Some cultural tidbits to give you an insight into the celebration of Lunar New Year in Vietnam.
1. It's called Tet
The Lunar New Year in Vietnam is called Tet. Traditional Asian astronomy and astrology use the phases of the Moon to determine the month which has approximately 29 days. That is why the Lunar New Year doesn’t begin on the same day as the Gregorian January 1st. Usually the Lunar New Year falls between January and February of the solar calendar. Countries throughout East Asia that have used the lunar calendar in the past still celebrate this tradition. On this list we can count in China, Korea, Singapore, Laos, Vietnam (and that’s why we have this article). Japan doesn’t celebrate this tradition despite a history of using lunar calendar. And by not celebrate, I mean the Lunar New Year doesn’t make it into national holidays for the Japanese. However, a part of the population still hosting feasts and parties for this occasion, after work I mean.
In Vietnam, Tet is a period that last from the 1st to the 10th of the new year. Children and adults usually have a Tet holiday week which lasts from 7 to 10 days depends on whether the 7th day of the Lunar New Year falls on the beginning or the end of a week (big up if the 7th day falls on a Friday, we get to enjoy a bonus week-end :D). Although the celebration period doesn’t last long, the preparation for it takes 1 to 2 months to be completed. And that’s what makes this celebration so special and exciting. You should visit Vietnam in this preparation period to see and feel the festive atmosphere: everything is bright and new and there’s always smile, music and laughter on every corner of the streets.
2. Time for make over
The new year comes with new things: new look, new clothes, new house items, new decoration style… Everything should be bought and prepared before the New Year begins, it’s enough to keep you busy for weeks. More over, it renews your spirit too with the joy of shredding the old skin and be a brand new you, to forget about the obstacles of last year and be hopeful for a bright new beginning. The new year brings with it new hopes for good things to come, so you better be prepared for it right? You may be surprised by how a pair of new shoes or an artful figurine can alter your state of mind. Have you heard about the Kon Mari method of tidying? About how you should discard the old clothes that don’t bring you joy? It implies that used items carry with it essence of the owner and you should only keep the items of which you’re content. On the same note, a brand new item is like a bland page that you can write on with whatever hope you have for the new year. By now I should clarify that it doesn’t mean a whole new wardrobe. Usually people only buy several set of clothes to wear on the first days (1st to 4th) of Tet.
For the house, there should be a whole deep cleaning. Feng Shui principles believe that dusty old corners carry negative energy, and that’s a no-no for the New Year. So one week before the 1st, every corner of the house should be wiped clean, from the windows’ frames to kitchen props, the rule is simple: leave no stone unturned i.e. wash, clean and wipe until squeaky clean. Why just writing about this leaves me exhausted, I don’t even hope to understand, really. Every year my family would do this whole house cleaning, and it would always be a fun experience as we team up to do the tasks together. Although exhausting, there was always laughter and lovely snacks.
3. Plants and flowers symbolize abundance
House decoration needs live plants and flowers as they stand for luck and abundance that the new year will bring. So the more plants and flowers you have the better. There are 2 absolutely types of flowers that every house strives to have for the occasion: in Northern Vietnam it’s cherry blossoms and in the South it’s Vietnamese ochna. Branches full of blossoms come in all shapes and forms would be sold at Tet markets, waiting to be brought home to show the style and taste of the house’s owner. Desirably all the flower buds should blossom at the 1st day of the New Year. Since plants and flowers are of great demand at the New Year, growing and shaping these plants is an important business for Tet.
4. Tet markets
You can find at the usual markets all kinds of things for Tet from clothes, furniture, kitchen props to food. This is the time of the year where everything that is worth selling can disappear so quickly that their price just accelerates by sound’s speed. Because there is so much things to buy, people usually return to the markets several times before they can stock up everything they need. It is when a good relationship with sellers can make life so much easier ;).
When it comes to plants, there are exclusive Tet markets just for them. As explained above, plants and flowers are of high demand so the best, most beautiful will be on display 2 weeks before the 1st of the New Year. At these markets, you can find all kinds of plants from the small interior plants to big ones that measure 2 m (6ft5). On the night of New Year’s Eve, if there are unsold plants left, they will be sold at half-price or even at the cheapest price as vendors want to wrap up business and go home before the New Year begins at midnight.
5. New Year’s Eve is when the labor ends, well, sort of
All those times spent on preparation will end on New Year’s Eve, but only at midnight. Since most Vietnamese still follow the tradition of setting up altar for ancestors at New Year’s Eve, it becomes the last of before-Tet rituals. The set up altar has flowers, food and burning incense sticks. The food of New Year’s Eve is usually a whole boiled chicken, sticky or glutinous rice, some sweet treats like biscuits/cake and sweets. The altar is set up from 11pm or 11:30pm to midnight.
At midnight, Buddhist families sometimes will visit temples to pray and to bring home a branch of flowers or a cut of sugarcane sold on the streets as a symbol of luck. On New Year’s Eve, even after midnight, if people choose to go out instead of staying at home and preparing for sleep, there are still many go-see sites. Folks will be able to buy lucky sugarcane or street snacks, often plant-based. Only at around 3 am that people start to go home. Some choose to stay at home though, because there is an important tradition that they observe on the 1st day of Tet.
6. The first visit tradition
It is believed that the first person ever to set foot inside the home on the 1st day of Tet can bring extreme luck to the family. The tradition is called ‘xong dat’ which is an inauguration of the house on the new year. Usually the procedure is like this: First Feng Shui principles and Eastern astrology are applied to find the birth year (or years) that is most compatible with that of the breadwinner of the house. After this element is known, members of the family will consult their entourage to find a person who has this birth year and who is willing to visit their house on the 1st. Most people are happy to do this unless they’re requested elsewhere. This tradition is respected strictly by business folks.
The opposite of this tradition is observed as well, that is if your birth year isn’t compatible with the family, better not visiting their home before the inauguration can take place. Usually people avoid visiting their entourage in the early morning of the 1st . Planning a visit after 10am is ok or better yet, they consult with the owner.
7. Traditional dishes differ from North to South
Now we come to one of the best parts of Tet: the food. Tet dishes range from heavy, salty, rich to fresh, light and sweet. Usually there is a combination of both heavy and light dishes. Since no market, or supermarket for that matter, will open for the first 3 days of Tet, to have enough to entertain guests, large quantity of heavy and rich dishes are made because they are easily preserved. And since Vietnamese cuisine strives for balance in all things, fresh and light dishes are incorporated to provide anti-inflammatory relief. Among the traditional dishes, there is this meat jelly that is a must in Northern Test feast along with sticky rice.
For Southern feast, it’s caramelized pork and eggs and bitter melon soup. (Check out my recipe for this healthy bitter melon soup here). Another important Tet food is savory cake that is made from sticky rice, pork belly and mung beans wrapped in banana or arrowroot leaves. This cake has 2 variations. The original is the square shape cake called ‘Banh chung’ and originated from the North, in the South people make the same cake but in cylindrical form. That is ‘Banh tet’. Both are a must for the New Year and are often served with pickled veggies.
Sweet treats are candied veggies and fruits such as candied coconut, squash, tomato, tamarind, pineapple, etc. Toasted seeds and pickled or dried fruits are also favored as snacks. Apparently people eat and eat again at the New Year. Only after the 4th when visits die down that the meals return to normal.
8. The first days of Tet is for family
The 1st day is always time to visit parents, grandparents, uncles, aunts and cousins. And since old Vietnamese families are big, it may take 3 whole days to visit all the family, to eat, drink, talk and sing karaoke. Vietnamese tradition values family and relationships between parents and children, and among siblings, so it’s of no wonder that family is a priority at the New Year. It’s a time to honor the beloved family members who have passed away and to reinforce family ties. Usually the 4th and 5th are devoted to friends and neighbors. The shops and stores start to open on the 4th too, so there are plenty of places to go chill with mates.
9. Giving and receiving a small sum of money is a tradition
It’s not about money but lucky money. It’s the giver’s wish for good things to come to the receiver. Usually children receive a small amount of money wrapped in red envelope accompanied by best wishes from adults. When the children reach adulthood at 18, or when they finish school and have a job, it’s their turn to give lucky money to their younger siblings and cousins and so on. This tradition is called ‘li xi’ and it is not limited to children either as old parents and grandparents also receive red envelope from their children and grandchildren. It’s about the red envelope, the symbol of luck ;).
10. Only the best wishes applied
Tet is also the time of giving and receiving best wishes. And it’s not just any best wishes, you really have to give wishes according to the age, profession and preference of the receiver. From good health, long life to success and happiness, the Vietnamese language is so rich that the wishes can be formed as simple, common phrases or they can be developed and rhymed into a sonnet. These sophisticated wishes are often engraved or written down on paintings to serve as gifts as well. At the new year when Vietnamese visit family and friends, they first wish them ‘chuc mung nam moi’ which means ‘happy new year’ and upon leaving, they will give their most sincere, heartfelt wishes. Giving New Year’s wishes has become an art, a savoir-faire that children are taught from a young age so as they grow up, they will continue to celebrate these traditions which add value to their life.
I hope you enjoy the article, although it’s too short to capture all traditions and cultural tidbits of the great Tet, it is a tad too long for a ‘10 things’ article. Let me finish it by wishing you all a new year filled with laughter, joy and strength to rise above any hurdle presents on your journey.
Chuc mung nam moi! <3
Cover photo: Thao Uyen
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