Tết, Ten Minutes to Midnight

The rooftop view of Ho Chi Minh City stretches for miles. To the south, skyscrapers in District 1 shine like glass and steel beacons. North and west, 747's blink their navigation lights as they drift toward  the airport. All around, houses and temples cram together in a labyrinth of seething color and life and energy. From up here, there do not appear to be any roads or avenues, nothing to break up the relentless city. It's like someone dumped out a box of urban parts and never bothered sorting it into rationality. It's beautiful. It's intimidating.

It's also ten minutes to midnight the day before Tết. Behind us, the Vietnamese family that owns the building lights incense sticks at their ancestral altar. The faded black & white photos of relatives past stare at the proceedings with stony-faced curiosity. Lunar New Year is a time for family, but also for celebration. It's Christmas and Thanksgiving rolled into one.

Despite the anticipatory air, the city is mostly silent. The raucous view is holding its breath. In the next building over, a man deliberatively tends a rooftop garden. Why he's chosen to do that now, with minutes to go until midnight and Tết, is a mystery. But he seems wholly unmoved by the celebration waiting to begin.

From the temple down the street, a voice lifts in haunting chant. There's a burst of laughter from an open window. And I can hear a guitar playing, a tuneless thread of notes. Everyone's waiting. Our landlady's family joins us on the roof, trailing a cloud of incense. The smell mixes with the motor oil and cement and sewer stink of Ho Chi Minh City to make something earthy. Their child speaks in soft Vietnamese, and I hear impatience. The mother shakes her head and stares at the horizon, smiling. Wait.

The clock strikes midnight, which I only know because suddenly the sky is glittering with fireworks. 360 degrees of blues and reds and golds explode above the buildings. Other families on other rooftops are rapturous. Even the impassive gardener pauses long enough to observe with silent amusement. A woman joins him on the roof and they stand side-by-side, watching.

And then it's over. The sky is silent once more. Our landlady's family wishes us happy new year before heading back inside. The gardener gives his ferns a last look before joining his wife indoors. All across the neighborhood, families and friends retreat to their homes. Downtown, a massive party is just getting underway, one that will rage through much of the night. But it's only temporary. By tomorrow, Ho Chi Minh's District 1 will be much like our neighborhood is now. Quiet, calm, full of families cherishing their time together on the first day of the new year.