The Lunar New Year (also known as Tết Nguyên Đán or just Tết) is the biggest holiday in Vietnam. It takes place from the first day of the first Lunar month, usually some time in late January or early February. This year it was on the late side, February 16, and ushered in the Year of the Dog. The traditional view states that in Heaven there are twelve “kings” (the Dog, the Rat, the Dragon, the Ox, and so forth) in charge of monitoring and controlling the affairs on earth, each of them taking a month-long turn to be in charge during the year.
The Vietnamese see Tet as an opportunity to welcome deceased ancestors back for a family reunion with their descendants. Tet is also a good opportunity for family and friends to have relaxed visiting time together—thus it’s a blend of sacred and secular traditions.
Before Tet, streets are bustling with shoppers, and the traditional item to buy is a colorful holiday tree (almost like Christmas), especially peach blossom, apricot blossom, and kumquat. Poor or rich, the northern people cannot go without at least a twig of peach blossom in their homes, while southerners prefer a small branch of apricot blossom together with a pot of kumquats. Other traditional buys include dried candied fruit (a must for serving guests), cookies, wine, and enough food to last at least the first three days of the new year.
Meanwhile, households are scrambling to make preparations. Vietnamese families usually have a family altar to pay respect to their ancestors, and during Tet, the altar is cleaned and new offerings are placed there. The most important of the offerings is the "five-fruit tray", which symbolizes the admiration and gratitude of the Vietnamese to Heaven and Earth and their ancestors. The five fruits are symbolic of the five basic earth elements: metal, wood, water, fire, and earth. Finally, many families hang two long, narrow banners (usually on two sides of a doorway) which have ancient Vietnamese symbol writing of wisdom or good wishes.
Most food for Tet is prepared ahead of time. The number one item is bánh chưng, a thick sticky rice cake about 9 inches square (or tube), filled with pork and mung beans, and wrapped in banana or other large green leaves. Small pickled onions, giò (Vietnamese sausage), boiled chicken, glass noodles, and roasted nuts round out the list of “must haves.”
On New Year’s Eve, families make their final preparations and then wait for 12:00 midnight to strike. At the moment, Vietnamese forget about the troubles of the past year and hope for a better upcoming year. Cities around the country often have fireworks to kick off the celebration. Many families share a meal together, and then go out for a visit to a local pagoda.
The first visitor to enter a house after midnight is thought to set the luck that the household will have for that year. Therefore, many families consult traditional methods to see who is the best person to invite for this important task.
For visiting family, people try to wear new clothes and bring food or wine as gifts. The first day of New Year is usually reserved to visit the husband’s family, the second day for the wife’s family, and the third for teachers and close friends. Despite all the visiting, the streets are fairly clear since very few people are working and there is no school. Some visitors will share a meal, while others might just stop by and bring good wishes for health, prosperity, and success.
As usual, children get the best deal during a holiday. For Tet, children receive “lucky money” (crisp new bills only) in red envelopes called “lì xì”. It’s also a symbolic celebration for the child advancing in age one year.
Along with all the special things to do, there are a few taboos:
1. Sweeping the house and emptying out the trash during the first three days of Tet (good luck would go out with it)
2. Giving gifts in a set of 4 or 7; the traditional words for these sound like “die” and “fail”, respectively
3. Lending and borrowing money
4. Saying negative things or behaving badly
The first month of the new year is called “tháng chơi”, meaning the “month for fun.” Many people take trips together to special places in Vietnam or even outside the country. In fact, more and more Vietnamese are traveling for the holiday time itself. Only early planners can get a flight ticket around Tet holiday!