Tet - Vietnamese New Year
Top 5 things to do in Vietnam during Tet...
In every Vietnamese heart, the Vietnam lunar New Year holds a special place. Tet is a bridge to yesterday and a delightful window for tomorrow. Tet, short for Tet Nguyen Dan which means the beginning of the first morning, is the one time of year where the whole country stops to take a collective breadth, and to celebrate and relax.
Originally, Tet lasted from 23rd December (lunar calendar) to 7th January and was divided into different phases, each marked by a special ritual called “cung” – an age old tradition of Vietnam, in which a family would prepare food and burn incense to pray or express their respect and gratitude towards the family’s ancestors, or spiritual gods. Today Tet takes place during a different period every year, usually arriving in the month of February.
If you wish to discover the culture and local life in depth, Tet could be the most insightful and interesting time for you to visit Vietnam. It’s best if you get to know a local family who can host you during this occasion. This will allow you to really immerse yourself in the festivities and allow you to feel the full joy of being in Vietnam during this special time of the year. As Vietnamese, we’re more than happy to have you at our home, as long as you are cheerful. Sad souls are not really what we expect during this most enchanting time of the year.
So what can you do in Vietnam when you are here during Tet?
Enjoy Tet markets. Tet markets are the best of all. Whether you are in the north or south, beachside or highland, you will find the most vibrant and colorful markets during this time of year. All the best goods, clothes and food are prepared for Tet. And Tet flower markets are not to be missed. You will immediately feel the atmosphere of a fresh colorful year to come while walking among beautiful lines of blooming flowers. In the north, must-have plants in Tet are peach flowers and kumquat while in the south and central the most important one is the yellow apricot flower. The more flowers blossom on the New Year, the better the luck a family will have. That’s why every Vietnamese family will try their best to get the most gorgeous flowers they can afford.
Enjoy pre-Tet preparation with the host family. About 2 weeks prior to Tet, Vietnamese start to prepare for a wonderful new year by getting rid of the old and welcoming the new. This period before Tet is often marked with heartwarming reunions, as it is a time when all members in the family, including the ones working far away from home, come back together to prepare and celebrate Tet.
Making the traditional cakes - banh chung/banh tet (a big sticky rice cake with green bean, pork and spices inside) are often not had by families at other times in the year because the cooking is so arduous. It is a long and complicated process - a whole day to prepare the rice cakes and whole night to cook. However, nothing can describe the delightful and sweet feelings of the whole family as well as when they are gathering and talking around a big fire while waiting for the cakes to be cooked. More and more Vietnamese are going back to this delightful tradition. If you can manage to join, it will sure to be a memoir of a lifetime.
“Cung” is an interesting and popular ritual which repeats many times during Tet for various purposes. The first significant one is “cung” the kitchen god. Vietnamese believe that the kitchen god witnesses all the good and the bad which occurs throughout the year in a family, and he will report to the god of all on December 23rd. So it’s very important to supply the kitchen god with a fish so he will fly back to the “head quarter”. Not sure how somebody can fly with a fish, but he’s a god, so I guess everything is possible! We then have the second important “cung” - “cung tat nien” – during which each family with its close relatives and friends gather to have the last meal of the year. There are many other “cung” during the festivals but the above two are the most interesting to participate in.
Enjoy various tasty special foods for Tet. Food souls will love Tet dearly. Vietnamese often say “an Tet” which literally means “eat Tet” as it’s an occasion with many unique yummy foods. Generally, we have the traditional sticky rice cakes - banh chung/banh tet, cold cuts - gio cha, pickles - dua kieu muoi, nuts and candied fruits - hat va mut. However, that is just the standard. The selection of food for Tet can be much more, depending on the region, and even depending on what the family is best at cooking. Vietnamese believes how you eat during some first days will considerably impact the rest of the year - so good food during Tet is guaranteed.
Enjoy the New Year atmosphere in pagodas. Visiting a local pagoda to make a wish is a long-lasting custom in Tet for every Vietnamese, not only for the Buddhists. It is lovely to see all types of people at all ages sincerely praying for their first wish of the year. Join the crowd, burn an incense and make a wish for the new year! That might be one of your most interesting experiences here. And just for the fun of it, try the lots drawing – a tradition where your destiny is written on a piece of paper - to get the forecast for your next year too!
Join various New Year festivals. Most of the local festivals are in the north, especially in Bac Ninh and Ha Noi - two of the biggest cradles of Vietnamese civilization and culture. The most outstanding ones include Dong Ky village - Bac Ninh (4th - 6th January - lunar calendar); Co Loa village - Hanoi. This is the chance to witness and immerse yourself in some of the most ancient festival rituals in Vietnam.
Here are some fun facts to keep in mind if you are with a family during Tet. This is often applied for traditional families only in the first 3 days of the New Year. However, each region and family might have their own rules, so ask for it in advance to keep them happy.
No trash thrown out of the house in the first 3 days to keep luck and wealth for the New Year.
The first day of Tet is the most critical of all. We often don’t visit anybody unless invited. We believe that the first person who comes will decide the luck and fate of the whole family for the whole year, so if they don’t choose you to be that person, don’t show up uninvited! Each family will invite a person with good vibes and a fit age to put the first step inside the house on the first day. And the first direction you take when going out of the house is critical too, so ask for guidance before leaving.
The first day is to visit and express respect, gratitude to the Father. The second day is for the Mother and the third is for the Teachers.
No fighting, no arguments, no bad or sad talk is allowed. And avoid breaking/ruining things in the house.
No borrowing or lending money and other goods (or you’ll be in debt for the whole year – so watch out)
“Mung tuoi" for the elderly and “li xi” for children - a small amount of money given to the elderly and children you meet with best wishes for a new year.