Monday, March 14, 2011

Vietnamese New Year

The Tet (Tết Nguyên Đán - literally the first morning of the first day of a first lunar cycle, or, in short, Tết) is the most important festival for the Vietnamese people. This is the Vietnamese Lunar New Year and is celebrated in late January-early February, depending on the Lunar Calendar. Officially, this national public holiday lasts for three days. However, the practice set it as a 7 or 10-day celebration. For the Vietnamese, the first day of Tet is the first day of spring in the new year.

It is said that Tet is an all-in-one celebration, as it combines the spirit of Thanksgiving, Christmas, New Year's and everyone's birthday. Tet is a time for family reunions, and for paying respect to ancestors and the elders.

The Tet period can be divided into three distinctive spans of time:

1. Tất Niên (Before New Year's Eve) - Two weeks before the actual celebration, all Vietnamese start to cook and clean and decorate their homes. Everybody goes shopping for food, clothes, and decorations and wait for their relatives to come back home. Most Vietnamese working abroad or in other cities usually return to their families to worship their ancestor together. At the same time, there is the belief that all debts have to paid, just to make sure there are no old debts for the new year to come.

Everybody cooks holiday food. Seven days prior to Tet, each Vietnamese family offers a farewell ceremony for Ong Tao (the Kitchen God) to go up to Heaven Palace. His task is to make an annual report to the Jade Emperor of the family's affairs throughout the year.

2. Giao Thừa (New Year's Eve) - the first day of this celebration is reserved for the close family. Children wear new clothes and receive money in a red envelope from the elders. This is the most important token of good luck for the coming year. Moreover, all families are very careful about the first person to enter their house on this day. Wise, successful, and moral people are said to bring good luck to the household they visit. The act of being the fist one that enters a house on Tet is one of the most important rituals on this holiday, so that many house owners make sure they are the first to enter immediately after the clock strikes midnight.

3. Tân Niên (the New Year) - during the following days, the Vietnamese visit relative, friends, and teachers. They make donations to local Buddhist temples and also offer gifts to family, friends, and neighbors. The gifts they make typically consist of food and money, new clothes, peach branches (for expelling evil), cocks/chickens (wishing for good manners), new rice (wishing for being well-fed), rice wine in a gourd (wishing for a rich and comfortable life), bánh chưng (or bánh tét) and bánh dày, which symbolize sky and earth (for worshiping the ancestors), red things (red symbolizes happiness, luckiness, advantages) like watermelon, dogs (the bark – gâu gâu – sounds like the word giàu - richness in Vietnamese language), medicated oil (dầu in Vietnamese, also sounds similar to giàu). On the third day of Tet, when the Vietnamese ancestors are ready to depart, people prepare other extravagant send-off meals, but with dishes and wine that are different from those prepared on the previous days.

Tet foods - A small portion of each dish is then placed as an offering on the altar meant to welcome back the ancestors (ruoc ong ba).

1. whole chicken - it symbolizes abundance and prosperity and sits prominently on the worship altar, along with the flowers, candles and incense sticks.

2. caramelized garlic shrimp and a a traditional pork stew with hard-boiled eggs (thit kho dua). For dessert, they serve che khoai mon (sticky rice pudding with taro root) and fresh fruits, such as watermelon and tangerines.

3. Mam Ngu Qua - The "five-fruit tray" symbolizes the admiration and gratitude of the Vietnamese to Heaven and Earth and their ancestors and demonstrates their aspiration for a wholesome life.

4. Bánh chưng and bánh dầy - tightly packed sticky rice with meat or bean fillings wrapped in Dong (Phrynium placentarium) leaves or banana leaves.

5. Hạt Dưa - roasted watermelon seeds.

6. Dưa Hành - pickled onion and pickled cabbage.

7. Củ Kiệu - pickled small leeks.

8. Mứt - dried candied fruits.

9. Cầu Dừa Đủ Xoài - popular fruits used for offerings at the family altar in fruit arranging art are the custard-apple/sugar-apple/soursop (mãng cầu), coconut (dừa), papaya (đu đủ), and mango (xoài), since they sound like "cầu vừa đủ xài" ([We] pray for enough [money] to spend) in the southern dialect of Vietnamese.

10. Thịt Kho Nước Dừa - meat stewed in coconut juice, a traditional dish of fatty pork stomach and medium boiled eggs stewed in a broth-like sauce made overnight of young coconut juice and nuoc mam (fish sauce). It is often eaten with pickled bean sprouts and chives, and white rice.


It's a joy to be in Vietnam during Tet celebration. Streets are heavily decorated with flowers and fruits, while every family strive to adorn their home as appealing as possible.

Traditional decorations include cây nêu, an artificial New Year Tree consisting of a bamboo pole 5 to 6 m long. It is usually decorated with many objects, depending on the region, including good luck charms, origami fish, cactus branches, etc., hoa mai (Ochna integerrima), hoa đào (peach flower, in the northern part of Vietnam) or hoa ban (in the mountain areas). The kumquat tree is a popular decoration for the living room during Tết. Its many fruits symbolize the fertility and fruitfulness that the family hopes for in the coming year. Vietnamese people also decorate their homes with bonsai and flower plants such as chrysanthemum (hoa cúc), marigold (vạn thọ) symbolizing longevity, mào gà in Southern Vietnam and paperwhite flower (thủy tiên), lavender (viôlét), hoa bướm in Northern Vietnam. They also hung up Dong Ho Paintings and thư pháp (calligraphy pictures) around the house.

Chúc mừng năm mới!

"Mam Ngu Qua"

The "five-fruit tray" on the ancestral altar during the Tet Holidays symbolizes the admiration and gratitude of the Vietnamese to Heaven and Earth and their ancestors and demonstrates their aspiration for a life of plenty. The five fruits represent the quintessence hope that Heaven and Earth bless humans. It demonstrates a Vietnamese percept of life, "When taking fruit, you should think of the grower".