The Vietnamese New Year or Tet Nguyen Dan is quite the most important holiday and festival in the country. The name translates to “The Feast of the First Morning” and it marks the arrival of spring. Because it is based on the Chinese lunar calendar, its date changes every year but it is typically celebrated during the 30th day of the twelfth lunar month up to the 3rd day of the first lunar month the succeeding year.
In 2013, the Tết public holidays will be from February 9, Saturday until February 14, Thursday. Because of the country’s practice of substituting weekend holidays for weekdays, the year’s celebrations will be particularly long.
Who celebrates Tết?
The whole of Vietnam celebrates Tết. Because it is a family-oriented holiday, many celebrations are private and held at home. Some major cities will have decorations and activities that are open to the public, but expect most shops and establishments to be closed for business during these days.
How Tết is Celebrated?
The members of family make “Banh Chung” together
Tết celebrations start weeks ahead of the actual date. People are out shopping for things that they need for the new year, as well as stocking up on items and supplies knowing that businesses will be closed during Tết. These items include ingredients for the feasts, new clothes, gifts and decorations.
People also go about finishing their personal businesses and paying the debts before the year ends. This is so that when the new year comes, they will be debt-free. Items that are borrowed are returned, and gifts of good luck are prepared. Homes are cleaned beforehand, as it is considered bad luck to sweep a home during Tết itself.
Sending off the Kitchen Gods
One of the pre-Tết rites is a send-off for the Kitchen Gods, Ong Tao. On the 23rd day of the twelfth lunar month, families offer sacrifices as they depart to report the household’s activities for the past year to the Jade Emperor.
Tết celebrations stretch for days. The first day is often spent with the immediate family. The younger generation would respectfully greet their elders, after which they would be given gifts of lucky money in red envelopes. Often the first visitor to a home is invited, as it is believed that he or she will determine the family’s fortune for the upcoming year. Many families ensure their good fortune by having the head of the family leave and come back in just as midnight strikes.
Family reunion during Tết
In the succeeding days, the Vietnamese would visit their relatives and friends. Since Vietnam is predominantly Buddhist, the faithful also flock to the temples to pray and have their fortunes told.
Many Vietnamese make the pilgrimage back to their ancestral homes and towns. Most of these travel happens on the days before and after Tết, so transportation is crowded during this time.
Food is an integral part of the Tết celebrations. Preparations for these start days before the holidays start, and is a tradition that is as important as the holiday itself.
One of the key food items during Tết is bánh chưng and bánh dầy, sticky rice with meat or bean fillings wrapped up in Dong leaves. Bánh chưng is rectangular in shape and represents Earth, while bánh dầy is circular and represents Sky. The preparation and cooking of these items are done overnight, and the stories of their origin and connection to Tết are told during the process.
A traditional dish that you can expect to see during il Tet is Thịt Kho Nước Dừa, or meat stewed in coconut juice. The fatty lining of pork stomach is stewed in a broth of young coconut juice and nuoc mam. Add in some boiled eggs, and eat with pickled bean sprouts and chives on top of white rice.
The Tet feast in South of Vietnam
Six typical plates in Tet feast in North of Vietnam
It is also interesting to note that because of the belief that eating vegetarian food brings good luck, expect many vegetarian dishes to be prepared and served for Tết. Candied fruit and roasted watermelon seeds are also commonly served.
Much as the Chinese use fireworks during the celebration of the new year, so do the Vietnamese. Impressive displays of extravagant fireworks are key parts of the Tết celebration. Such displays hosted in the major cities are often shown on nationwide television.
Traveling during Tết
If you are planning to visit during Tết, note the many establishments may be closed during the holidays, but those that cater to the foreign traveler crowd may still operate during those times. Most activities happen during the preparations, and you might find it interesting to explore the many markets and bazaars that are open before Tết. If you know a local, you may expect to be invited to join in the festivities. Businesses resume to normal when Tet is over. To maximize your trip, plan your travel days in advance.
The quiet streets on Tet holiday