Tet Nguyen Dan is the Vietnam Lunar New Year, referred to as Tet – “The first morning of the first day of the new beginning”. It marks the end of winter and the beginning of spring and is one of the highlights of the Vietnamese calendar; bringing with it days of traditions and celebrations. Based on the lunar calendar, Tet has three phases – Before New Years Eve, New Years Eve and New Year Time.
Tet is celebrated on the same day as Chinese New Year though slight differences can occur due to the one-hour time difference between Hanoi and Beijing.
It’s an occasion for family reunions and gatherings, an opportunity to pay respect to ancestors and take blessings for the coming year. Flowers and plants are purchased and used to decorate houses and altars in a tradition which is meant to invigorate the spirit for the year to come and remind each family member of all they experienced the previous year. Focus is directed away from any melancholy to positive thoughts, a renewed optimism and warm wishes to others.
Every house is usually decorated, incense is burned and red is seen everywhere, including in food – watermelons are traditionally given as gifts. Trees are decorated, a popular tree is the Kumquat. Its fruits symbolise the fertility and fruitfulness that the family wish for in the coming year – so the more fruit on the tree, the luckier the family will be.
Tet is also celebrated as everyone’s birthday. Some Vietnamese do not acknowledge the exact day they were born and so many families celebrate a baby’s first birthday on Tet no matter what date they were born. Children receive red envelopes from family and close friends containing ‘lucky money’.
The importance of food during Tet shouldn’t be underestimated. Eating vegetarian food is thought to bring good luck but many other dishes are also eaten in abundance. Some traditional foods for family feasts are:
- Sticky rice with bean or meat fillings and wrapped in Dong leaves
- Pickled leeks, onions and cabbage
- Meat stewed in coconut juice – a traditional dish of fatty port and boiled eggs
- Roasted watermelon seeds
Also ‘Banh Chung’ – Earth Cake is plentiful. This heavy cake is used to give thanks and show gratitude to Mother Earth and her ancestors for a bountiful harvest and the fulfilment of wishes.
The idea that the start of the new year will drive the middle and end of the year means that Vietnamese people focus on good deeds and thoughts during the Tet holiday and refrain from doing anything unpleasant or something remorseful.
Here are some customs and traditions that have been passed down through the generations:
- Lucky objects like new clothes, rice wine in a gourd (rich and comfortable life),red items (red symbolizes happiness, good luck, etc,), new rice (good food) should be given as presents.
- Lime powder should be sprinkled around the house to expel evil
- Pay debts and return borrowed items prior to Tet
- Set animals free
- Give presents of ink (black is an unlucky colour), scissors or knives, cats, a timepiece as these are all considered unlucky
- Refuse anything given
- Sweep the house or take out the rubbish on the first day of the New Year as good luck and happiness may be swept away too
- Eat duck or shrimp – both will bring bad luck
- Wear white clothes (funeral colours)