A beginner's guide to Vietnamese Tet: Time to eat, pray, love, and eat

By Thanh Nguyen, Thanh Nien News

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Shops of red decorations in Hanoi. Photo: Ngoc Thang Shops of red decorations in Hanoi. Photo: Ngoc Thang

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Like many countries around the world, Vietnam has already celebrated the New Year on January 1.
But there's another one coming. 
The much more anticipated and much bigger event will upstage everything else, when we start a nine-day holiday to celebrate the Lunar Tet Festival, which this year starts on February 15. And yes, nine days. 
Festive preparations come long before the main event. 
Lots of things need to be done, especially in the week leading to the prime celebration.
We busily renovate our houses – cleaning, repainting, and fixing broken things that may have been deliberately ignored for the last 12 months, or at least finding better corners to hide them.
Then we rush to buy food and drinks in bulk: dried, canned and fresh foods, beer for adults, cokes for kids, and bird’s nest drinks for the elderly. Anything we can find under the sun. 
We carry them back on our tiny scooters then stock them in piles at home, even though nowadays most shops, restaurants and supermarkets no longer close for the whole holiday, but reopen on the second day.
Gifting is not as a big part of the holiday, but many people prepare something special for relatives and friends, and sometimes for the bosses that they want to win over at work. 

Tet traditional dishes. Photo: Duong Lam Anh 

Family holiday
But what makes Tet special for Vietnamese is that it is a family holiday. It's all about eating, praying, loving, and eating. 
Fun fact: Vietnamese don't even say we are "celebrating Tet".  For us it's ăn Tet, or "eating Tet". 
Those who prefer homemade traditional dishes like rice cakes – banh chung and banh tet – or pickles or candied fruits will have to spend a little more time in the kitchen. 
Otherwise, any of those things can be practically bought these days. 
Fruits and flowers are also essentials, as they are not only for decorations but serve as offerings that we respectfully place on our ancestry altars.
So lots of money and lots of energy have to be spent on these preparations.

Peach blossoms are popular decorations for Tet. Photo: Ngoc Thang

A ritual meal for the Kitchen Gods one week before Tet 
semi-officially marks the start of Vietnam’s transition to a new year, and also doubles as a wake-up call for those who have been too busy to start their holiday shopping. 
The meal is a farewell to the gods, who act as our guardian spirits all year round, before they fly to heaven and meet with holy deities, supposedly to report on all the good and bad things that we've done. So we want to be really nice to them. 
They return to earth, or rather our kitchens, on the last day of the lunar year, aka giao thua.
Giao thua, the Lunar New Year’s Eve, is just as important as the main day.
While young people flock to downtown areas for countdowns, older or lazy ones stay at home, preparing sweet snacks, mostly candied fruits, to welcome the Kitchen Gods home.
They then patiently watch TV and wait till exactly midnight to hold an outdoor praying ceremony for deities. 
Many people visit pagodas right after that, in the cold dark night, instead of waiting until the New Year morning when they may be busy with family gatherings. 
Party time
The main celebration that begins on the New Year’s Eve will last for at least three days.
We get together with our families and friends, eating, drinking, playing card games, or even just lazily lying around. 
However, Vietnamese New Year is not just about connecting with the living, but also with holy deities and the departed.
We burn incense and votive papers, and offer foods and fruits to deities and our ancestors. We also visit pagodas to pray for our families’ well-being.

Visitors at a temple pray for a good year ahead. Photo: Ngoc Thang

When the New Year comes, westerners exchange greetings, but Vietnamese do more than that: we give each other lucky money in small red envelopes.
The tradition is called "li xi" and seems to be quite adaptive to the country's inflation rates. But usually we don't have to offer too much, because the money is symbolic, mostly. 
In fact, good luck is one of the main things about Tet.
We use decorations with bright colors, mostly red, and avoid wearing clothes that are too dark, so basically nothing black.
We handle things like bowls and glasses with care for fear that if things in our houses get broken, it will bring us bad luck for the whole year.
Some of us even refrain from broom-cleaning our houses, for fear that good luck could be swept away.
No arguments or shouts during Tet, as we want to have a smooth year. 
So if you have a chance to spend the holiday in Vietnam and are not quite sure about the do's and don’ts, the best thing to do is smile, eat, handle fragile things with care, and prepare some red envelopes so you can hand them to kids and the elderly in your host family. 
And don't forget to say "Chuc Mung Nam Moi". 

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