Turning Tet into a celebration of spending

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 02 February, 2005, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 02 February, 2005, 12:00am

The country's biggest annual celebration is just a couple of weeks away, but right now Pham Cam Tu's house is a mess.

The Hanoi television producer and her family are in the midst of a supersized version of what millions of Vietnamese will do for Tet, the lunar new year: getting the house fixed up.

A half-dozen workers are hard at it day and night throughout Ms Tu's narrow, three-storey home: painting, repairing and rebuilding the kitchen, considered the most important part of the house in Vietnamese culture.

Repainting and clean-ups are a traditional way to greet the new year in Vietnam. But with increasing wealth spreading through the developing country, more are expanding the renovations to new extremes - in Ms Tu's case, literally including the kitchen sink.

'We needed to get the work done anyway, but we chose the time before Tet because it's a time when many friends and family visit each other's homes,' she said. 'It shows we had a successful year and encourages us to have another.'

It all makes for some welcome spin-offs for Vietnamese painting and renovation companies. Demand for their services in the month leading up to Tet is double the normal level.

Thousands of labourers like Vu Van An, one of the workers at Ms Tu's house, are also cashing in.

The pre-Tet preparations are his busiest time of the year. He and his colleagues are working 12 hours a day to keep up with the demand. And the pay for each worker climbs to the special Tet rate of US$4 a day, 20 per cent higher than normal.

Mr An said he had one customer who got his house interiors painted a different colour every year.

'When the new year comes, people want everything to be new,' Mr An said. 'They also want to impress their guests.'

But the government is urging its public to rein in at least some of its free-spending ways.

Prime Minister Phan Van Khai has issued a public 'guidance' to state employees that they should abandon one traditional Tet expense: gifts for the boss, usually envelopes stuffed with cash.

'Employees are not to bring flowers or gifts to the houses of senior officials during Tet, but use the time for family,' Mr Khai said.

The new directive is seen as part of the communist government's efforts to stamp out all forms of corruption, still endemic in Vietnamese society.

Wine and flowers are typical gifts.

But most common is cash. State staff say the amounts can range from US$30 to more than US$100, a large figure in a country where civil servant salaries start at US$50 a month.