Tet, short for "Tết Nguyên Đán," or "First Morning of the First Day," not only marks the Lunar New Year for Vietnam but also signifies the beginning of spring and the official birthday celebration for every Vietnamese citizen.
The Tet celebration resonates not only throughout Vietnam but also extends worldwide with the vast Vietnamese diaspora. Especially significant if it falls on the Year of the Cat. The Cat, as the fourth animal symbol in Vietnam's 12-year zodiac cycle, is equivalent to the Rabbit in the Chinese zodiac. In Vietnamese culture, the Year of the Cat is believed to bring attention, affection, and sensitivity.
The date of the Tet holiday varies annually, often falling between mid-January to late February. For instance, in 2024, Tet will commence on February 10, marking the beginning of the Year of the Dragon. Meanwhile, in 2025, Tet will arrive on January 29, ushering in the Year of the Snake, and in 2026, the festivities will start on February 17, welcoming the Year of the Horse.
However, Tet is not just about ringing in the new year; it's also a moment to start afresh, forget the past, and settle all debts and disputes. Like Western New Year celebrations, its aim is to set a positive tone. There are many ways to celebrate this occasion, from gift-giving, cleaning the house, and cooking, to visiting friends and family, all contributing to the bustling atmosphere surrounding Tet. Families gather to honor their ancestors, praying for luck, prosperity, and health in the new year. Interestingly, although the public holiday lasts only a week, Tet celebrations extend much longer.
Across Vietnam, preparations for Tet begin weeks in advance. Vietnamese people are not only busy shopping for new clothes, changing hairstyles, and cooking special dishes but also paying attention to small details like buying flowers and even washing their motorcycles. Every home and office will be enthusiastically adorned with 'Chúc Mừng Năm Mới' signs, and kumquat trees or peach blossoms will be positioned with reverence.
The belief is that the larger the kumquat tree, the more prosperity and health the family will enjoy in the new year. The sight of these trees being transported behind motorcycles fills the streets with color and excitement as the entire nation welcomes the long holiday.
Three days before the Lunar New Year, Tet celebrations commence and continue for several days thereafter. It is advisable to avoid traveling around Vietnam during this period as transportation hubs will be extremely crowded, and tickets may sell out.
The first day of Tet, dedicated to the immediate family, becomes a moment when the roles of individuals are highly respected, while the youth receive "lucky money" envelopes. The first day also serves as the stage for an important ritual where the presence of the first person to enter the house on New Year's Day symbolizes the direction of the next year's life.
To avoid unforeseen surprises, respected family members or those who have achieved success are often invited to be the first to visit. It can be said that on the first day of Tet, not just anyone can "drop by" - much depends on who enters first.
On the second day, the tradition of visiting friends and relatives unfolds. You'll witness a parade of joy that goes door to door, block by block, throughout the neighborhood and community. Meanwhile, the third day holds special significance for teachers (a highly respected caste). It's common to see groups of classmates gather to collectively visit their teachers, bringing gifts of fruit and flowers.
In Vietnam, everyone celebrates the same birthday after midnight on New Year's Eve. This means that a person's age does not increase with their birth date, but rather changes with the Tet holiday. This is also because most Vietnamese don't even know their birth date, so many families choose to celebrate their birthday on Tet regardless of the actual date. This special touch makes the celebration even more memorable and meaningful. Another interesting fact about age calculation in Vietnam is that you are considered one year old from birth, counting the time spent in the womb.
Don't Forget the Food!
Food, especially Tet cake (bánh chưng), plays a central role in this celebration. According to folklore, the last king of the Hung dynasty held a contest to determine his heir, and the child who could present the best dish was chosen. One child stood out by presenting two delicious rice cakes symbolizing heaven and earth. This simple dish won the king's heart, and the child was named heir to the throne. Throughout Vietnam, families gather for day-long feasts where various sweet fruits are served in beautiful bowls for guests to enjoy.
In addition, the Tet dinner becomes a precious moment for families to gather and reflect on the events of the previous year. Each region of Vietnam has its own unique variations. In the northern region, nem (spring rolls), bánh chưng (sticky rice cakes), and whole-boiled chicken are essential main dishes.
Meanwhile, Tet dishes in the southern region include caramelized pork, bitter melon soup, and chicken salad, among others. Each dish is symbolic of overcoming challenges and new hopes for the New Year.
Sharing Luck with Lucky Money
Another fascinating aspect of this celebration is the sharing of luck with red envelopes (Li Xi). "Li Xi is a traditional practice during the Vietnamese Lunar New Year of putting money in red envelopes to celebrate good fortune. Vietnamese families give red envelopes to children as New Year gifts, while parents receive envelopes as a wish for longevity. This is a Vietnamese cultural tradition that is expected to bring happiness and prosperity from the beginning of the New Year, especially as an expression of care for the younger generation.
There are various festivals held during this celebration, such as the Dao New Year Dance Festival. This festival, held on the 1st and 2nd days of the Lunar New Year in Sapa, showcases 14 unique traditional dances of the Dao ethnic group. In addition, the Fragrant Pagoda Festival in My Duc, Hanoi, is one of the most famous Tet festivals in Vietnam, attracting many tourists to visit Buddhist holy sites and enjoy the surrounding natural beauty. Not to be missed is the Dong Da Festival in Hanoi, held on the 5th day of the Lunar New Year, commemorating the important victory of King Quang Trung with impressive drum performances and fascinating historical reenactments.
Several other festivals enliven the Tet holiday and the first month of the Vietnamese Lunar New Year. There's the Yen Tu Pagoda Tet Festival in Quang Ninh, the lively Cau Ngu Festival in Da Nang, the captivating Sinh Village Wrestling Festival in Hue, and the resonant Duc Thanh Tran Temple Festival in Ho Chi Minh City. Don't miss the vibrant Nguyen Tieu Festival in Hoi An and the enchanting Dinh Ba Ong Lang Festival in Phu Quoc, as well as many other exciting events to enjoy during this celebration.
Every year, when the Tet holiday arrives, New Year's Eve is incomplete without a dazzling fireworks display. This tradition has deep roots, originating from ancient legends that flow. Fireworks are not only to ward off evil, but also a symbol of hope for a year of peace and happiness.
Currently, during the Lunar and Gregorian New Year celebrations and several important holidays in Vietnam, free fireworks displays are held in public places for enjoyment and prayers for happiness and health. The streets are filled not only with the bustle of celebrating citizens, but also with colorful flowers, beautiful lanterns, dragon and lion dance performances, gongs, drumsand ringing bells.
If you have the opportunity to visit Vietnam during Tet, you will be caught up in the excitement and joy that fills the streets. Like an endless parade, this atmosphere is inescapable wherever you are in Vietnam. The Tet spirit ignites enthusiasm and inspires the Vietnamese people, with the festive atmosphere shining through various lively performances days before the actual Lunar New Year.