On January 30, 1968, just a little more than three weeks after my birth, large numbers of Viet-Cong soldiers, South Vietnamese loyal to the North, with well placed support form the North Vietnamese Regular Army, orchestrated a sweeping series of fierce attacks upon the unsuspecting South Vietnamese and American troops. The reason they were caught unawares was that the attack took place during the most important of all Vietnamese festivals, the lunar new year holiday, Tet. Thus, was the name of the surprise attack dubbed the Tet Offensive. The attacks took place all over South Vietnam under the cover of darkness in the waxing moments of the year of the monkey. The Tet Offensive is one of the watershed moments of the Vietnam War and because of this, the festival and the war will be indelibly tied. As the year of the monkey once again approached I found myself having dinner in a restaurant on Bach Dang Street in Da Nang where 48 years earlier a hail of rocket fire rained down from the skies on the suddenly besieged city, initiating days of intense fighting. This time the only explosions will be the sound of fireworks.
As I finished my dinner, the stroke of midnight was but a few scant minutes away so I left the restaurant and walked to the edge of the Han River to await the fireworks show. I began my evening on the opposite bank. The open plaza that sits on the edge of the river there is called the Love Bridge, and it lies adjacent to one of Da Nang’s most recognizable monuments, the Dragon Bridge. For the Tet festival, the Love Bridge was tastefully decorated in flowered displays and greetings wishing one and all the best in the coming year. A great many people were gathering there and the festive feeling of the event grew exponentially as a band began to play. And all under the watchful gaze of the Dragon.
One of the features of the Dragon Bridge is the nightly water display. The bridge was first opened in March 2013, and every night since then at 9 p.m. the dragon emits several jets of water from it’s gaping maw. The bridge had just opened when I visited there in the summer of 2013, so I knew this which is part of the reason I was there so early. What I didn’t know, and to my great surprise and delight, is that on special occasions the Dragon breaths fire! It was quite a spectacle to see long flues of flame belching from the dragon head that adorns the eastern end of the bridge. After the display was completed I wandered around soaking in the sights and sounds of my first Tet. A while later hunger grabbed hold so off I went to Bach Dang Street to get some dinner.
Given that is was Tet Eve and the evening was growing a little long in the tooth, a lot of places were closed and getting a decent meal was a little more difficult than I had considered. Nevertheless, it wasn’t too much later that I decided on a western style place along the main drag and settled down to a feed of delicious cheeseburger and fries with a nacho starter. This may not seem like a big deal to a lot of you, but where I live in China it all but impossible to get a good western style meal. About the only thing western that exists in my neighborhood is a KFC and a MacDonald’s. These are foods I am loathe to eat, but a desperate man can cave even if his will should be ironclad. So like Simon and Garfunkel did with the whores on 7th Avenue, there are times when I took some comfort there. But on this night I would not need lower myself to such vileness as fast food. I was eating real food! Da Nang has a great selection of foods from all over the world to tempt your taste buds, especially food from the west. So while I was there I took every opportunity to get as much delicious legitimate western style food as I could. Goodness knows when I will get more. Anyway, with the meal over and digestion under way, I headed to the river side.
I was under the impression that the fireworks display was to take place near the Love Bridge where I had started my evening and thus I believed that my current perch directly across the river was an ideal location to get a look at the fire works display. Apparently I was far from alone in that expectation, because when the fireworks began at the stroke of midnight to augur in the dawn of the year of the monkey, there was a great many others looking in the wrong direction as I was. The actual location was further from my spot than I anticipated and every photo I took has the Dragon Bridge dissecting it. Despite these minor inconveniences it was still a very enjoyable show. The fireworks display itself was very good, but hardly spectacular. But I found that to me this wasn’t really of all that much importance. I didn’t require a top of the charts light show to enjoy the moment or to make it special. I didn’t need the flashes and booms to seem endless. What was important for me was just being there, in a place that long before I ever visited there for the first time, had a firm, undeniable, and unbreakable grip on my imagination.
Tet is more than just a single day of celebration, however. Like it’s more well known cousin, Chinese New Year, it is a week long festival where families and friends regularly unite for celebrations. Several days later, at the end of the fourth day of my bike tour, I was fortunate enough to be a guest at just such an occasion in the town of Khe Sanh. And I wasn’t alone. I was drawn to the scene by the sound of music and singing. With a cry of Chuc Mung Nam Moi (Happy New Year) I was dragged from the street and given a chair at a table with a group of super friendly locals and some other foreigners who had likewise been pulled from the streets by the merry revelers and placed smack dab into an awesome street-side karaoke party.
Before my ass had a chance to feel the seat beneath it there was a glass with an ice cube on the table in front of me and beer being poured into it. After a hearty “cheers”, and at the urging/insistence of our hosts, we emptied our glasses… at which point they were immediately refilled. This set the stage for the remainder of the evening. I quickly made the acquaintance of John, Curt, and Sam from Seattle that were in the midst of a motorbike tour from Ho Chi Minh City in the south to Hanoi in the north. They were friendly fellows and we soon fell into easy conversations, no doubt partly aided by the constant requests for “cheers” and the glasses of beer, quickly emptied and refilled by our gracious and wonderful hosts. For as much beer as they pushed at us for the evening they wouldn’t accept a penny. We would have been happy to sing a song but there was no western music available. The only price was to have a good time, enjoy yourself, and occasionally, dance. A small price to pay. An easy price to pay. A price I was more than happy to pay to have the honor to enjoy Tet with the great people whose heritage it belongs to, and to have the great opportunity to share with them their joy for life, their love for family, and the blessing of new friends.