Every year after the hype of Christmas and the January 1st holiday passes by, the real excitement begins in Vietnam. The people of this SE Asian nation then start getting ready for what is a much more important holiday for them. Christmas and January 1st? Fun, but…meh. Tet is the real deal.
Vietnam has adopted the Gregorian calendar for official purposes and to make international business deals easier. However, events like weddings, births, and the marking of the New Year, which are deeply rooted in tradition, still use the ancient Lunar calendar. This is the time of year when the Vietnamese get vacation from work, pack their bags, and head to their family’s traditional hometown to celebrate the arrival of another Lunar New Year. They also clean out their homes, rid themselves of unwanted belongings, pay off last year’s debts, and resolve to be kinder to each other in the New Year.
Tet is like Christmas, New Year’s Eve, Easter, and a big birthday party all rolled into one. The festival officially lasts 72 hours, but is sometimes stretched to fill almost 10 days with the sounds of cock-fighting, gambling, and karaoke, while the aroma of Bánh Tét and incense permeates the streets.
Before Tet officially starts though, there is a lot to be done! Let’s have a look at what the Saigonese are up to in their preparation for Tet:
Decorating for Tet
As in most Asian countries, the luckiest colors are red and yellow, and this is reflected in the traditional decorations for Tet. Families decorate the inside and outside of their homes, and businesses adorn their shop-front windows. Potted plants, streamers, lanterns and other knick knacks fill the markets to the brim in the weeks before Tet.
Most importantly, every home or business needs a Tet tree, the Vietnamese version of the Christmas tree. In the South trees with yellow blossoms are the norm, and in the North, pink are preferred. Ornaments are hung from their branches, and with a little luck, the flowers will bloom by New Year’s Day.
Homes are also decorated with as many colorful flowers as possible.
Brightly colored lanterns and other bits and bobs are in high demand.
Homes and businesses are not the only places decked out for Tet. Local councils and the city government also decorate the streets.
Getting the Gifts Ready
Though some Vietnamese kids have started expecting presents at Christmas, the traditional time of year for gift-giving is Tet. Gifts are given to children, friends, relatives, teachers, and bosses or employees. The markets of Vietnam buzz with the racket of millions of people gift shopping.
Children receive envelopes of lì xì, or “lucky money” from older relatives or friends of the family. The kids prize these gifts and count up the total that they’ll get to spend on sweets or toys. US two dollar bills are especially lucky. Be careful if you give out these envelopes though. Always give an amount of money that ends with an even number. Odd numbers would be considered a horrible omen for the new year as they are traditionally reserved for funerals.
For the grown-ups, and especially for business associates, the Vietnamese usually choose gift baskets. They can be found on every corner of Saigon in the weeks leading up to Tet. Baskets can range from the humble (under 25 USD) to the extravagant (several hundred USD). Just as with Christmas in Western countries, a fortune is spent during Tet!
Cleaning out the old year, bringing in the new.
One of the most interesting traditions of the Vietnamese New Year is the deep-cleaning of homes and businesses. This is akin to the West’s unofficial “Spring Cleaning,” but in Vietnam it has much deeper philosophical reasons than just “let’s clear out our old crap because now it’s warm enough to take out the trash again.”
By now you’ve probably noticed that the concept of “luck” is central to the celebration of Tet. Good luck and bad luck, it’s all taken into consideration during the Lunar New Year. By cleaning their homes and businesses thoroughly the people believe they’re clearing out any bad luck of the past year, and opening up the place to good luck which will enter their homes and businesses during Tet. Sweeping is avoided during the holiday itself as you could accidentally sweep out the new good luck. Oops!
Small towns and big cities alike also clean up their act before the holiday. In Saigon, the city government prepares for Tet by trimming shrubbery, repainting street lines, scouring government buildings, and even draining and cleaning fountains like the dragon one below, in Saigon’s District 5.
Stock up or starve!
If you are spending Tet in Vietnam be warned: Most shops and businesses, (including restaurants!) will close for at least a few days for the party. This unfortunately means that the normal abundance of street food and markets is no more. Locals know this, and plan for it. For weeks in advance they stockpile all the necessities. Everything that they need to celebrate the week’s festivities must be bought beforehand. Needless to say, markets during the week before Tet are even more insane than normal.
On the other hand, the mass exodus to the countryside leaves the cities pretty peaceful for once, and it can be a great time to visit Saigon if you dislike crowds.
I’ve learned a lot from my Vietnamese friends and colleagues while I’ve been here. I’ve learned that Tet is a time for family and friends, a time for thinking about all that you have and all that you wish to have in the future, a time to reflect and plan how to be your BEST self in the coming year.
Chúc mừng năm mới Vietnam! May this year be the luckiest of all.
Are you living or traveling in Vietnam? What things are you looking forward to this Tet and moving into the new year?