For the past few years, every time the Lunar New Year celebrations have rolled around, so has the Tet debate. Some people have piped up online, arguing that Tet is old-fashioned and should be cancelled if Vietnam wants to be a modern country.
This year’s Tet debate was particularly intense. One of the most extreme proponents of the "get rid of it" position was a young writer Tue Nghi. In an article for HimMag, she said that the time to cancel the Lunar New Year had come, asserting that Vietnam could never become modern and successful while keeping the holiday.
She posed some stark choices: Vietnamese citizens must choose either a rich and strong country, or an intolerant preservation of traditions, watching pitifully while other countries speed ahead. They must choose either wide, open economic development, trading with Europe and North America, or choose to only work with neighboring countries that also celebrate the Lunar New Year.
This might all sound like a bizarre oversimplification of the relationship between culture and capital, and there has been a strong response from netizens and others. The government has rightly declared that Tet should be preserved. Professor Carl Thayer from the Australian Defence Force Academy and a heavyweight political scientist on Vietnam also rolled in to give his views on the holiday (he likes it).
Perhaps we could point out that in the most successful economy of the past 30 years, China, the Lunar New Year festival is still hugely important. We could point out that Korea, which in the 1950s was one of the poorest countries in the world and is now one of the top 20 economies, successfully industrialized without cancelling their Lunar New Year celebrations. We could also point out that Western Europe industrialized during a time when strong traditional religious beliefs and celebrations were present across the continent.
But what if it’s already happening? What if Tet is already being eroded? What if this is a process which is occurring largely unnoticed, without the help of think-pieces by those who are overly keen to stick a stake through the heart of the fun as soon as possible?
While most of us went off to various que (hometown) or beaches for Tet, some stayed in the cities. When we think of these people, we usually think of those who are from the cities so they celebrate with their families there, or expats who stay around, either because they have nowhere else to go, or because they like the peace and quiet.
But there is a third, often overlooked group. "Yes, we are open over Tet!"; "Come in for a coffee during Tet!"; "Happy Tet, we’re still here!" – or other similar sentiments – can be seen peppered around cities and social media, as cafes, restaurants and bars let customers know that they're still open for business over the holiday. And this service requires staff. A veritable army of laborers have to work over Tet, keeping the cities ticking over. Waiters, chefs, receptionists, security guards, cleaners, drivers – the list goes on – and their numbers seem to get bigger every year.
There are perhaps two types of people who work over Tet: those who are forced to by their bosses, and those who are forced to by poverty.
A cleaner in my apartment block said that she wasn’t allowed to have a break over Tet, is in the former camp. So is a friend who works at a cinema. She was working all through Tet to ensure that people who wanted to spend the holidays watching the latest tiresome Hollywood action film or laughless local comedy had somewhere to go. A GrabBike driver I met is in the latter camp. "I’m not stopping!", he responded to my question of when he was breaking for the holiday. "I’m too poor for that." Either way, these workers barely had a Tet celebration at all.
Elsewhere, among factory workers, the Tet bonus is changing. Workers traditionally got paid an extra 13th month salary at Tet, and relied on this to top up their low wages, buy gifts for family and pay for travel to their hometowns and back. But this can no longer be relied upon. While some companies still pay their workers the equivalent of a 13th month salary, others use the excuse of low profit margins or slow business to give much less – as low as VND50,000 ($2.2) in some places, or even just products such as clothing, rather than any actual money. This is another key part of the Lunar New Year that is being eroded.
Is this what the anti-Tet people want? Is this what they mean by “modern”? It certainly seems modern to me, in line with the logic of submitting everything to the demands of business. But is it really the dream of what a “successful” country should look like?
So, yes, the government is right. Tet should be preserved. It may, however, already be slipping away without us noticing. Preservation will require an active effort.
*Joe Buckley is a Brit who goes back and forth between London and Ho Chi Minh City. The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of VnExpress International or VnExpress.