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Thư pháp - Vietnamese calligraphy

Tết – The Vietnamese New Year

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.

1. Ancestor worship

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.

2. 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.

Thư pháp - Vietnamese calligraphy
Thư pháp – Vietnamese calligraphy
Ông đồ (calligraphist) is writing thư pháp
Ông đồ (calligraphist) is writing thư pháp
Calligraphy on watermelon
Calligraphy on watermelon

3. 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.

Hoa mai - A symbol of Tết in Southern and Central Vietnam
Hoa mai – A symbol of Tết in Southern and Central Vietnam
A closer view of hoa mai (yellow apricot flower)
A closer view of hoa mai (yellow apricot flower)

4. 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.

5. Lucky money

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.

Lucky Money
Lucky Money

Practical Information

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 holidayHowever, 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.
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46 comments

    1. Yeah, the Year of the Rooster will start this Saturday 🙂 Thanks a lot for your compliment and wishing you a great new year!

    1. Many thanks! This year, I won’t celebrate New Year with my family, as I am stuck here with my thesis. But I will meet up with friends on the second and third day, so it won’t be so bad 🙂

      1. Great! May be you should write a post about Chinese New Year in Sydney 🙂 Do you allow to light up firework or firecracker during Lunar New Year?

      2. That would be an awesome idea! Except I was still working at 9pm on NYE and haven’t been out to take photos!! 😩 No fireworks allowed here…

  1. Woow! That was a very interesting post!!
    Didn’t know anything about Vietnamese culture, now I do!
    Thank you very much for sharing this!

    1. You welcome! I am glad that you like it. It is slightly pity that many people only know about Vietnam through the war or some delicious dishes 🙂 Our culture is actually centuries-old.

  2. New Zealand and Australia has crossed over to the year of the Rooster.
    Soon we will too! And in about 6 hours you will also!
    Happy New year

  3. Such an interesting post! I love learning about cultural specifics, especially how Lunar New Year is celebrated here versus in places like Korea. We celebrated “Seollal” here and the traditions are fun to participate in. I’ll likely write something up on it after my current series.

    I have a question about the lucky money though — why is it specifically placed in red envelopes? Is there something symbolic about the color red in Vietnamese culture, or does it stem from an earlier practice?

    Also, this traditional dress looks so stylish in Vietnam! Do people like wearing it? I think it would be fun to wear something so modern, fitting, and colorful! Do most people have a set or is this growing out of fashion?

    1. Well, our culture is strongly influenced by Chinese culture. So similar to Chinese people, we perceive red as a lucky color. The color of happiness and prosperity. That’s why the lucky money is given in a red envelope 🙂
      Regarding áo dài, it has never been out of trend. Most women have at least one set of it. In fact, áo dài is uniform for school girls and students at some universities. For men, áo dài was not so popular, but recently it is making a come back , especially in special occasion like Tết. I guess most people like wearing it, it is a part of our culture after all 🙂 Overall, I feel ok wearing it, but defitively not in summer. Too warm 😉

      1. Koreans often wear traditional clothing during special holidays like Chuseok or Seollal or even their weddings, and many complain to me that they find it uncomfortable as well.

        In regards to the color, the reason I asked is because I went to a “color exhibition” at a museum the other day, and it talked about red’s significance to Korean culture, moving between positive associations to negative ones. These days it represents “social cohesion.”

        Red is my favorite color, so I’m just curious! 🙂

      2. Red – Fire Element – is also my lucky color, although I don’t often wear it (difficult to combine with other stuff) 🙂 I read a book about colors. It is said that the red color was highly valued not only in Korea, but also in the West as well. In Korea, only the King and high ranking court members (or aristocrats) wore red. In the West, only Emperor, aristocrats, judges, or cardinal wore red. The explanation is that the red colors was very difficult to obtain.
        Chinese and Vietnamese Emperor had another taste 🙂 They prefer the color of gold more than the red color.

      3. Right! I saw the same in Malaysia, where Gold Yellow is the color of the King. So interesting! And in other places, Purple represents royalty. I love culture.

  4. Hello, for the little girls collarless ao dai, where can I get one just like the one you posted? Thank you in advance.

    Lc

    1. Hi Lc, you can get the áo dài for kids in almost any big market in Ho Chi Minh City or Hanoi. For example, the Ben Thanh or Tan Dinh Market in Ho Chi Minh city will surely have it. But for an exactly looking áo dài with same pattern and color, I guess I could not tell 🙂 I hope this information could help.

  5. I enjoyed your post. I visited Vietnam in early March and really fell in love with the country. Your post gave me some needed insight.

      1. I stayed there for two weeks. It was fantastic. I wish I could have stayed in Dalat a bit longer.

      2. I intended to ask where you have been but found out that you did a cycling trip along the coast. So why DaLat? Is there anything particular in DaLat that you like? The coffee maybe :)?
        My German friends always ask me to bring some coffee (together with some condense milk) for them when I travel to Vietnam.
        A cycling trip to Cambodia is a good idea, especially when exploring the Angkor Archaeological Site. But the streets might not in good condition, so you should take that into consideration.

      3. What I liked about Dalat was: the temperature (cool), the coffee, the vibe that the city had–kind of like a backpacker area that was more relaxed and also let other people in. It was very cosmopolitan (in its own way) as well.
        We will see about the Cambodia trip. I’ve to take care of a couple of other things first.

  6. Really interesting post and lovely pics. Happy New Year! My husband and I visited Vietnam 3 years ago and really enjoyed it, especially Hoi An 😃🐻

    1. Many thanks! I am glad that you like the post. Although it is not my hometown, but I like Hoi An as well 🙂 It has a special charm that other towns in Vietnam do not have. But it is also not so dull like nearby Hue – the Imperial City.

  7. Sounds like a really great festivity! Happy Tet to you and your family. Wishing you a year of abundance, filled with happiness (and more travels).

    1. You welcome 🙂 Most people have heard of Chinese New Year, but not many know that Vietnamese (and I think Koreans) also celebrate this holiday. But the year of the Rat didn’t start so well, though >.<

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