Today is the Lunar New Year in Vietnam. I would like to wish all my Vietnamese friends, and especially my girlfriend, Kim and her family, all the best for the coming year.
The ‘Tet’ New Year celebrates the first full moon of the New Year and celebrates the arrival of spring which brings with it new life. In Vietnam, Tet is based on the Lunar calendar devised by the ancient Chinese.On the first day of Tet, it is traditional to thank the Gods and reunite with family members. It is not unusual for Vietnamese expatriates to return to their homeland from all quarters of the world to be with their families.
However, celebrations in Tet start well in advance of the first day of the new Lunar new year. The week leading up to Tet is busy with flower festivals, preparing traditional Tet delicacies and pretty young girls taking photos in their Ao Dai’s.
The folklore surrounding Tet involves the legend of Tao Quan kitchen Gods who report the activities of all the households to the Jade Emperor, Ngoc Hoang. The legend is actually a tragic tale, albeit naturally shrouded in esoteric symbolism.
Modern traditions follow that Tao Quan are two male gods and one female goddess who are responsible for watching over families and looking after their well-being. The gods also assess the virtues and sins of each household and determine how much good fortune or bad fortune they deserve.
The traditions of Tet New Year in Vietnam
In Vietnam, it is traditional to give gifts to each family member. The gift is typically ‘lucky money’ which is presented in a red envelope. The purpose of lucky money is to wish the recipient a year full of prosperity.
When invited into a friend’s home, the Vietnamese take gifts that have a positive meaning. It is typical to offer gifts of food that represent good fortune, good health and wealth.
For example, the Vietnamese word for peanuts is ‘dau phong’. Dau means ‘to have success in everything you do’ so are a welcome offering. Gifts with red and yellow colours are favoured as they are thought to carry good luck.
In contrast, it is frowned upon to wear dark coloured clothing or offer dark coloured gifts. Dark colours are associated with bad luck and would be an insult to offer as a gift to a Vietnamese at Tet.
Likewise, if you appear miserable or say something negative, you will probably be kicked out of the party. This is seen as passing on negative energy which is the last thing Vietnamese want around them at Tet as they believe it will stay with them for the entire year.
Traditional Vietnamese food at Tet
On the first day of Tet it is traditional to open a watermelon. If the inside is bright, juicy and red, it is taken as a sign of good luck. If the colour of the melon is faded pink or going off, it is a sign bad luck is imminent in the coming year.
Another food superstition is the green vegetable Kho qua which translates as bitter melon in English – although is more like a green corn on the cob.
At Tet, the bitter melon is stuffed with minced pork. To be honest the vegetable does need to be eaten with something as it does not have a nice taste of its own.
Bitter melon is eaten over Tet if the previous year was a bad one. The superstition is that the bitter melon will dissolve bad energy that has gathered in the previous year and transform it into positive energy for the coming year.
Another foodstuff you are likely to find during a visit to Vietnam at Tet is Banh Tet. This colourful delicacy is made from sticky rice, mung bean and pork wrapped in a banana leaf and boiled.
You will find women selling Banh Tet from piles stacked in the street markets. Cut them open and inside is a remarkable spectrum of colours which looks like a sweet cake.
However, Banh Tet is a savoury cake and the first taste is something of a surprise – a disappointing one in all honesty. But after a few bites I became accustomed to the taste and it’s not too bad.
Ao Dai’s and Hao flowers at Tet Lunar New Year
If you visit Vietnam around Tet, you will see hundreds of attractive young ladies wearing the conventional Vietnamese dress – Ao Dai. Although it is traditional for brides to wear their Ao Dai at weddings, they are often worn for special occasions.
On the morning of the new Lunar new year, the ladies of the family will wear their Ao Dai’s and go to the temple and pray to the god’s for guidance in life, good health and prosperity in business or career path.
The Ao Dai is a long, elegant dress made from silk and worn over loose-fitting trousers. It is an aristocratic costume that is a symbol of Vietnamese beauty and femininity.
In comparison to traditional attire of other nations, the Ao Dai is fairly modern. It only dates back to the 1700’s when Lord Nguyen Phuc Khoat from the south ordered the costumes for his courtiers to distinguish them from his northern rivals.
The north-south divide still exists in Tet in the opposing colours of Hao flowers – the national flower of Vietnam. In the north of Vietnam the flowers are pink and are called Hao Dao (peach flower). In the south they have yellow petals and called Hao Mai (apricot flower).
If you would like to experience Tet New Year in Vietnam, arrive in the country at least one week before. The airports in Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City are very busy a couple of days before. Plus you will get to enjoy the colours, smells and celebrations that take place in the build-up to Tet.