Lunar New Year is coming. In many Asian countries, including Vietnam, the preparation for the biggest and most important festival of the year is gradually completed. The festival is called Tết in Vietnamese and millions of people are returning home to celebrate this special occasion with their family and friends.
In Vietnam, the Lunar New Year Festival is called Tết – the shortened name of Tết Nguyên Đán which means “Feast of the First Morning of the First Day”. It starts at the transition of the lunar calendar and lasts for at least three days. Traditionally, the first day of Tết is reserved for the family and that is why many people return home for Tết (similar to Christmas in Western countries). During subsequent days, people visit relatives, friends, and colleagues or go to Buddhist temples to give donations and to get their fortune told. They temporarily forget about the trouble of the past year and hope for a better upcoming year.
Tết is accompanied by several customs, such as ancestor worship, New Year’s greeting, house cleaning, giving lucky money and cooking holiday food. It sounds superstitious and strenuous as first, but the true meaning behind these traditions is to connect people.
Like in many Asian countries, ancestor worship plays a distinctive role in Vietnamese culture. In this ceremony, the descendants are reminded of their roots by paying tribute to the ancestors at the family altar. On a special occasion like Tết, this ritual is viewed as an opportunity for the livings to communicate with the deceased family members, inviting them to reunite and celebrate with the family. Special rites, which include altar cleaning and placing new offerings, are performed to bring utmost comfortability to the ancestors’ souls.
New Year’s Greeting
Superstitious as it may sound, Vietnamese consider what they do/what happens to them on the dawn of a new year will determine their fate for the whole year, hence people want to start the year with lots of greetings and genuine smiles, even from strangers. The usual greetings are Chúc Mừng Năm Mới (Happy New Year). Others such as wishing for peace, health, longevity, prosperity, and luck are often used as well. Greetings can be expressed verbally or can be artfully presented as Thư Pháp – the Vietnamese calligraphy.
Pre-New Year Cleaning & House Decoration
Another ritual that often takes place is the pre-New Year cleaning. By sweeping all the dust away, Vietnamese people believe that all bad luck and misfortune of this year will be wiped out. Therefore, the house should be cleaned thoroughly before New Year Eve. Even the hardly accessed areas such as tops of the bookshelves, lamps, storage areas and outer windows should be spotless. Besides, a clean house is also good for feng shui as it attracts positive energy flowing into the house.
When the cleaning is done, it’s time for the house decoration. The Vietnamese often decorate their home with hoa mai (Southern and Central Vietnam) or hoa đào (Northern Vietnam). Hoa mai (apricot flowers) is the yellow flowers that have five to nine petals representing wealth, while hoa đào (peach blossoms) with its red-pink colour indicates happiness and luck. Kumquat trees, chrysanthemums, and marigolds are also displayed as they symbolise fertility, fruitfulness, and longevity. Other red and yellow decorations are also favoured during this time of the year because people believe that these two colours will bring good fortune.
Wearing Áo dài
Áo dài – the Vietnamese national costume – is a tight-fitting silk tunic worn over pants. It is usually worn on Tết and other formal occasions such as graduation and wedding. The history of áo dài dated back to the 1920s when Hanoi artists, inspired by Paris fashion, redesigned áo ngũ thân (a five-panelled aristocratic gown worn in the 19th and 20th century) as a modern dress. Then, in the 1950s, Saigon designers tightened the fit to produce the version worn by Vietnamese women today.
Áo dài is commonly worn by women but can also be worn by men. The male version, however, is slightly different in fitting style, garment types (usually thicker fabrics), colours and patterns. Children also have their own version of áo dài. It looks typically simpler and made of materials that are lighter than the one for adults such as wool or linen. In most case, áo dài for girls are collarless, while those for boys still have collars.
Another interesting Tết tradition is the giving of lucky money. Lucky money is a monetary gift that is given during the holiday. The elders and adults hand them to the younger generations, in exchange for greetings for health and longevity. Typically, the lucky money is contained in a red envelope and is called lì xì or mừng tuổi.
Tết is a wonderful celebration and everyone is welcomed. However, there are a few things that foreign visitors should keep in mind
- During the first three days of Tết, stores, restaurants, and some attractions might be closed. Some locations in metropoles like Hanoi or Saigon (Ho Chi Minh City) might still open, but research beforehand is recommended.
- Traffic in Hanoi and Saigon will be much less crowded because many people return home for the holiday. However, other destinations outside of the major cities will be much more crowded, especially after the first day of Tết.
- Tết is the time for hospitality. If a Vietnamese, for example, a friend or a colleague, invite you to their house, you should not reject their invitation. However, if you have a recent loss in the family, please deny the invitation and explain the reason. The Vietnamese people believe that, if someone who has recently lost a family member visits their house during Tết, the bad luck of this person will be transferred to their home.