“As a child, Tet was always an exciting time – I would see all of my cousins and we could play for days on end, but the older I’ve become, the busier the holiday feel,” laments Daisy Trinh – a student and English Teaching Assistant here in Hanoi.
“I start to get stressed in the run-up to Tet because I know there’ll be so much work to do,” she confesses and as February 14th looms ever closer, she doesn’t share the same enthusiasm for the time off work that most folks welcome with open arms. To many, Tet is a chance to escape the office, return to the family hive and over-indulge in a rampant orgy of food, drinks and revelry. For foreigners living here, it’s usually a time where they take flight to cause mayhem across Asia for a week or two, but for the women of Vietnam – it’s an endurance race to the pits of exhaustion.
“Girls start their training around aged seven or eight – usually just washing dishes and helping to clean up to begin with, but by the time they’re 14 it’s intense.” No stranger to housework, the strain of Tet is now fully ingrained for Trinh and it’s no small feat.
“I have a really big family – usually between 25 and 30 people will come and stay with us and so I’ll be cooking for them all for three days solid.” And so the women set about crafting mountains of nem (spring rolls) vast quantities of ga luoc (steamed chicken) and other traditional Vietnamese foods for the whole family.
Aided by just three other women from her family to help her, Trinh’s routine over Tet sounds gruelling to Western ears. “We’ll spend about five to six hours cooking all the food for lunch and dinner, but once we’ve eaten, we have to wait for the men to finish drinking and talking before we can clean up and that takes another two or three hours.”
Despite the mammoth task of feeding the family, Trinh still finds time to sit down and enjoy the holidays with her family. “Of course, we still eat together and for me that’s the most relaxing time, but I’ve never seen the fireworks over Tet – the men go out to watch them, but me and the rest of the women in the family are left to clean up in preparation for the next meal.”
Vietnamese traditions and customs reign supreme over Tet and those that break from the herd are often regarded as selfish for not supporting their families during this festive period. “You have a really comfortable life over Tet as a man, the belief that men shouldn’t be in the kitchen is still a strong one – they should be allowed to relax, eat, drink and sleep, but you can never ask them to cook!” When asked if these ideals were changing with the times, Trinh smiled nervously: “I think some Vietnamese guys are changing, my dad helped with the cleaning last year, but my older brother refuses to – he’s 27 – “I don’t have to because I’m a man” even though he knows how to cook and is capable of helping.” Trinh went on to explain that even her Gran refuses to allow any of the men or any of the boys to pitch in over the holidays, so the kitchen is an exclusively female populated zone for at least three days straight in her household.
On whether or not Trinh felt like this was a big sacrifice to make for her family, she claimed, “Not really, I just accept it – it’s tradition – if I want to go out and see my friends over Tet, I can. I just have to finish my work beforehand.” As Vietnam opens its doors exponentially to foreigners with a view for both business and pleasure, I wanted to find out if these traditions were coming under scrutiny with more Western cultural influence being exerted in Vietnam than ever before with the unprecedented access to the outside world that the internet has granted. “I never really thought about equality between men and women before – it was only when I met more foreigners. I just assumed I had to please my family and my future husband’s family.” It’s a mindset that many foreigners might find baffling, but it’s a deeply entrenched mindset. One that’s built on a strong foundation of tradition and national values – like the bizarre necessity of a brussel sprouts cameo at Christmas in the UK. “As a child, my parents told me that everything I was learning was preparation for my future marriage.”
Families selectively choose which traditions they follow over Tet and many of Trinh’s friends’ families travel for Tet, easing the workload for women – she tells me her family would “just laugh” if she suggested something similar, so what would she change?
“Ideally I’d want my husband to help in the kitchen, but I’d still want to take care of him. I’d want more responsibilities to be shared – most Vietnamese guys nowadays don’t want to have to pay for someone else’s life so the traditions are changing.” She notes that already there’s a trend for older men to help out more once they’ve stopped working, but more recently there’s also been a number of hired help services that ease the strain on women over Tet, but she assures me the workload is still intense for most women, “This is Vietnamese life, I’m really happy here – to me it’s normal – and even though it’s changing, there are still a lot of families like my family.”