5. Vietnamese Tet 101: User Manual

Welcome to the introductory course about the Vietnamese celebration of the Tet. There are many different ways to celebrate it. I will propose you the view of a banana experimenting it, gathering information from personal experiences, from Wikipedia and different websites. Except if you have a certain curiosity for cults and tradition, this post promises to be very boring :)

General information

The Tet or Vietnamese Lunar New Year, is the most important and popular holiday. It marks normally the arrival of the spring based on the lunisolar calendar. This year, the Tet fell very early on the 23rd of January 2012.

Vietnamese people usually return to their families during Tet. Some return to worship at the family altar or visit the graves of their ancestors in their homeland.

The Tet can be divided into three periods, known as Tất Niên, Giao Thừa, and Tân Niên, representing the preparation before Tet, the eve of Tet, and the days of and following Tet, respectively.

Tất Niên (preparation of the Tet)

This period begins two weeks before the actual celebration. The general atmosphere leading up to Tet is in the bustle of shopping, decorating the home, cooking traditional Tet food and waiting for relatives to return home. People try to pay off their debts in advance so that they can be debt-free on Tet. Parents buy new clothes for their children so that the children can wear them when Tet arrives. Because a lot of commercial activity will cease during the celebrations, people try to stock up on supplies as much as possible.

Traditionally, the three kitchen guardians for each house Ong Tao, who report to the Jade Emperor about the events in that house over the past year, return to heaven on the 23rd day of the twelfth month by lunar calendar. Their departure is marked by a modest ceremony where the family offers sacrifices for them to use on their journey.

Before Tet, the altar is thoroughly cleaned and new offerings are placed there. Vietnamese families have a tray of five different fruits on their altar called Ngu Qua (five fruits type). During Tet the altar is thoroughly cleaned and new offerings are placed there.

In the days leading up to Tet, each family cooks special holiday foods such as banh chung. As seen on the following pictures, a banh chung is made from sticky rice, mung bean, pork and other ingredients. The cake is wrapped in “la dong”, a special type of leaves in a square shape. The origin of the cake is told by the legend of Lang Liêu, a prince of the sixth Huong Vuong, who became Hung Vuong’s successor thank to his creation of banh chung and banh day, which symbolized respectively the Earth and the Sky

This year, the NGO organizes a workcamp to prepare banh chung for the families of the fisher village in Hanoi. Local volunteers and volunteers from mainly Asian countries (Korea, Hong Kong and Japan) helped to make more than 160 banh chung in 2 weeks!

The preparation is very extensive. The leaves and the strings have to be washed carefully in order to preserve the taste of the cake, the strings are be soaked in salt water or steamed so that they can become flexible enough for wrapping. People often choose high quality rice and bean for making banh chung. They are soaked in water for 2 hours in case of mung bean and 12 to 14 hours in case of the rice.

The cake is wrapped in the following order. Firstly the strings and two leaves are placed as the square base for the banh chung. After that, the rice is stuffed in the leaves, followed by mung bean, pork and finally another layer of rice so that bean and pork can be respectively in the center of the cake. All placed ingredients are carefully wrapped in the leaves and bound by the strings in the square form. In order to get a near perfect square-shaped cake, we used a mould of square form as the base for the wrapping.

Then the prepared cakes are tightly arranged in large pot, the pot is filled with fresh water and boiled for a complete night until they are done from the inside stuffing to outside.

Before Tet, people also often make good actions. Here are some pictures from the Liver Disease Department of the National Pediatrics Hospital. Volunteers come there to play with the kids.

At Tet every house is usually decorated with hoa mai (in the central and southern parts of Vietnam) or hoa dao (in the northern part of Vietnam) . In the north or central, the kumquat tree is also a popular decoration for the living room during Tet. Its many fruits symbolize the fertility and fruitfulness that the family hopes for in the coming year.

Here is a picture of a hoa dao. Despite the high price (from few hundred thousands to some millions VND), rich or poor, everyone buys a tree for its family hoping that the flower will burgeon for the first day and bring a lot of luck!


Giao Thừa (New Year’s eve)

For New Year’s eve, people eat in family and the males drink the famous “Zohnny”. Lots of old Vietnamese people have a problem to pronounce the “J”, so in place of Johnny Walker, they say Zohnny Woker. These bottles are the most common gift that men offer to men for the Tet. All the label blends are available in Hanoi: red, black, green, gold, platinum, blue and the imaginary fake label. So be careful what label you are drinking :) We had a very nice green one and a half bottle of Chivas that we finished me and my 3 uncles for lunch!

For the night session after a long siesta in the afternoon thanks to Zhonny, Hanoians gathered around the Hoan Kiem Lake to see the fireworks and do the counting. Afterwards, they usually go to the pagoda for the first pray of the year.


Tân Niên (New Year and following days)

The first day of Tet is reserved for the close family. Children receive a red envelop containing money from their elders (children learn very early this concept of exchanging envelop :) ). This tradition is called mung tuoi and the red enveloppe li xi. Usually, children wear their new clothes and give their elders the traditional Tet greetings before receiving the money.

I have a lots of small cousins in the family, that is a huge work to prepare all these envelops…

Some customs to absolutely respect during the Tet.

  • Since the Vietnamese believe that the first visitor a family receives in the year determines their fortune for the entire year, people never enter any house on the first day without being invited first. According to Vietnamese tradition, if good things come to the family on the first day of the lunar New Year, the entire following year will also be full of blessings. Usually, a person of good temper, morality and success will be the lucky sign for the host family and be invited first into the house. However, just to be safe, the owner of the house will leave the house a few minutes before midnight and come back just as the clock strikes midnight to prevent anyone else entering the house first who might potentially bring any unfortunate events in the new year to the household.
  • Sweeping during Tet is unlucky, since it symbolizes sweeping the luck away. It is also taboo for anyone who experienced a recent loss of a family member to visit anyone else during Tet.
  • During subsequent days, people visit relatives and friends. Traditionally but not strictly, the second day of Tet is usually reserved for friends, while the third day is for teachers. Local Buddhist temples are popular spots as people like to give donations and to get their fortunes told during Tet.

Here are some typical pictures from the Tet:

  • Ong and Ba Lam calling the family in Belgium, Canada and USA. This could not have ever happened 10 years ago in Vietnam. Look how they are happy just to have news from the family!

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  • Students or students’ parents queuing in the temple of Litterature or Van Mieu to pray the old Professors, to touch the head of the tortoises and to get the letters painted by the elderly to get luck for the education year coming and succeed in exams.

  • Families meeting in Hoan Kiem Lake to take pictures and immortalize this moment.

  • During Tet, a lot of Vietnamese people go to visit the Chua Huong or Perfume Pagoda on religious pilgrimage. When I say a lot, that’s a lot: few hundred thousands, a wave of humans! You just feel packed like sardines in a crushed tin box… As really classical for the Tet, the Vietnamese pilgrims come there to pray for all the health and prosperity they need to get them through the next year. The most popular is to take a boat from Yen wharf, stopping at Trinh shrine to ‘present’ themselves at the ‘registration shrine’ and give again envelops :). The pilgrims then make their way to several temples and head toward the final destination: Huong Tich Cave. At Huong Tich many Vietnamese come to get blessings from the stalactites ans stalacmites, many of which are named and have special purposes. Many childless pilgrims seek fertility from Nui Co (the girl) and Nui Cau (the boy), while others visit stalactites and stalagmites thought to give prosperity. Pilgrims often gather under one particular stalactite, which resembles a breast, to catch drops of water in hopes of being blessed with health from the ‘milk’ of the ‘breast’. At the end of the visit, people meet in restaurant and then fun part starts: “nhau”. That’s talking, eating and drinking a lot :)


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