Although Vietnam is a multi-ethnic country with many varied cultures and practices in each area, all ethnic groups in Vietnam have one holiday to celebrate together – the Lunar New Year. Known as Tết, the holiday is a festival that the whole nation excitedly welcomes.
Unlike the New Year Celebrations in Western nations, the Lunar New Year in Vietnam is more like Christmas. It is a time for gifts and feasts, for family reunions and blessings for the coming year. Most businesses and official offices will close down for the period while transport and accomodation services are booked months in advance. Unless you are staying with a family, Tet can can be a difficult time to travel for visitors.
Tet is the Vietnamese version of the New Year festival that is celebrated in most countries of the East Asian Cultural Area, which includes China, Japan, Korea, and Vietnam. Tết holiday is short for Tết Nguyên Đán or Tết Cổ Truyền which translates as ”the original feast of the first morning” (Feast of the first morning).
Every year, Tet is held on the first day of the first lunar month but there are many rites and customs to fulfill prior to and after this pivotal day in the Lunar calendar. So the officially observed annual Lunar New Year holiday typically lasts over two weeks from 7 to 8 days before New Years Day and the first 8 after. December 23 to the end of January 8 according to the lunar calendar.
As mentioned, Tet a transition period between the old and new lunar years and has many additional rituals, spiritual and cultural connotations. According to the Eastern conception, this is a time when heaven and earth are reconciled and mankind is reconnected to the gods. It is also the most auspicious time for the ancient gods to hear and bless people’s petitions.
There are many arguments surrounding the origins of this holiday but most will assert that the Lunar New Year was an occasion for farmers to pay respects to the weather gods, such as Earth god, Rain god, Water god, Sun god, and so on. It was also a time to give thanks for the successes of the past year and to pray for a future of favorable rain and wind, as well as a bountiful spring harvest.
Likewise, this is also an occasion for individuals in families to reestablish their emotional and spiritual bonds with their loved ones in order to feel more attached, at rest, and happy. Furthermore, it is regarded as “soothing” days, days when people can hope for a happy, successful and peaceful year ahead and a time to leave any bad luck or sorrow from the previous year behind.
The Ông Táo
According to Vietnamese tradition, on the 23rd day of the last Lunar month (a week before Lunar New Year) is dedicated to the Ông Táo. The Ông Táo is loosely translated to Kitchen or Stove Gods and are important to the safety and prosperity of the family home.
It is the time this lesser gods ascend to heaven to report to the Jade Emperor (the supreme Lord of Heaven) on the happenings during the previous year in the host’s household. On this day, people furiously clean their residences and prepare a dish of rice for the Kitchen Gods to take with them for their trip to heaven. Special “votive” objects such as hats, boots, and robes are made from paper and ritually burnt and often fishes will be placed into a basin of water before being released into a river as a transport for the Kitchen Gods to ride to paradise.
Preparing for the Tet holiday, everyone will be busy cleaning, purchasing, and tastefully decorating their house. A literal “spring clean”, to both ensure the Kitchen gods report favorable but perhaps a practical result is getting the house ready for the guests and distant family who will visit later in this very social festival.
The Trees of Tet
In Christian countriess, the humble fir tree has become a symbol of Christmas as, despite living in a hard and cold climate it remains vigorous and perennially green in the dead of winter. As such, it can be seen as a sign of luck, happiness and perseverance and is decked with ornaments at Christmas season. When Tet arrives, the Vietnamese adorn their homes with flowers trees and plants as symbols of growth, fertility and beauty
Most people in the North of Vietnam will prefer peach, kumquat and other citrus trees to decorate for the event, not only because they are suited to the region, but also cause they have a unique meaning. According to feng shui, the Peachtree represents the full confluence of the five elements and will chase away evil spirits while sowing hope and faith for a joyful and prosperous new year.
Alternatively, a Kumquat tree with green branches and leaves, lush with luscious yellow fruits, and scented flower buds is another favourite. Not only bringing favorable omens, the Kumquat tree also creates a serene environment and provides a symbol of abundance and prosperity for the coming year. But the selection is various and many Vietnamese now opt to adorn mandarin trees, orchids, pomelo trees, and so on for this festival. However, these two trees remain the most common Tet emblems.
“Banh Chung” in Vietnamese roughly translates as “Distilled Cake” as it is made by boiling, not baking. The wrapping and making of the famous Chung Cake is an ancient custom of the Vietnamese and something that cannot be ignored during the Tet preparations. The practice began during the time of King Hung (2879-258BC), the legendary dynasty of Vietnamese pre-history and symbolizes thankfulness to ancestors and the Gods of heaven and earth.
Banh Chung is typically made for significant festivals such as Tet or the anniversaries of the Hung Kings (one of Vietnam’s largest events celebrated on the 10th day of the third lunar month). Its ingredients include glutinous rice, mung bean, black pepper, fatty pork, salt, and shallots. Fish sauce is sometimes used to enhance the taste.
The square-shaped cake is then wrapped in leaves and the outer layer of Lá Dong (Stachyphrynium Placentarium) is wrapped with strings made from Giang- a species of bamboo with a particularly long shoot. Depending on the region, the wrapper can also be made with banana leaves or other large fragrant leaves before being continually boiled in a saucepan for 8-12 hours prior to being removed and allowed to cool.
A Long Process
Banh Chung will remain preserved in the outdoors for 3-5 days outside, depending on temperature and weather. Many Vietnamese will fondly remember the ritual where, along with the chilly weather and the drizzle fluttering over the peach flowers, the oldest members of the family put the final touches to the Banh Chung, teaching the younger members around them how best to wrap the processes squares into gorgeous and exquisite table offerings.
The yellow hue of mung bean tinged rice cake and the vivid green of the leaf wrapping symbolizes a cozy and serene existence where individuals seek to create a relation not only between two generations in the family but also a togetherness. Only family members may feel “the bright warm wire” in their spirit because of this pure natural connection.
Feasts and Prayers
Aside from preparing cuisine according to rituals such as Banh Chung, Vietnamese people also need to prepare needed utensils and food before welcoming the New Year for the very practical reason that most shops, marketplaces, and supermarkets will be closed on Tet. There is also the belief that if the family lacks food or whatever on New Year’s Day, the entire year will be without that thing, which will not bring luck.
As a result, they will purchase food to reserve; candy is an essential snack for youngsters, and it is also a dish to give visitors during Tet. As a result, the price of staples on the day before Tet will rise dramatically everywhere in last minute anticipation forr the great holiday of the whole nation.
Đạo Hiếu or filial piety is a fundamental concept of religion in Vietnam. No matter what religion Vietnamese people practice, it is regarded as a barometer of each Vietnamese person’s moral standards. This is mirrored in the practice of ancestor worship, with grandparents and each family having an ancestral shrine to keep the family religion alive in the home. The ancestors’ graves are kept clean with incense and devotion because they think that once individuals die, they have a” ghost-mind” that lives in the third realm and always watches over and protects their descendants.
The Revered Ancestors
As Tet draws near, family members will visit the graves of their ancestors to clean and beautify them while burning incense to invite the ancestors’ spirits to return and join with their relatives in celebration of the New Year. Alternatively, they will bring presents to Nhà Thờ Họ ( the clan’s ancestral house – the traditional site of worship of the Vietnamese clan or the branches formed by the family’s descendants), to burn incense to pay homage to the family’s revered ancestors.
Along with visiting ancestors’ graves on Tet preparation days, the Vietnamese also have the essential ritual of placing the Five Fruits dish on the altar on New Year’s Day. The Five Fruit Tray is thought to have originated from the Yulanpen Sutra lexicon, which is a Mahayana sutra about filial piety. It is made out of 5 various colored fruits, namely green, yellow, red, orange and white, that represent the “Five Strengths” in Buddhism – faith, energy, mindfulness, concentration, and wisdom.
According to feng shui, this set of five components represents full and fortunate energy so the placement of the five-fruit tray on the altar not only demonstrates filial respect to the ancestors but also conveys the hope that the family will be healthy and peaceful in the next year. Even in these modern times, the “legacy” is still passed down from generation to generation as an essential part of the Tet celebrations.
The Stages of Tet
Tết is split into three periods: Tất Niên (the period prior to New Year’s Eve), Giao Thừa (New Year’s Eve), and Tân Niên (celebration of the New Year). The final day of Tết is the 12th day of the first lunar month and the final day of Tất Niên. Each family will gather and prepare a feast with traditional foods as altar offerings to thank their ancestors for attending the preceding celebrations.
Especially indispensable is the votive offerings, the burning of incense and “dedication texts” from the family bloodline to honor the generations who came before and taught them how to achieve prosperity. Of course, Giao Thừa (New Year’s Eve itself) marks the transition from the old to the New Year, and it is regarded as the most significant moment when yin and yang combine, heaven and earth harmonize, all things flourish and humans are near to the gods. It is also a time when most gods will listen to their descendants’ petitions.
A Family Affair
During this period, all members of a family will assist in making food offerings, not only for the family altar but also to place outside. A ceremony tray decorated with votive paper, incense, lamps, oil. food and other items are often placed near the entrance of homes. This is to show respect and farewell to the Gods who ruled the family in the previous year and in welcome to the new gods who will take charge of their home in the New Year.
According to the lunar calendar, the hour of greatest significance is midnight. Every morning for the next three days after Giao Thừa, all adult members of the family are expected to wake up early to perform rituals such as preparing meals and burning incense to bring to the ancestral shrine. The “rice tray” will now include full boiled chicken, Banh Chung, pickled onions, Spring rolls, and other delicacies. On the final day, votive paper is burnt as a last ”goodbye” to their ancestors’ spirits and a final chance to ask for blessings before they return to the afterlife for another year.
Vietnamese people also visit family or friends throughout the first three days of the New Year to wish them a happy new year (Chuc Mung Nam Moi) and a prosperous future. In Vietnamese custom, the first visitor a family welcomes into their homes during the New Year will decide the family’s fortunes. So people will not enter a house at Tet unless they are invited first – this custom is known as Xong Dat and the first guest will be chosen based on their age according to the lunar year and the match with the owner on matters such as age, personality and success. A successful Xong Dat brings luck and good fortune to the homeowner.
Chuc Mung Nam Moi
Good luck and wishes are codified in such phrases as “Sống lâu trăm tuổi”: (Live long and prosper for a hundred years!): a phrase used by youngsters to refer to their elders. “An Khang Thịnh Vượng“: (security, good health, and prosperity); ”Năm Mới Thắng Lợi Mới’‘: (New year, new successes!; frequently used in political speeches) or ”Năm Mới Toàn Gia Bình An” : (I hope the new year brings you health and peace!). Similar to the Western cry of “Happy New Year”, these phrases are used to signal good intentions to others and the hope for a fresh and better future.
Every positive event that happens on the first day of the New Year is said to be full of blessings and luck for the rest of the year. One of the taboos on the first day of the lunar year is cleaning the home because it represents wiping away luck, fortune. For a family who have lost a loved one in the preceding year, it is generally not acceptable to proactively visit friends and relatives during the Tet holiday as this may be unlucky for the owner.
Like their counterparts at Christmas, Vietnamese children look eagerly forward to the Tết festival not least because of the “Mừng Tuổi” . On the first day of the year, children in the nuclear family receive red envelopes containing money from their elders or adult relatives, their parent’s friends and anyone else who wishes to curry favor with the family. These small packets are known as “Lucky Money” and come with best wishes for a New Year, good health, rapid growth, and academic achievement.
There is a known “joke” with this tradition to be wary of parents who collect the Lucky Money for “safe keeping” but never seemingly able to find the same when it is asked back!.
Another strong tradition for Vietnamese during Tết is a visit to at least one pagoda or temple. Beginning around New Year’s Eve, people frequently make pilgrimages to nearby pagodas and sacred temples to pray for luck and tranquility for their families.
However, the visits are often not only for religious reasons but also to explore the richness of their country and enjoy an outing with family and friends. Here in Ninh Binh, Thiên Tôn pagoda and the Bái Đính pagoda are popular with families while single, young people will favor the more romantic pagodas like Duyên Ninh and Am Tien, to pray for future love and successful relationships and perhaps to meet people with similar desires.
In Ninh Binh, Tết marks the begining of the end of winter and the coming of the spring season. Farmers will start preparing their fields for the coming planting season and all will look forward to the time when the plants are flourishing, the birds are returning to the nest and the cycle of life begins again. It signifies a time of hope, symbolizing a positive future, looking forward for good things to come and leaving the things behind that are detrimental to your heart.
While there is no such thing as flawless perfection in this world, people will always lean towards the positive, leaving behind unpleasant memories to embrace a new “milestone” in their life. Tết is the Vietnamese people’s “good time milestone”, a moment to remember the good times, celebrate the new and discard past failures. So a big Chuc Mung Nam Moi from all of us here at Discover Ninh Binh!