Year of the Rabbit? Not so fast! Vietnam's Lunar New Year to celebrate the cat

HANOI, Jan 20 (Reuters) - As China, Japan and other East Asian countries prepare to celebrate the start of the Lunar Year of the Rabbit on Sunday, the people of Vietnam will be an exception - welcoming instead the Year of the Cat.

There is no official explanation for when and why the Vietnamese embraced the cat instead of the rabbit.

Another smaller difference in the otherwise almost identical celebrations of the 12-year Chinese Zodiac cycle is Vietnam's adoption of the ubiquitous water buffalo in the Year of the Ox.

Ngo Huong Giang, a Hanoi-based culture researcher, said one reason for opting for the cat might be that the term for the rabbit in the Chinese astrological ordering system is pronounced "mao" in Mandarin, which sounds similar to the Vietnamese word for cat. Raising rabbits is also not common in Vietnam.

What is certain is that the Vietnamese are not willing to change their tradition.

A girl plays with a cat by the Westlake after the government eased the nationwide lockdown during the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) outbreak in Hanoi, Vietnam April 28, 2020. REUTERS/Kham

"It doesn't have the same power as a cat", Hanoi resident, Ngo Quy Dung, said of the rabbit, as he proudly noted that he was born 60 years ago in the Year of the Cat.

Another resident of Hanoi, Nguyen Kim Chi, 64, agreed.

"The cat looks more majestic because it also resembles a little tiger," she said, while taking photographs besides a large cat statue at the Central Park in the capital.

Sculptures of cats have popped up in public spaces across the country ahead of the Lunar New Year, together with a myriad of cat charms and gadgets on sale in street stalls.

Some cafes keep their cats in their outlets to attract customers.

To most Vietnamese, the cat is a firm family friend that helps protect crops and food from rodents, while also chasing away bad spirits and bringing good luck, researcher Giang said.Despite this, cats can still appear on the menu in rural areas, although authorities have banned the practice.

Additional reporting by Phuong Nguyen; Editing by Francesco Guarascio, Robert Birsel

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