Vietnam is steeped in rich cultural heritage and tradition that is fundamental to daily life. Literally hundreds of festivals are held every year as each one of the 54 ethnic groups all celebrate their own.
Nationally 3 main festivals are celebrated by everyone in Vietnam which is:
- Tet – Lunar New Year Festival
- Vietnamese Wandering Souls Day (15th of the 7th lunar month).
- Mid Autumn Festival (15th of the 8th lunar month).
Today we are only going to look at just one of them which is the New Year Festival because it is the most important and popular of all festivals. Tet is its shortened name for Tet Nguyen Dan, which means Feast for the 1st morning. It’s exact origins are not known but artifacts suggest that it has been celebrated since at least 500 BC.
Tet celebrates the first day of spring !
Tet is divided into 3 parts:
Before New Year’s Eve 2. New Year’s Eve and 1st Day 3. The New Year.
Because it is the lunar calendar and not the solar calendar (that January, February, March etc belong to); New Year can fall on anywhere between the last 10 days of January and in the first 20 days of February and is different each year.
National festivals are very important part of Vietnamese life. For Tet even those living overseas hold these in their heart and wish to be home for them, if not they celebrate with the Vietnamese community in their area.
A lot of pressure is given to family members who are living away to return home and celebrate Tet with family and relatives, even if that means coming half way around the world.
Going to the airport in the weeks before Tet is a cultural experience all of its own as it is busy with excited family holding bunches of flowers waiting for their loved ones to return.
If we are looking for something to compare it to in the Western world, that would be a combination of Christmas, New Year, Easter and everyone’s birthday all at one time. The common thread is that families get together like a big family and everyone normally eats and drinks way too much.
Before New Year
One or two weeks before the actual celebration starts, things start happening; and you can feel it in the air and the pace of life is accelerated.
There is a lot of hustle bustle out on the streets, shops and markets are flat out with streams of customers, forests of kumquat trees start moving on the back of motorbikes, new shops spring up selling Tet items, people are busy stocking up on special foods, new clothes to wear for the children, and decorations for their houses.
One should return all borrowed items and pay any outstanding debts, it is important to be debt-free before Tet.
Forests appear on the side of the roads selling Kumquat and bonsai trees, peach blossoms, also trinkets and potted flowers.
Public performances are held in the streets, special festival celebrations for children are held at Temples where dragon dances are performed, children have concerts and small gifts are given out to everyone.
Traffic becomes even more manic than usual (if that is possible), everyone is in a hurry to get all list items ticked off. In the coming days all the shops are closed so people must stock up on essential and celebration items.
At home everything has to be thoroughly cleaned especially the family alter as paying respects to their ancestors is an important event and new offerings must be placed there.
As a brief overview the Kitchen God actually represents a group of three, one goddess and two gods. The group leave together on the 23rd on a carp and return to the house with the New Year.
On the 23rd day of the 12th calendar month the Kitchen God will return back to heaven, when he arrives he will report to the Jade Emperor informing him of activities and events of the past year for every person in the household.
The Kitchen God’s pending departure date is celebrated with a ceremony where food and items are offered for him to use on his journey. It is a good opportunity to get into the Kitchen God’s good-books with a delicious farewell dinner, gifts of paper caps, boots, and gowns, and a live carp which will transport the Gods to heaven. After the ceremony the carp must be released into a river.
Before New Year’s Eve arrives the house becomes a hive of activity preparing numerous items of special Tet foods. One specialty essential is Banh Chung (round symbolizes the sky) and Banh Day (square symbolizes the earth) which are sticky rice cakes.
When I say cake, please don’t think it will be sweet, like one with icing. This cake just means the shape of a cake and it is filled with mung bean paste, lean and fatty pork; and black pepper. All of that is wrapped up with Dong or banana leaves; and said to be absolutely delicious.
New Year’s Eve + Day
The first day of Tet is reserved for the immediate family, grandparents, parents, sisters, brothers, uncles, aunts, cousins and second cousins.
During Tet all actions are made with good intentions, as those days is what shapes the coming year.
So one doesn’t cause trouble or use bad language, even mother-in-laws and daughter-in-laws get on, husbands and wives sign a peace treaty for at least a few days; and children try to be on their best behavior.
On the first day of Tet is not the day you go randomly visiting friends as they believe the first person who comes to their home in the New Year determines their fortune for the whole year. It is extended for the whole day as if good things happen on the first day of the Lunar New Year the whole year will be full of blessings.
Usually children wear their new clothes, give Tet greetings to the elders and grandparents and they in return give the children a red envelope that contains money.
Taboo behaviour includes sweeping anything of any kind as that symbolizes sweeping the good luck away. Also if anyone has recently lost a member of their family they should not visit anyone else over Tet.
Days following New Year
The 2nd day is reserved for friends, the 3rd for teachers, but this is not strictly followed. It is a time to catch up with friends and relatives; and eat and drink too much, sleep and generally spend time with family.
Local temples are popular spots to give donations and get your fortune told.