Letters from the Tribe: Tet Holiday Adventures
This ETK Blog post is brought to you by Cori Orak, via the Tribe Scribe. Cori was the first official member of the Tribe, and is Founder and Head Bag Designer Jake's leading lady. Cori has been Jake's muse in many respects, and thus has been extremely influential in the design process. We are beyond-honored and happy to welcome Cori as a guest writer on the ETK Blog. Cori's perspective on life in Vietnam is invaluable, and she shares the same passion for cultural appreciation, social responsibility and sustainability in this time-honored craft.
Greetings Tribe!! Seeing as this is my fifth year of living in Vietnam and my fourth time experiencing TET, I thought it would be fun to share one of my most memorable TET experiences, through the lens of cultural appreciation. The most inspiring, fun and informational TET I’ve ever been honored to experience happened two years ago when a Vietnamese teaching assistant and good friend of mine, Tam, offered to have me join her on a trip to her home town near Phan Thiet. Her family was excited to host an American for dinner, as they had never hosted anyone other than their family during this special holiday.
The holiday started out with an early visit to the flower show which is held every year on Nguyen Hue Street, showcasing all of the beautiful flowers from throughout Vietnam and a huge display resembling the upcoming animal of the year (that particular year it was the year of the cat).
Following flower street, we met up with Tam (my teaching assistant) and her brother - getting ready to start the road trip from Saigon to Phan Thiet, which is approximately 120 miles.
The night of our arrival was spent meeting the family and heading to bed early, which of course leads to an early rise the following morning. After a brisk bucket shower, it was straight to work with preparations for the New Year. It’s tradition to clean the house on the last day of the year to make sure you welcome in the New Year with a ‘clean slate’. While we were running errands I witnessed a few beautiful elderly ladies both making and enjoying areca nut and the betel leaf, which you can learn more about HERE.
After picking up some fresh ingredients for dinner, we stopped and enjoyed a café sua da- which is Vietnamese coffee with sweetened condensed milk and is the strongest and sweetest caffeinated beverage I’ve ever had! Once we were buzzed up and ready for the second half of the day we purchased two sunflowers to place on either side of the front door.
That evening, everyone took turns taking showers. In fact, it's a tradition, in addition to cleaning the house, every member of the family needs to shower before midnight - to wash away the previous year.
At the end of the day, the father of the house prays to the ancestors. It is his job to give thanks for his entire family. Most households have at least one personal alter dedicated to relatives who have passed away.
In the hours leading up to the New Year, family members sit around the house, sharing beers and playing cards. We played a form of black jack, poker and bingo. At around 11:30pm we took off and headed out to find a good location to view the fireworks.
The following morning, which was the first day of the New Year was my favorite day of the trip. We spent the morning walking door-to-door visiting relatives, praying with them and enjoying their company. Every house prepares picnic style food and brings it out for each guest. We all sat on the floor and they shared stories and laughter (of course most of it was in Vietnamese so naturally I just sat, smiled and ate everything I could get my hands on). Each house has five altars, when you enter the house, you grab five pieces of incense and go to each alter, pray and move on to the next. This is done before you get to enjoy each other’s company and the great food.
Once we had made an appearance at every family members house (and about six hours had past) we headed out to the largest pagoda in the area, which Tam’s father works at. When you arrive you have the opportunity to purchase a packet of donations and incense to bring into the pagoda to give thanks.
I lit my 11 incense sticks and went to the various altars to pray for my family, health and happiness. I was filled with such emotion I can not even really convey it through words.
I was then taken to the biggest alter, which was built for a husband and wife. In fact, the entire pagoda was built in their honor thanking them for their kindness and compassion.
I sat down in front of their alter, and was given these two wooden blocks that when held together resembled a tamarind fruit/seed. I held these to my forehead and prayed. It is a prayer, which is treated as a wish. Following this, you drop the blocks and if they land in a certain way, your wish and prayer will come true.
I made my wish dropped the blocks and they came up with no luck. However...you are given three chances to make this wish/prayer. On my second turn I did the entire routine again, placed them to my forehead, made my prayer, dropped the blocks and...SUCCESS! They landed the correct way, which meant my wish will be granted (and looking back on this memory, it was - undoubtedly - granted).
This was followed by standing in line behind the main monk who gave me two bits of yellow paper: one was already folded and the other I folded around the first. This, he said, should be carried with me at all times for luck, happiness and safety. It was such a beautiful way to wrap up a beautiful trip; I was truly honored and humbled by being provided with this amazing opportunity.
It’s funny, people often ask me what has kept me in Vietnam for so long, and I feel as though it can’t be explained or described through mere words...you must come here and experience the culture first-hand. When we first arrived here in 2006 we were awestruck. There were highs and lows, frustrations and joys, and we thought we were only in it for six months to a year. It means the absolute world to me that Jake has fallen in love with Vietnam just as strongly as I have, and has created and nurtured a vision that enables us to share and celebrate this culture with the world.
I also feel pretty lucky to have a front row seat to the entire process and experience. When we went to the Cham village of Phan Rang (Tháp Chàm), we were left speechless time and time again.
The beauty and dedication that goes into the woven work here in Vietnam is nothing short of amazing, and seeing the pride and fulfillment shining through the communities Ethnotek works with fills my heart completely. It’s easily assumed that I’m the number 1 fan (some may even say obsessed) of Ethnotek, due to the fact that I’m married to man who made it happen...but the truth is, I’d be the number 1 fan no matter who created this company.
In the past, I spent a few months in Tanzania teaching HIV/AIDS prevention education, and volunteering here in both a Vietnamese orphanage and cancer hospital. People, culture and sharing knowledge are the highest priorities in my life, and it’s important to me to stand behind companies that not only matter, but also consider and respect every element of the creative process. Every person counts.
Chúc mừng năm mới - Happy Tet Holiday and Chinese new Year Tribe! Cori's closing line is so simple, yet so incredibly important - every person counts. If everyone lived life with this perspective, the world would be a more beautiful, peaceful place.