At 6 a.m. Friday, the 15th day of the first lunar month, Ly A Ton, 62, woke early to prepare offerings, including fresh flowers, fruit, incense, boiled chicken and fried cakes ( jian dui ) in front of his house on Tran Hung Dao Street in District 5.
Instead of flocking to a Chinese-built pagoda with his offerings and burning incense to the gods as in previous years, Ton stayed home and set up a table to worship the deities for fear of gathering in crowds amid the new Covid-19 outbreak that began in the country in late January.
He then hung red pieces of paper bearing Chinese characters on his walls to pray for peace and good fortune.
“This is the most important ritual during Tet Nguyen Tieu ,” he said, referring to the Lantern Festival, known as the biggest and most important festival of the year for ethnic Chinese, marking the final day of the traditional Lunar New Year ( Tet ) celebration.
It is observed on the 15th day of the first lunar month, the first Full Moon day of the Lunar New Year.
” Tet Nguyen Tieu to us is even more important than Lunar New Year's Eve and Chinese like us always light incense to deities at pagodas and temples to pray for the removal of bad luck and a year of peace and happiness,” Ton noted.
“But the Covid-19 outbreak forced us to celebrate on a smaller scale this year. I am old and scared of contracting the virus or spreading it to my family members. Therefore, I limit going out and gathering in crowds.”
He also had to cancel a reunion party with his relatives and could not visit his friends during the festival, which is an occasion for reunited families to eat dumplings and floating rice cakes made of glutinous rice flour wrapped around a sweet filling.
Inside the 250-year-old Lady Thien Hau Temple, which is dedicated to worship the Goddess of the Sea, the devout convey their prayers by lighting spiral incense sticks that can burn for weeks. Photo by VnExpress/Phong Vinh.
Ton is one of thousands of ethnic Chinese in Saigon who have been forced to scrap their plans during their biggest traditional spring festival, normally accompanied with dragon dances, street parades, music performances and large crowds.
The city suspended all non-essential services, shutting down bars, karaoke parlors, cinemas and discotheques, and banned religious events since Feb. 9 after recording a series of community transmissions linked to a cluster at the Tan Son Nhat International Airport.
Though city authorities allowed the organization of religious events from March 1, gatherings of more than 50 people at a time remain prohibited.
This was the second consecutive year the festival has been suspended due to the pandemic. The Chinatown area on Friday saw no dragon dances and street parades to avoid large crowds.
Without dragon dances, the festival was no longer as busy nor as meaningful as before, A Tieu, a 55-year-old merchant at Soai Kinh Lam Market, said while preparing to up his shutters for a new business day.
Dragon dance is performed by famous troupes in the Chinatown during Tet Nguyen Tieu , 2018. Photo by VnExpress/Thanh Nguyen.
The Chinese community strongly believes these dances would dispel evil and bring luck and success. For this, every family invites a lion dance troupe to visit their homes and business establishments on the first days of the New Year, giving them an envelope of lucky money.
Ly Sy Cuong, a caretaker at Nghia An Assembly Hall where Quan Cong (Guan Yu), an ancient Chinese general, is worshiped for his loyalty, sincerity and integrity, said the number of pilgrims on Friday fell sharply as dragon dances and hat tuong , Vietnamese-Chinese opera, were canceled.
Ethnic Chinese have a long tradition to queue up and crawl under the Chinese general horse called Red Hare once or thrice hoping for a smooth start to the new year.
Vietnam has recorded 837 Covid-19 community transmissions in 13 localities, including Hanoi and HCMC, since Jan. 28 after a 55-day clean streak. Many major spring festivals have been suspended due to travel restrictions, lockdowns and quarantine requirements.
Ethnic Chinese, locally referred to as Hoa people, arrived in the south of Vietnam over 300 years ago, with many cultural traditions and long-standing customs kept alive until now.
For Ton, his best wish during Tet Nguyen Tieu is that all people would be safe amid the pandemic and Chinese Vietnamese businesses would fare better this year.
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