24. Celebrating Tét

Vietnam’s biggest annual holiday celebration is Tet, the lunar new year. It’s kind of like Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Year’s Day rolled into one.

Apricot blossoms on Dường Nguyễn Thị Minh Khai (JGA photo)

It’s that time of year again! Chúc mừng năm mới!

In Vietnam, the Tết holiday, which technically begins today, is equivalent to Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Year’s Day all rolled into one.

The Vietnamese people don’t get a lot of long vacations. They work hard for 50 weeks, often putting in seven days a week on two jobs. Tết — the lunar new year — is the one time they can truly “cut loose.” (This is evident if you track the bulge in November births.) During Tết, employees get at least five days off from work, more to bridge weekends, and it’s not uncommon for companies to stretch the break to a couple of weeks.

Tết is the word for festival. In this context, it is short for “Tết Nguyên Đán,” which means “Feast of the First Morning of the First Day.”  It falls on the first night of the new moon in the first month of the Lunar (Gregorian) Calendar, usually between late January and mid-February. In 2021, the new year falls on Thursday, February 11. [in 2020, it was January 23.]

Workers prepare the opening of ‘Flower Street” on Nguyen Hue (JGA photo0

Flowers and food

Besides marking the beginning of the year, Tết signals the first day of spring … and the day when everyone becomes one year older. In Vietnamese tradition, age is determined by the new year and not by the actual date of birth. Perhaps not coincidentally, one of the first questions asked upon an initial meeting in Vietnam is: “How old are you?”

You may then be asked: “What is your hometown?” A huge number of the younger (and middle-aged) people living in the major cities today maintain strong ties with the provincial towns where they, or their parents, were born. During Tết, their exodus from Ha Noi or Ho Chi Minh City, to be with hometown family and friends, has an indelible impact on the population centers. Restaurants and other businesses close down, transport services are stretched to the limit, and the cities seem like ghost towns.

A family of water buffalo greet the new year outside the Diamond department store (JGA photo)

At least in HCMC, the city-center boulevard, Nguyễn Hue, stays lively through the week of Tết. This broad pedestrian street becomes “Flower Street,” which in recent non-pandemic years has attracted more than a million visitors. Yellow apricot blossoms and light-red peach blossoms, representing good fortune, are ubiquitous, as are the tiny orange fruits of the bonsai-sized kumquat tree. Among the trees and flowers are various depictions of the animal of the new year — in 2021, it’s the water buffalo (or bull); in 2020, it was the rat.

Adjacent streets have community fairs. On Dường Nguyễn Thị Minh Khai in District 1, for instance, music, art and calligraphy mix with popular street foods. Inevitably you’ll be offered “chung cake” (bánh chung or banh tet), made of sweet sticky rice, corn or green beans, pork and spices, wrapped in a leaf and boiled overnight. Legend traces its origin back more than 2,000 years.

“Chung cake,” or banh tet, is made from sticky rice, pork and vegetables. (JGA photo)

A fresh start

The lunar new year festival traditionally lasts for three days. It is considered a time to begin anew — to let go of the problems of the past year and start all over. People pay off old debts. They buy new clothes and often change jobs or switch careers. During the last week of the old year, they sweep away all the bad things that have accumulated in the previous 12 months with a thorough cleaning of their homes and gardens, especially including altars that honor gods and ancestors.

Traditional holds that on the eve of Tết, Ong Tau, the “kitchen god,” travels to the heavenly home of the Jade Emperor to give his annual report on family members. He is hastened on his way by carp, released into rivers as vehicles of the divine. These fish become dragons at midnight on the new year, when Ong Tau returns and is welcomed back with fireworks and gongs.

Calligraphers and fortune tellers forecast the future at street fairs. (JGA photo)

While Ong Tau is away, the multigenerational family feasts. Everyone avoids bad thoughts or arguments in case they allow bad spirits into the house. When younger people go out to watch the fireworks, their parents and grandparents offer pig heads, boiled chicken, rice and salt to the gods and ancestors. They will pray for a new year of luck, health and fortune to every family member.  After midnight, the young people return home and become the first to enter the house in the new year, bringing luck to the family.

The first day of the new year is the time to visit grandparents and relatives. They gather again to drink, eat and share their wishes and plans. Children are given lucky money inside red envelopes, which may keep children away from evil. The elderly receive gifts and wishes for health; younger adults receive tokens of fortune and success.

Ancestral altars get special offerings on the new year. (JGA photo)

By the third day of the Tết holiday — Day Two of the new year — people go to pagodas and pray for a year of prosperity, happiness and health. Their donations are repaid with assurances of luck and fortune.

These are some of the greetings you may hear this week:

An khang thịnh vượng: Wishing you safety, health and prosperity.

Vạn sự như ý: May all your wishes come true.

And, of course, Chúc mừng năm mới. Happy new year.

Celebrants welcomed the year of the rat in January 2020. (JGA photo)


Published by John Gottberg Anderson

Writer-photographer specializing in travel and food subjects ... member of the Society of American Travel Writers for more than 20 years ... former editor for the Los Angeles Times and France's Michelin Guides, among others

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