the cultural ropes.

Vietnam- and specifically here in Hanoi because I can’t really speak for the rest of the country- is proving to be even more of a puzzle for me because I’m primarily a passive observer these days. Thwack and I go for long walks through the back streets around our district a few times a day and we talk about what we see.

As you might imagine, it goes something like this:

Me: Look at the nearly dead, gasping fish flopping on the sidewalk in front of us!

Thwack: Ba ba ba ba ba ba?

Me: I know, I know. I guess that guy with the string wrapped around a coffee can caught it and didn’t bother killing it. Bummer. Poor fish.

Thwack: Da ba?

Me: Certainly. Next time, little guy. Hey, look- a mop! And a vegetable garden! And chickens!

Thwack: Hyeuh! Bwah!

Me: No shit. Hey, is that a temple or a pagoda? How do you tell the difference?*

Thwack: Mmmmmma-hm. De de de?

Me: Easy for you to say.


*Apparently, a temple flies a multicoloured flag with squares within squares; a pagoda flies a Buddhist stripy one. 

We walk until my feet blister or until I get told off by too many old ladies for torturing my poor, frozen baby by not wrapping him up in a snow suit on a mild, 22 degree day or until it starts to rain.

We’ve done this so many times that I’m seeing daily and weekly and monthly patterns emerging. I recognize certain people in certain places doing certain things.

Like the guy with the feather dusters and cleaning supplies on a flatbed tricycle who has a very hearty sound system built in, playing all your favourite Vietnamese hair metal bands.

Or the various gleaners in their conical hats, sorting through the piles of garbage stacked up against the walls of the many lanes, looking for recyclables.

Or the flower ladies with their bicycles stacked with bouquets, with individually wrapped blossoms holding the petals in place like a dog’s head in an anti-scratch cone.

I see a lot, yes, but it’s a passive exercise for the most part. For the first time in my adult life, I’m not out in the working world, with colleagues and students helping me to figure out what’s going on around me. I’ve asked Ba, our morning housekeeper, but she just giggles and says she doesn’t know. She probably does but hasn’t got the lexical resources to deal with it, nor have I.

Sometimes M. comes home from work, noting a colleague who just came back from a village festival where they cut a pig in half or something similar, and I realize how very separate I feel here. I feel slightly spectral, drifting around, never quite touching anything or interacting like a proper human. I clank my chains and make dogs howl and leave an inexplicable chill in the air and not much more.

Which leads me to today’s walk down by the lake, near the Tay Ho Buddhist temple.


Street crowd


This area is usually very quiet and very empty, except at lunch time when all the little table-and-plastic-stool places fill up and serve endless bowls of tangy smashed crab noodle soup (bún riêu cua) and whole shrimps embedded in a donut (bánh tôm).


glutinous rice variations


Once a month, according to the lunar calendar, it briefly fills up with appropriate booths selling everything you need to make offerings: Orion pies, crackers, cigarettes, Coke, fruit. There are old men in shiny robes who write letters to god (sớ) for you in flowing script. Food stalls sell overpriced street food and it’s briefly busy.




Today and for the past week since we came back from Saigon, the area has been packed. Every day. Like, China-on-a-national-holiday packed. Like, overflowing onto nearby streets packed. There are wise men everywhere, dozens on a block. And the gilt! The glitter! The candied water chestnuts! The Orion pies! The shrimp donuts!


Deity bling.

Deity bling.


One old wise man gently accosted us, grilled me in mostly monosyllabic statements that I took to be questions (age! name! boy! good! intelligent baby!) before shaking Thwack’s hand and returning to his letter to god.

Thwack was so busy trying to deal with every single person who wanted to shake his hand that he just kept his right arm out of his carrier, held at an angle where they could easily access it and give him a modified high five, like baseball players lined up to greet the opposing team after a game (‘good game good game good game...’).

What was going on?

Good question.

I had no idea so I posed it to the Hanoi Massive Facebook group. They’re like a Greek chorus (except Vietnamese) and possess general knowledge omniscience.

I learned the following:

1. After Tet, people here visit temples and pagodas to pray for good luck until the end of the first month of the lunar calendar (around mid-March or so) or until the first full moon (in a few days).

2. They go to worship after the new year to ask for success and money and to get the old fellows to write them their letters to god.

The photos above are roughly what it looked like, though you’ll need to multiply it about a dozen times for the true scope. Add a few dozen tour buses and a pop up cheapo bazaar outside the offerings/old men area and tables crammed with people assembling their offering gift basket and temples full of people praying and you’ll have a reasonable idea.

Happy Year of the Goat/Sheep/Whatever it is.

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About MaryAnne

I live in Hanoi. I used to live in Shanghai (hence this blog's title) but I left in 2013. I tend to travel. I cook stuff. I read a lot. I try to scare myself silly with regularity. I write about it all. A lot.