Tết is shortened from Tết Nguyên Đán, which means ‘Feast of the First Morning of the First Day’, and is the biggest and most important festival of the year in Vietnam, lasting up to one week with even a few weeks of aftermath. As the meaning of the name suggests, Tết celebrations begin on the first day of the first month of the lunar calendar, the Lunar New Year, which is also considered to be the arrival of the Spring season.
Many visitors don’t know what Tết is and if you are at all interested in understanding and experiencing the culture of Vietnam, then Tết is the metaphorical cherry on the cake. We have put together this two-part article to give some background information about this culture-rich celebration and how you can get involved in the celebrations. This year, the first day of Tết is on the 16th of February, so if you are visiting during this time, you should certainly continue reading!
Tết is hugely important to the Vietnamese for a many reasons. In the past, Tết was an essential holiday because it provided one of few longer breaks during the agricultural year, which was held between the harvesting of the crops and the sowing of the next crops. More recently, it is viewed as the time to influence the upcoming year to be full of luck, fortune and success for you, your family and friends. It is also an occasion for the Vietnamese to express their respect and remembrance for their ancestors through various rituals and offerings.
Similarly to Western traditions for embracing the New Year, for the Vietnamese, Tết is the best time to lay a clean slate, so to speak. Debts are settled, old grievances are forgiven, and houses are cleaned of dirt and clutter, all in the hope of setting the stage for attracting as much luck and good fortune as possible for the year. It is also a time to reminisce on the important events and moments from the previous year, and is seen as an opportunity for families and friends to spend quality time together to drink, eat, and celebrate.
Vietnamese people usually return to their family homes during Tết, which is often located outside of the big cities, rurally or in the suburbs, so a large percentage of people will travel during this time. Some return to worship at the family altar or visit the graves of their ancestors in their homeland. They also tidy the graves of their ancestors as a sign of respect. The family altar, found in every Vietnamese household, is the focal point of Vietnamese worship, and is doted on all year round, but especially at this time of year. Traditional offerings to the altar include a fruit platter with five kinds of fruit, fake paper money and votive papers, rice, tea, and the burning of incense.
The three most important days of the holiday are the first three days. The first day is normally reserved for close family, with some regions dedicating the first day to the paternal side of the family. The second day is more relaxed, with many relatives and friends visiting each other’s houses to celebrate. In some parts of Vietnam, the second day is dedicated to the maternal side of the family and the third day is dedicated to teachers, who command a lot of respect in Vietnam.
Many Vietnamese celebrate by preparing and consuming special holiday food. These foods include bánh chưng, a sticky rice cake filled with pork and mung beans; bánh dầy, a round rice cake served with sausage meat; canh măng, young bamboo soup; and much more. These special foods and beverages shared and eaten over the entire holiday period and generously offered to any visitors to the household, so there must be plenty to go round!
People consider what they do on the dawn of Tết will determine their fate for the whole year, hence people always smile and treat everyone with the utmost kindness in the hope for a better year. Many families stay at home on the first day of Tết, especially if not invited to another house, and only visit from the second day onwards. During the visiting times, gifts are given to friends and relatives, especially children and the elderly, who are given lucky money in a special red envelope. Also on the first day, everybody will wear brand new clothes, particularly children. The traditional attire is the áo dài, the Vietnamese tunic dress, usually in the colours yellow or red as these are the luckiest colours. Like other Asian countries, Vietnamese believe that the color of red and yellow will bring good fortune, which is why you see the colours everywhere during this period, and of course they are the two colours that make up the Vietnamese flag for this very reason.
In the days or weeks leading up to the Lunar New Year, in an effort to get rid of the bad luck or misfortune from the previous year, people will spend a few days cleaning their homes, polishing every utensil, or even repaint and decorate the house with kumquat trees (a small citrus fruit), branches of peach blossom, and many other colourful plants and flowers. A significant amount of effort is put into choosing the perfect plants for decorating the home as the size and beauty of the plants reflects wealth, good fortune, and dedication to ancestors and family. For example, the perfect kumquat tree would have to bear not only fully grown fruits but also younger fruits and buds. This is a metaphor for family members both young and old and having a tree like this will bring good health generations of the past, present and future.
One of the most important traditions observed during Tết is organisation of who will be the first person to enter the family home in the New Year. If good things come to the family on the first day of the Lunar New Year, the year will be full of blessings, so usually a person with sought after qualities such as kindness, good temper and morality will be invited to enter the home first. However, to ensure the best chances of good luck, the owner of the household will leave the house just a few minutes before midnight and come back inside after the clock strikes midnight into the New Year, to prevent anyone else from entering the house who might bring misfortune. Furthermore, it is seen as very bad luck to break anything on the first day of Tết, or to cut your hair or your fingernails. Sweeping during Tết is taboo or xui (unlucky), since it symbolises sweeping the good luck away, that is why they clean before the New Year. It is also xui for anyone who has recently experienced the loss of a family member to visit somebody else’s house during the Tết period, though it is not uncommon for people to visit them at their house instead.
As you can see, there are countless traditions and beliefs that revolve around this celebration. Tết is a fascinating time to be in Vietnam and to experience authentic Vietnamese culture, and a time to see the Vietnamese people at their very best. Sounds like fun, right?