Tet Nguyen Dan, the Vietnamese New Year, follows the same lunar calendar that governs Chinese New Year celebrations worldwide. So on the same day the world celebrates Chinese New Year, the Vietnamese celebrate Tet.
The Vietnamese consider Tet to be the year's most important festival. Family members gather in their hometowns, traveling from across the country (or the world) to spend the Tet holidays in each other's company.
Tet and the Kitchen God
Tet Nguyen Dan translates literally to "the first morning of the first day of the new year". Long before Tet, Vietnamese try to get rid of any "bad fortune" by cleaning their homes, buying new clothes, resolving disputes, and paying their debts.
Like the Chinese, the Vietnamese believe that Tet marks the time when the Kitchen God reports on their family to the Jade Emperor. A week before Tet, family members attempt to propitiate the Kitchen God by burning gold leaf paper and offering carp (live, placed in a bucket of water upon the family altar) for him to ride.
Houses are cleaned (or repainted) and decorated with yellow blossoms. A bamboo plant called a Cay Neu is planted in the family courtyard: decorated with red streamers and flowers, the Cay Neu is believed to welcome good luck and ward off evil spirits in the week-long interregnum between the old Kitchen God's departure and the arrival of his replacement.
Vietnamese also pay tribute to their ancestors throughout Tet. Each mid-day, for the duration of the New Year week, offerings are placed on the household altar and incense is burned in memory of the departed.
Tet and Good Luck
On the stroke of midnight, as the old year turns into the new, Vietnamese usher out the old year and welcome the new Kitchen God, beating drums, lighting firecrackers, and goading dogs to bark (a lucky omen).
More on luck and the New Year: Vietnamese believe that one's luck in the entire year can be determined by auspicious (and not-so-auspicious) events during Tet. Thus Vietnamese will try to even the odds.
Barking dogs inspire confidence in the New Year, so dogs are encouraged to bark. Hooting owls are regarded as an unlucky omen. The wealth of the first person through the door on New Year reflects the family's luck for the year to come, so the rich and popular are invited to one's home.
Tet and Families
On Tet, families lay out a splendid feast to welcome visiting relatives and friends. Traditional Tet treats include:
- Banh Chung: a special rice pudding containing mung beans and pork bits.
- Watermelons: considered lucky because of its red color.
- Other lucky fruits: coconuts, oranges, and grapefruits
Family members and friends also exchange gifts during the visit. After the guests have been feted, the family goes off to their respective places of worship (Christian or Buddhist) to pray for the year to come, or join in the many public parades celebrating the festival.
The first few days of Tet are meant to be spent visiting friends and relatives. The first day is spent calling upon close friends and one's parents. The next day, Vietnamese call on their in-laws and other friends. And on the third day, people call upon their distant relations.
On the seventh day after Tet, the Cay Neu is taken down, and dragon processions stalk the streets.
Traveling in Vietnam during Tet
Tet is a great time to see Vietnam at its most colorful, especially in the cities of Hue, Hanoi, and Ho Chi Minh City. However, reservations are bound to be filled up long before the actual holiday, and transportation before and after Tet is bound to be sketchy at best (everybody wants to be home for Tet!). Also, many tourist spots are closed for several days between Tet.
Do visit if you intend to stay for the duration of Tet, and can commit to letting the Tet travel rush die down.