Tet Nguyen Dan, or simply Tet, is the most celebrated and important holiday in Vietnam. Not only Tet is a celebration of the arrival of spring and an occasion to pay respects to one’s ancestors, it is first and foremost a family holiday and people generally return home during this time. Vietnam has its own unique Tet traditions, which have developed over generations, and epitomize the country’s cultural identity.
Tet takes place on the first day of the first lunar month (late January/ early February – Feb 5, 2019, and Jan 25, 2020), a special day when the souls of ancestors return to earth. Each year a different scared animal in the Chinese Zodiac controls the luck and destinies of all people. The zodiac consists of 12 animals: rat, ox, tiger, cat, dragon, snake, horse, goat, monkey, rooster, dog and pig. 2019 is the year of the pig.
The lunar new year holiday begins one or two weeks before the actual festival. The general atmosphere leading up to Tet is lively and bustling. People decorate their homes and begin cooking special Tet dishes, in anticipation of their loved ones returning home. Since many stores close during the holiday, people also tend to stock up on food and supplies ahead of the official holiday. Here are the few must-dos to celebrate a perfect Vietnamese Lunar New Year, which is true to all religious beliefs and practices in Vietnam.
The best part of Tet is the air of eagerness in the Tet markets. It brings to mind the Christmas market in other parts of the world, a time to forget about the worries of everyday life and simply enjoy the unique foods and gifts. Visiting the Tet market is essential in preparation leading up to the Tet festival. At these markets you can find traditional treats, beautiful ornaments, red lanterns and other decorations for the festival.
THE FIVE-FRUIT TRAY
The preparation of the five-fruit tray is an essential Tet tradition in every Vietnamese home. The tray symbolizes the family’s respect for their ancestors and their wishes for the New Year. Each fruit represents a different payer for the future. Due to regional differences in climate and customs in Hanoi in the North, Hue and Hoi An in the center, Saigon in the south, people display the Tet fruit is different ways.
Vietnamese believe that the basic elements in oriental philosophy are represented by colors. Metal, wood, water, fire, and earth correlate with white, green, black, red and yellow respectively. People carefully choose and organize their fruit according to colors. For example, northern five-fruit tray often includes, banana, pomelo, papaya, mandarin and persimmon.
THE PLANTING OF PEACH OR APRICOT TREES
During Tet people love to decorate their homes with beautiful flowers because they think certain flowers will bring them happiness and luck in the New Year. Peach and kumquat (in the north), apricot flowers (in the south) to decorate their homes.
To make these peach and apricot trees even more beautiful, Vietnamese people often hang red lucky money envelopes and small plastic figurines representing the gods of wealth. These plants are placed in the living rooms or in front of the house.
SQUARE CAKE – CYLINARICAL CAKE
As Tet approaches, you will notice a fire burning all night long on the stove in most Vietnamese homes. The families are cooking the traditional cakes for Tet. Vietnam is where wet rice is farmed, therefore many traditional Vietnamese cakes are made from rice. Banh chung and banh tet cakes are made from glutinous rice, mung bean and pork and they are essential food for the Lunar New Year.
The colors of the cake symbolize the earth and the sky. The Northerners prepare bank chung, a square cake, while the Southerners prefer banh tet, which is shapes like a cylinder. Each region has its own customs, beliefs, and methods, however, both cakes hold equal importance for families that prepare them.
Like bank chung and banh tet, mut is a must-have food for every family during Tet. The mut is traditionally offered to guests when they arrive at a home to give their greetings and hopes for the new year. There are many categories of mut, such as candied fruit, coconut jam, kumquat jam and sugared apples.
Cookies, candy and seeds, such as melon and sunflower seeds are also offered during Tet. The sweets and seeds will be put into a beautiful lacquered box and placed on the table in the living room, so that families and their guests can enjoy a cup of tea and have something to eat while deepening their relationships with one another.
On the first day of New Year, the whole family will dress up and get together to offer New Year’s greeting and wishes to one another.
The eldest members of the family will give red envelopes with lucky money inside to children and young adults, while advising them about life, school and work. These red envelopes symbolize luck and wealth for the youngest in the family. Upon receiving the red envelopes, the youth are expected to give well wishes to their elders for good luck, success and good health in the New Year.
THE EURA OF THE EARTH
On the first day of the New Year, Vietnamese families will carefully choose the first guest to welcome into their home. The first person to visit one’s home is believe to either bring good fortune or bad luck to the family. If the guest has a good aura, meaning they are a good fit with the zodiac of the home owner, has good education, and is kind and healthy, then the family will receive luck and good fortune of the year.
The chosen person may bring some girts for the children of the house and then he or she will offer his/her well wishes to the family. The well-wishes will depend on the member of the household. If the person is aging, health and happiness will be hoped for, a businessman might desire luck and wealth, while the children often receive wishes for school and obedience to their parents.
FIRST MEAL OF THE YEAR
The Vietnamese believe that Tet is meant for getting together with family and friends. Therefore, the first meal of the year plays an important role in Vietnamese culture. Family members will return to their homelands, even if they’ve been living far away from home for a long time. Tet is a time to enjoy delicious food as a family and to talk about the events of the past year. Normally, the family will cook together and make traditional foods like spring rolls, Vietnamese sausages, bank tet or banh chung.