Life Life

29/01/2020 - 08:30

Scent of Tet

No sweet smell of flowers blows against the wind. But the fragrance of the virtuous blows against the wind pervading all directions.

Joy of Tet

Sometimes scent plays the role of a messenger of time. For instance, when one smells the aroma of ginger pervading the village, one knows Tet is coming. It is the aroma of ginger jam which is indispensable on Tet in Hue.

In nature, trees in gardens signaled Tet even sooner. It was when the old apricot tree in the garden bloomed about one month early because of the sun this year. The Osmanthus fragrant tree beside the goldfish tank was also in bloom with white tiny flowers giving a pure aroma. 

Tet is also the fragrance of leaves. When the sounds of scissors trimming the plant hedge at many garden houses are heard and the light sweet smell of leaves covered with dew is felt, one knows Tet is coming. 

When fire was invented, our ancestors noticed the smell of cooked leaves. To Vietnamese people, it is the aroma of leaves wrapping banh chung and banh tet, the traditional food on Tet. “It is not fair to think that leaves have no scent,” said Mrs. Vang, who sells garden fruits. 

As a small girl, on the last days of the year, I used to follow Mrs. Vang to Mrs. Ca Tro’s garden to watch her cut banana leaves. Mrs. Ca Tro grew chuoi su only (a kind of banana). She kept saying: “Banh chung and banh tet is green and give a good smell only when wrapped in chuoi su leaves.” I asked how she knew that. She said she could smell the cooked leaves. 

Mrs. Vang’s home was the place to cook banh chung and banh tet for the whole alley. People stayed up very late beside the fire talking.

Now and then, flickering in my dreams is the image of Tay Son troops in their journey from Phu Xuan to Thang Long to fight against Thanh (Ch’ing) soldiers. Mr. Vui challenged us with the question: “What did they eat during their fight?” Many of us replied: “They cooked rice.” We forgot the food they brought with them was actually banh tet and banh chung, which could last up to a month. 

Unable to come home on Tet, my friend called: “Does our area still make banh chung and banh tet? How I miss its good smell!” I believe her. It is the scent of Tet, but also the fragrance of memories. Plants grown here give a special aroma as if they wanted to reward the Nguyen lords and those who have chosen this place to settle down. 

There is another scent of Tet that I always cherish. It was the good smell of new clothes for us as kids. It was as “sacred” as Tet. Mom had new clothes made for us but we saved them in the cabinet, waiting until the first day of the new year to put them on. Out of eagerness, we kids took them out many times a day to enjoy the good smell of new cloth.

As for Mom, in difficult years, she had only one ao dai to wear year after year. Moms always save the best clothes for their children. 

While the rain of October was still pouring in Hue, flowers for Tet began their own season. “Just like raising a child, true care produces true flowers. I decide not to use chemicals. Flowers can be big and colorful with chemicals, but they wither very soon. On Tet, people are very happy buying an apricot tree. Some of them save money for it. I cannot deceive them,” said frankly Mr. “grey-haired” Thanh, the owner of an apricot garden in Vy Da.

There remain in Mr. Thanh’s garden some old apricot trees that he did not want to sell. He and his son also grow chrysanthemums. One knows Tet is three months away when passing his garden in the tenth month of the lunar calendar and feeling the smell of rotten grass, mud and organic fertilizer.

Though having no fragrance, Thanh Tien paper flowers and Sinh paintings have their own scents from the eleventh month of the lunar calendar. After such a long time in which paper flowers surrendered to plastic or tin flowers, Hue people are now returning to paper flowers to decorate altars and their houses. Sinh paintings have come alive again too in modern life with a calendar depicting the twelfth animals of the year and spring festivals. 

“My scent of Tet is the good, familiar and deep fragrance of flowers and plants in my garden and the smell of paper and glue,” says the artisan Than Van Huy with a smile about his choice of making paper flowers with the aim of keeping the scent of Tet for his village.

One early morning in the last moth of the lunar year, in a boat trip up to the source of the Perfume river, smelling the light fragrance of garden flowers, I realized the love of Queen Le Ngoc Han from Thang Long for her husband, Emperor Quang Trung. Their love and their stormy life turned out to be as soft as ever in the fragrance of flowers in Phu Xuan on the last days of the year.

“No sweet smell of flowers blows against the wind. But the fragrance of the virtuous blows against the wind pervading all directions.” That lines from the Dhammapada at Tu Dam Pagoda, an ancient pagoda in Hue, stay in my mind as soon as I read them for the first time. On the boat between Tien Non and Bao Vinh on the Kitchen God Day, I overheard the talk between a chrysanthemum seller and a Thanh Tien paper flower seller: “After selling all these flowers, I’ll buy an ao dai for my Mom on the occasion of her 90th birthday.” “I’m trying to sell these paper flowers to buy a jacket for my husband. He has worn his old jacket for years.” I feel the compassion in the modest laborers’ scent of Tet, the compassion that the monk at my village pagoda talks about on the first day of the new year.

But there must be something to mark the real beginning of Tet in Hue. Maybe it is the scent of incense and agarwood on the day of setting up cay neu (Tet pole) on the 23rd of lunar December. It is when cay neu is set up in front of the Palace of Supreme Harmony in the Imperial City, in the village or at pagodas. The aroma of incense and agarwood combined with the light fragrance of apricot blossom in morning dew at pagodas reminds people not to be greedy, not to care about fames and to live good lives. 

This typical scent of Tet in Hue is what one can feel only. 

Story: Dieu Ha

Photo: Linh Thanh