You leave the fracas of Pacific Coast Highway and enter a world of ambient chill, minimalist teak and a backlit bar bedecked with exquisite jewel-toned sake bottles. It’s pure izakaya, the Japanese answer to a tapas bar. Nothing is lost in translation as you’re escorted to your near-private booth, a sultry array of vintage kimono pillows lining the seats. You peer at the next table, the rolled bamboo shades offering a discreet cover. When your sake flight arrives, you toast mystery, things exotic and Japanese new wave cinema. And the sushi? Let’s just say your first bite takes you back to that tucked-away little bar you happened upon your first night in Tokyo, a tranquil haven from the glorious neon chaos outside. Japonica Dining, 1304 ½ S. Pacific Coast Highway, Redondo Beach. (310) 316-9477. www.japonicadining.com
A cloud of smoke rises to reveal a wizened, gray-haired woman before an altar, her gnarled hands clasping amber sticks of incense in front of her forehead, her lips moving in silent prayer. Tucked away on a characteristically winding street in Hanoi’s Old Quarter, Bach Ma Temple hums with the quiet energy of the devout as they make amends and offerings to the gods in the days leading up to Tet, the Vietnamese Lunar New Year.
Because Tet occurs in late January or early February, it coincides with the best time of year to visit Vietnam in terms of mild weather and low humidity. And since my new year’s plans went south thanks to a bout with laryngitis, my husband and I decided to give New Year’s another go and arrived in Hanoi from Halong Bay two days before Tet, which incidentally means ‘the first morning of the new year.’
Storefront displays, street banners, city landscaping, public art and billboards are ablaze with red and gold, lending a pulsing vibrancy to Hanoi’s famously busy streets. Not only is Tet the most widely celebrated holiday in Vietnam, comparable in scale to our Christmas holidays, but it’s also the country’s biggest gift-giving season.
Motorcyclists weave daringly through traffic while balancing shopping bags, mandarin trees and peach blossom saplings, the plants thought to bring prosperity and peace in the new year. A motorcyclist transporting a fruit-laden mandarin tree has a near-miss with a tourist bus. Unruffled, he swerves out of the way and continues, the tree intact.
We wind our way through the labyrinthine streets of the Old Quarter, looking for a bargain and a steaming bowl of pho (rice noodles in broth with vegetables and meat), Vietnam’s breakfast of champions. A couple burns a paper lantern on the curb up ahead. We are told that this is an offering to the kitchen god, who watches over families year-round and flies to the heavens at Tet to report on the household’s behavior. It is believed that an offering appeases the kitchen god and ensures a favorable report.
Four shops and $36 later, we emerge with three baseball caps embroidered with the ubiquitous red star, seven silk scarves and two souvenir t-shirts. I make sure one of the scarves is red and pink, colors thought to bring good luck at Tet.
What we didn’t find was the pho, so we make our way to KOTO (Know One Teach One), a restaurant staffed entirely by former Hanoi street kids and founded by a Vietnamese Australian who wanted to share his passion for food in a meaningful way. We indulge in the clay pot chicken, a fragrant mélange of tender meat in a stew of lemon grass and ginger. Duong, our server, tells us she has worked at KOTO for eight months. Before that, she sold trinkets on the sidewalk alongside her parents. She bows as we leave. “I look forward to see you again,” she beams.
Our next stop is the Temple of Literature, where locals flock during Tet to purchase hand-painted scrolls bearing the Chinese characters for success, health, prosperity, calm—everything you need for an auspicious new year. We stroll through the tranquil courtyards inside the temple walls, passing lotus ponds and sacred trees. Built in 1070, the Temple is dedicated to the worship of Confucius and in 1706 became Vietnam’s first national university. Confucius’ altar is piled high with offerings of citrus fruit, rice cakes, paper money, incense coils and a box of Oreos. Worshippers stand cheek to jowl, bowing repeatedly with hands in prayer position, clasping unlit incense rods to their foreheads.
We realize when we arrive at the monolithic Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum that we’ve missed the window of opportunity to view the body of Vietnam’s most infamous leader. Armed guards keep a watchful eye over a modest crowd of pilgrims making incense offerings in a large bronze urn at the foot of the mausoleum entrance. One hapless visitor steps across a yellow line on the ground and receives a sharp scolding from a scowling guard. We head back to our hotel for a quiet evening, saving ourselves for the Tet equivalent of New Year’s Eve the next night.
In a bizarre twist of fate, my husband loses his voice the next morning. Our New Year’s celebration is thwarted again, but this time we are comfortably ensconced on the eleventh floor of our hotel in Hanoi’s tony West Lake District.
Following Tet tradition, we exchange red envelopes with Vietnamese currency inside to augur prosperity. As midnight approaches, we press our faces to the floor-to-ceiling windows and peer at the busy intersection below. The motorcyclists scramble like tiny beetles to get to the fireworks display over Hanoi’s West Lake, as the ant-sized pedestrians march staunchly forward in the street, impervious to the chaotic snarl of cars, buses and motorcycles.
On the sidewalk away from the traffic, a small group launches a flame-powered white lantern into the air. Like giddy children, we marvel as the lantern ascends high above the street until it passes our aerie. Before long, the scene below is filled with red and white floating lanterns, some getting trapped in tree branches and electrical lines, the majority rising until they become near-invisible dots in the night sky. The lanterns are said to carry away negativity from the previous year in order to clear the path for goodness in the new year.
Midnight strikes and the street below erupts in euphoria. Clad in hotel-issue terry cloth robes and slippers, my husband and I tumble out of our room and into the glass elevator across the hall, catching a bird’s-eye view of the fireworks over the lake.