Invited to the far north for New Year by an ethnic family, I was served rat meat and pig blood soup.
The traditional Lunar New Year of the H'Mong in Ta So village, Moc Chau District, Son La Province, 320 km west of Hanoi, comes a month before that of the majority Kinh and Chinese peoples’.
It falls on the first day of the 12th lunar month, on January 6. Together with A Dua, a H'Mong resident of the village, I had my first ever taste of H'Mong Tet.
Before Tet A Dua's family makes a variety of dishes and invites over family members and other guests for a meal. Everyone drinks alcohol and passes a pair of chicken feet around the table.
The H'Mong think the family’s business won’t be good if the chicken legs they are served are too splayed but good if they curl inward.
Though very busy at home during the festival, many young people in Ta So village find time to gather at a house to rehearse for their dance performances on the fourth day of the New Year at the village stadium.
The day before the New Year the village is abuzz with excitement. Every house turns on H'Mong music to welcome spring.
On New Year’s Day I accompany A Dua to his relatives' houses and wish them a happy new year. Each family makes a big meal with pork, chicken, rat meat, bread, raw vegetables, pig blood soup, and vegetable soup, and ply guests with leavened corn wine.
H'Mong families gather for the Lunar New Year holiday. Photo by Huynh Kien
The dishes that stand out are rat meat and pig blood soup. The mouse was caught in the mountain and served grilled. It is quite fragrant and delicious, and the meat is firm. The soup on the other hand scares me to the point where I don’t dare try it. But I get to see how much they enjoy it.
A small bowl of the soup is passed from one person to another. When it is somebody’s turn, they take their spoon and scoop a bit into their bowl and proceed to eat it with a cup yeast corn wine. After finishing their cup of wine, the guest shakes hands with the person who invited them to have the soup.
Rice cake is a special dish for the H'Mong people, and during Tet they serve it to guests.
The cake is grilled, making it crisp and fragrant. When the guests leave, each is given some cake to take home.
The H'Mong in Ta So village wear colorful traditional clothes during Tet. Young girls and children dress up, put on white silver jewelry and wander around the streets holding hands and play badminton and a traditional H'Mong ball-tossing game.
If the girls don’t go out, they stay at home and gather around a fire to sew old clothes or make new ones.
Because we go to each house in the village to wish people a happy new year, at 8 p.m. we are still deep inside. The deeper you go into the village, the muddier and more difficult the road gets.
The last house on the mountainside astonishes me: there is no electricity, only the dim light of dusk. The children in this house are already asleep, while the adults have had too much to drink and have gone to bed earlier than usual.
Ta So village. Photo courtesy of Huynh Kien
By the time I leave at almost 11 p.m, I see H'Mong women with lights at every road corner looking for their husbands. During Tet, men often drink excessively. A mist begins to shroud the place, and the freezing cold is in stark contrast to the warm day filled with Tet festivities.
Though life is difficult here, the people of Ta So village are very friendly. When people come to wish them for Tet, they welcome them with open arms.
The warm handshakes of the adults and the affectionate, carefree smile of the kids warm my heart.
What an incredible Tet it had been!
*Huynh Kien, 27, is from the central province of Quang Ngai and lives in Saigon. She quit her job to travel around Vietnam and writes books. When she arrived in Moc Chau, it was the H'Mong Tet, and so she accepted people’s invitation to stay for a month instead of five days as she had originally planned.