Tết Nguyên Đán , more commonly known by its shortened name Tết, is the most important and popular holiday and festival in Vietnam. It is the Vietnamese New Year which is based on the Lunar calendar, a lunisolar calendar. The name Tết Nguyên Đán is Sino-Vietnamese for Feast of the First Morning, derived from the Hán nôm characters 節元旦.
Tết is celebrated on the same day as Chinese New Year though exceptions arise due to the one-hour time difference between Hanoi and Beijing. It takes place from the first day of the first month of the Chinese calendar (around late January or early February) until at least the third day. Tết shares many of the same customs of its Chinese counterpart. Many Vietnamese prepare for Tết by cooking special holiday foods and cleaning the house. There are a lot of customs practiced during Tết, like visiting a person's house on the first day of the new year (xông nhà), ancestral worshipping, wishing New Year's greetings, giving lucky money to children and old people and opening a shop.
Tết is also an occasion for pilgrims and family reunions. During Tết, Vietnamese visit their relatives and temples, forgetting about the troubles of the past year and hoping for a better upcoming year. They consider Tết to be the first day of spring and the festival is often called Xuân hội (spring festival).
Tết in the three Vietnamese regions can be divided into three periods, known as Tất Niên (Before New Year's Eve), Giao Thừa (New Year's Eve), and Tân Niên (the New Year), representing the preparation before Tết, the eve of Tết, and the days of and following Tết, respectively.
This period begins one or two weeks before the actual celebration. The general atmosphere leading up to Tet is in the bustle of shopping, decorating the home, cooking traditional Tet food and waiting for relatives to return home. People try to pay off their debts in advance so that they can be debt-free on Tết. Parents buy new clothes for their children so that the children can wear them when Tết arrives. Because a lot of commercial activity will cease during the celebrations, people try to stock up on supplies as much as possible.
In the days leading up to Tết, the streets and markets are full of people. As the shops will be closed during Tet, everyone is busy buying food, clothes, and decorations for their house.
Vietnamese families usually have a family altar, to pay respect to their ancestors. Vietnamese families have a tray of five fruits on their altar called "Ngu Qua", including banana, orange, kumquat, pomelo and finger citron. Each fruit conveys a different meaning. Pomelos promise a lucky and sweet year. Banana and finger citron symbolize a protective hand while kumquats and oranges represent success and prosperity. During Tết the altar is thoroughly cleaned and new offerings are placed there. Traditionally, the three kitchen guardians for each house (Ông Táo) (Kitchen God), who report to the Jade Emperor about the events in that house over the past year, return to heaven on the 23rd day of the twelfth month by lunar calendar. Their departure is marked by a modest ceremony where the family offers sacrifices for them to use on their journey.
In the days leading up to Tết, each family cooks special holiday foods such as bánh chưng and bánh dầy. Preparations for these foods are quite extensive. Family members often take turns to keep watch on the fire overnight, telling each other stories about Tết of past years.
The first day of Tết is reserved for the nuclear family. Children receive a red envelope containing money from their elders. This tradition is called mừng tuổi (happy new age) in the north and lì xì in the south. Usually, children wear their new clothes and give their elders the traditional Tết greetings before receiving the money. Since the Vietnamese believe that the first visitor a family receives in the year determines their fortune for the entire year, people never enter any house on the first day without being invited first. The act of being the first person to enter a house on Tết is called xông đất, xông nhà or đạp đất, which is one of the most important rituals during Tết. According to Vietnamese tradition, if good things come to the family on the first day of the lunar New Year, the entire following year will also be full of blessings. Usually, a person of good temper, morality and success will be the lucky sign for the host family and be invited first into the house. However, just to be safe, the owner of the house will leave the house a few minutes before midnight and come back just as the clock strikes midnight to prevent anyone else entering the house first who might potentially bring any unfortunate events in the new year to the household.
Sweeping during Tết is taboo or xui (unlucky), since it symbolizes sweeping the luck away. It is also taboo for anyone who experienced a recent loss of a family member to visit anyone else during Tết.
During subsequent days, people visit relatives and friends. Traditionally but not strictly, the second day of Tết is usually reserved for friends, while the third day is for teachers, who command respect in Vietnam. Local Buddhist temples are popular spots as people like to give donations and to get their fortunes told during Tết. Children are free to spend their new money on toys or on gambling games such as bầu cua cá cọp, which can be found in the streets. Prosperous families can pay for dragon dancers to perform at their house. There are also public performances for everyone to watch.
Traditionally, each family displays cây nêu, an artificial New Year Tree consisting of a bamboo pole 5 to 6 m long. The top end is usually decorated with many objects, depending on the locality, including good luck charms, origami fish, cactus branches, etc.
At Tết every house is usually decorated by hoa mai – Ochna integerrima (in the central and southern parts of Vietnam) or hoa đào – peach flower (in the northern part of Vietnam) or hoa ban (in mountain areas). In the north, some people (especially the elite in the past) also decorate their house with a Prunus mume tree (also called mai in Vietnamese, but referring to a totally different species from Ochna integerrima). In the north, the kumquat tree is a popular decoration for the living room during Tết. Its many fruits symbolize the fertility and fruitfulness that the family hopes for in the coming year.
Vietnamese people also decorate their homes with bonsai and flower trees such as hoa cúc, vạn thọ symbolizing longevity, mào gà in Southern Vietnam and paperwhite flower (thủy tiên), lavender (viôlét), hoa bướm in Northern Vietnam. In the past, there was a tradition that old people tried to make their paperwhite flowers blossom right the watch-night time. They also hung up Dong Ho Paintings and thư pháp (calligraphy pictures).
The traditional greetings are "chúc mừng năm mới" and "cung chúc tân xuân" (Happy New Year). People also wish each other prosperity and luck. Common wishes for Tết include:
In Vietnam, to celebrate Tết is to ăn Tết, literally meaning "Tết eating", showing the importance of food in its celebration. Some of the food is also eaten year-round, while other dishes are only eaten during Tết. Also, the food is usually vegetarian since it is believed to be bad luck to eat meat on that day. These foods include:
People are delighted to enjoy exciting games during Tết: bau cua, cờ tướng, ném còn, chọi trâu, đá gà, etc...They also participate in some competitions presenting their knowledge, strength and aestheticism such as: bird competition and ngâm thơ competition.
People can also visit fortune tellers, in temples and in the streets, to have their fortunes told. You must know your zodiac sign and the star you were born under to have your fortune read. Whether the fortunes are taken seriously depends entirely on the person receiving the fortune and the reputation of the fortune teller.
These customs come from traditions passed from generation to generation and have become standard. Because of the idea that the beginning will affect the middle and the end of the year, Vietnamese people avoid doing bad things and try to do good things during Tết holiday.
As the 11th month of the Chinese calendar must contain the Winter Solstice, it is not the month from November 23, 1984 to December 21, 1984 as per the Vietnamese calendar, but rather the one from December 22, 1984 to January 20, 1985. The effect of this is that the Vietnamese New Year would fall on January 21, 1985, whereas the Chinese New Year would fall on February 20, 1985. The two calendars agreed again after a leap month lasting from March 21 to April 19 was inserted into the Vietnamese calendar.
From 1975 to 2100, there are only four occurrences where the Lunar New Year begins at different dates in Vietnam and in China, which are:
|Year||Vietnamese New Year date||Chinese New Year date|
|1985||21 January||20 February|
|2007||17 February||18 February|
|2030||2 February||3 February|
|2053||18 February||19 February|
In the Vietnamese zodiac, the "cat" replaces the "rabbit" in the Chinese zodiac. Thus, a child born in the Chinese year of the rabbit was also born in the Vietnamese year of the cat (mèo/mão). In addition the Vietnamese replace the Chinese "sheep" with "goat" (however, the word for the two animals is the same in Chinese). The Vietnamese zodiac uses the same animals as the Chinese zodiac for the remaining 10 years, though the "ox" or "cow" of the Chinese zodiac is usually considered to be a water buffalo (sửu/trâu) in the Vietnamese zodiac.