The Story Behind the Vietnamese New Year.
The Vietnamese New Year, locally known as Têt Nguyen Dan or quite merely, Têt indicates the start of the new year in the Vietnamese calendar. It is heralded by the Vietnamese as the most important festival in their culture, as according to old traditions, the new year’s day shows the way the rest of the year is going to turn out.
Asia is way ahead of the rest of the world in terms of cultural history and diversity, and hence, it should be no surprise that they followed an entirely different calendar altogether, and in fact, they still do. The Chinese Calendar is based on the motions and the states of the moon, i.e., it is a Lunar calendar. Now, the Vietnamese new year calendar is derived from the Chinese calendar, with only a few changes here and there.
The Chinese name their years with animals, and the difference between the two cultures is that the year of the Ox in the Chinese calendar is replaced with the Buffalo in the Vietnamese version, the Rabbit with the Cat, and lastly, the Sheep with the Goat. Some folk even say that Vietnam and the other neighbours of China were forced to adapt to the calendar because of China’s cultural popularity and perfection.
The Chinese and Vietnamese New Year are usually on the same day, but every ten years or so, the time difference comes into play, and the two countries celebrate the Lunar New Year on a different day.
What people do on the Vietnamese New Year.
Tet marks the beginning of the spring season as well. People in Vietnam believe in forgetting the quarrels of the previous year and starting anew as part of the Vietnamese new year. Before the day of Tet, houses are cleaned and decorated in advance because sweeping during Tet is forbidden as it brings bad luck to the home and the people living in it, parents buy their children new clothes to wear in the new year’s day.
White and black dresses are not allowed to wear as they are considered to bring omens of death in the new year. Instead, bright and happy colours like yellow, red, pink, and green are worn.
The days before Tet are filled with excitement for the locals. People go out shopping, and the streets are the most crowded they will ever be throughout the year during this time. Vietnamese people living abroad look forward to returning home to family reunions and catching up with their friends back in the country on this national holiday.
Decorations on homes and lightings on the streets make them come alive, and the cities are glowing with joy and the celebration of the new. Houses are also decorated with small bamboo trees in front, called Cay Neu. Along with this, red banners are hung as they believe that the red colour wards off evil spirits. Elders also present young children with money known as Xi Li, which is usually what most kids look forward to.
Vietnamese cuisine is also highlighted by this festival as traditional Vietnamese foods like bánh chưng, bánh dầy, mut, keo dua, and keo me xung are served and offered to guests as well. Mut, in particular, is candied fruits that are kept in beautifully decorated boxes in front of the main door of the house, and they are free to be taken by guests. While we are on the topic of food, on the 23rd day of the twelfth month of the Vietnamese Lunar Calendar, the Ông Táo or the Kitchen God departs for heaven to report the family’s behaviour to the Jade Emperor. Sacrifices are made to safeguard the Kitchen God’s journey to the Jade Emperor.
The Vietnamese are quite superstitious about who they let into their homes on the day of Tet. According to them, the karma of the first person to enter their house will dictate their fate for the rest of the year. So, it is usually the homeowner who comes to the home the Vietnamese new year, right after midnight so that no other person can take that away.
While it might not appear to be a very grave offence at first, going to people’s homes uninvited, even if you have good intentions, is frowned upon heavily by the locals. Only if you are invited to somebody’s house on Tet, are you supposed to enter? The homeowners usually ask good friends or family members with compatible star signs, good fortune and karma enter their homes first before anybody else.
This is a big event and is known as xông đất or xông nhà, a crucial ritual during this festival. People who have experienced the death of a family member are prohibited from visiting anybody else during Vietnamese New Year, lest they inflict a similar misfortune on the house they enter.
Tet is celebrated for three days. It is an unwritten rule that says that the first day is reserved for the nuclear family members, the second day is for friends and distant family members, and the third day is for teachers, who are given a lot of respect in Vietnam. It is traditionally said that all old debts and scores must be settled so that the Vietnamese new year can begin without any baggage from the one before.
The festival of Tet is also a time for people to remember and pay their respects to their ancestors. This is given a lot of importance during the festival. People visit churches, Buddhist monasteries, and other places of worship to feel closer to their ancestors and to pray for their peace as a family.
Gravesites are paid visits too. Altars are constructed at home for the departed, and Ngũ Quả or a tray of five fruits are placed on the platform as a sacrifice. On the Vietnamese New Year’s Eve, a ceremony is held where people light incense sticks and pray for the spirits of their ancestors to join them in welcoming the new year and to offer them good fortune.
Positivity is given a lot of importance in the Vietnamese New Year. Anything that might be a bad omen or might bring people’s morale down is an absolute no-no. The kids are taught to be lively and to have fun as much as they can during this festival. Drums, gong bells, and various other instruments are played by hordes of people gathered in streets to celebrate in an attempt to ward off evil spirits during the festival.
Advice on touring during the Vietnamese New Year
While foreign tourists should not barge into people’s homes given the overall lively atmosphere during the festival, essential cities like Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon), Hanoi, and Da Nang make for must-visit sites as they host an extraordinary feeling during the spring. It is recommended that tour packages are better alternatives to having freelance guides during the Vietnamese New Year because the prices might be hiked, and the people might look to make a profit at the expense of the tourists.
Fireworks displays are standard during the festival in big cities, and people dressing up and dancing in the streets is also one of the unique attractions of the festival. Bau cua ca cop, which is a particular type of dice game with three dice played extensively well. Nguyen Hue and the Tao Ban flower festivals are other must-see places as they showcase beautiful flowers that blossom on the onset of spring.
While in Ho Chi Minh City, which bursts to life at the stroke of midnight on the day of the Vietnamese New Year, you might want to check out Lac Long Quan Flower Garden, Thong Nhat Park, Hoan Kiem Lake, and My Dinh Stadium which have special fireworks displays at midnight.
Hue Imperial Citadel has the most significant piece of Cay Neu that you will find, so surely check that out as well. In modern times, the Vietnamese New Year is being celebrated extensively over a more extended period, that is, seven days. The city of Hanoi offers you the chance to have custom made calligraphy just for you. This event is called Ong Do, and this one is for all the art enthusiasts.
Lantern making classes are also a fun way to teach yourself a new craft during your tour. This is done at Hoi An, which has is declared as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Hoi An also has street vendors and restaurants where you can invest in memories and memorabilia.
Planning a trip to Vietnam during the spring will undoubtedly reward you with some of your best memories ever. However, do plan beforehand as transport is scarce, with workers going back home to celebrate themselves. This ancient festival makes the entire country glow in a way that is beyond imagination, don’t believe us? See it for yourself. Don’t forget to wish the natives a happy Vietnamese new year while you’re there. Say, Chuc mung nam moi!