To say “Chuc mung nam moi” in Vietnamese is no sweat.
But, to li xi, or to give red envelopes containing lucky money, to the right people with the right amount, can be a real big headache not only to foreigners, but Vietnamese as well.
In fact, in the weeks before Tet, one of the most talked about topics in local media is the perplexing custom.
Originally, Vietnamese li xi children only, but at some point in the past centuries, they began to give lucky money to elder people who were no longer working, especially their parents and grandparents.
It is now widely agreed in Vietnam that li xi is something all underlings want, which explains why at many companies bosses often give red envelopes to their employees when they return to work after the holiday.
Most of Vietnamese people understand that to li xi means to wish the recipients good health, good luck, happiness, and success in the new year. So the custom is mostly symbolic.
However, when we put money in the mix, troubles ensue.
There are chances that receivers of lucky money, or their parents, may think the money is too little. They end up feeling upset, which may result in awkward situations, and in turn being considered a bad luck for all people involved.
But we don't want to shower money on children either.
So how much is just right? This is a tough question for li xi givers.
At some of Vietnam’s biggest parenting forums on the Internet, many members say they set their own minimums, depending on children’s age and their parents’ relations with them.
While many suggest VND10,000-VND20,000 for kids of casual acquaintances, like neighbors, others say VND20,000, or around 1 US dollar, should be the average for kids under 10 years old and VND50,000 for older ones.
For children in the family or of close friends, VND50,000-100,000 is apparently considered the norm these days.
As for the elderly, especially parents and grandparents, Tran Ngoc Them, a cultural studies scholar, once said in a local newspaper that “the more, the better,” because it is not only lucky money, but also some kind of financial support.
LÌ XÌ'S MYTHS
Vietnamese have different folk tales that explain the origin of the custom.
The most common legend has it that once upon a time, there were lots of monsters who always wanted to harm humans, but holy deities who lived on earth always kept an eye on them.
However, on every New Year’s Eve, when the deities flied to heaven to meet up with the highest deity, one of the monsters would attack children.
At night, it would rub sleeping kids’ heads, making them cry out loud. The kids then got sick or even turned silly. So, the kids’ parents had to stay up all night to protect them.
Later some of the deities transformed into coins which were wrapped in red papers by the parents, and placed next to the children to keep them safe.
When the monster was approaching the kids, the coins would lighten up, scaring it away.
The trick was soon applied widely, which resulted in the custom.