Vietnam Tet Holiday (Part 2): The Preparations
As Vietnamese Lunar New Year or Tet coming closer and closer, Vietnamese people working in big cities have been starting to book tickets to return their homeland. Stores are packed with candied fruits and gift baskets, and on the streets, the vehicles are attached with big peach flower trees or Ochna integerrima. Last week, Exotic Voyages have also warmed up for Vietnamese New Year with a list of 7 most popular foods during Tet, from the iconic Vietnamese sticky square rice cake (banh chung) to a colorful five-fruit tray which is a must-have for every Vietnamese family. This week, with just more than one week, to go to Tet (the 2018 Year of Dog commences on February 16th), we will see how people in Vietnam prepare for their grandest festival of the year.
After the “Renovation” (“Doi Moi”) in 1986, Vietnam has changed significantly. And one of these changes is the fact that there have been more and more people from the countryside flocking to Hanoi, Danang or Ho Chi Minh City to pursue their dreams of having a life in a big city. However, they do not forget their root, their family, their homeland where they were born and raised amidst the tranquil village’s lake, bamboo trees, rice paddies and the bumpy and muddy village’s path. And after a year of hard work, Tet is the time to return to the place that nourished them.
A family in Southern Vietnam waiting for a bus to take them home
Kids are also brought to visit their homeland. It’s time for them to understand the importance and great meaning of homeland which is one of the core elements of Vietnamese culture. Here, the kids are told about the stories of how their dad and/or mom were grown up, sometimes by their own beloved grandparents. Within a week of Tet break, they have the chance to meet their friends living within the hometown and altogether, they play the traditional games with fun and joy. Meanwhile, to their parents, the long-lasting homesick is now replaced with warmth and happiness, when the grand family now gather around the cozy fire to cook banh chung or banh tet. This is when stories of the past are told, family bond is strengthened and Tet is made.
That’s what happens in the countryside, but what about in the cities? Now, because the proportion of people originating from the outside provinces now coming back to home is considerable, the streets in Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City become less and less crowded overtime. As Vietnamese Lunar New Year approaching closer and closer, the city is now left with families that have been settling in Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City for generations. Many of the elderly suppose that Tet is when their city somehow reverts to the past as the usual hustle and bustle is now gone and there are now only street vendors selling decorating trees.
Decoration is always an indispensable part to any New Years on the world. Without it, New Year is just some other days that people have a long series of day offs. And that’s because decorating the house plays a big part in connecting people in the family, as well as cleaning. Usually 4 or 5 days before Tet, all members in the family clean their house, everything from atop the desk, the house floor, the stairs, the kitchen, to even the bottom of the beds. The altar is also cleaned thoroughly to place offerings which contain foods and flowers afterwards. Cleaning has to be done in prior to New Year because in Vietnamese beliefs, sweeping the floor in the first days of the year is considered a taboo as it also means sweeping the good lucks away. After cleaning the house, it’s time for decorating it. First comes the decorating trees. And while people in the west have pine trees for Christmas, people across Vietnam have more than one choice for a decorating tree. And it largely depends on the region. In the North, the most popular choice is peach flower (hoa dao), whose blossoms range from pale pink to almost red. A symbol of bravery and vitality, peach flower is regarded as the core of a house during Tet.
from left to right: peach flower (hoa dao), kumquat trees (cay quat) and ochna integerrima (hoa mai)
In the South, due to climate difference, ochna integerrima, (hoa mai) is the most common choice. Representing wealthy and love among people, ochna integerrima with its gorgeous yellow flowers helps brighten up the whole living room. The third popular decorating tree is the kumquat trees (cay quat), which is available widely in the North, the Central as well as the South. Unlike the previous two, kumquat trees are not beautiful because of its flower, but its fruits instead. A fruitful kumquat tree is considered a good sign for fertility, wealth and luck. After New Year, people even pick down some fruits for culinary purposes or even to keep the fruit skin in their mouth for a while to cure bad cough. As said before, the altar is very important when decorating houses. After being emptied and cleaned well, people will place candied fruits, five-fruit tray along with flowers on both sides such as chrysanthemum or a small branch of peach flower or ochna integerrima in order to pay homage to their ancestors. And the altar cannot lack the presence of sticks of traditional incense. If the festive flowers are the visual symbol of Tet, the joyful melodies of Vietnamese New Year songs are the auditory signals; it is the aroma of incense that evokes the feeling of Tet in the sense of many Vietnamese people. It is also believed that these slowly burning sticks of incense are what connect living people to the spiritual world. Not only within houses, but villages in the countryside and the streets or landmarks in big cities also have a brand new face. Way of decoration varies upon regional difference. But the most famous decorating icon in the villages is perhaps “neu trees”. Every village in Vietnam has to have at least one of these outstandingly tall bamboo trees during Tet. It is believed that the presence of neu trees along with some religious attachments can scare off evil spirits and bring good lucks to the villagers.
When all everyone within the family has been home and decorations are set and done, people across Vietnam is now ready for Tet’s Eve, with importance equivalent to Christmas’ Eve or New Year’s Eve of the West. If someone wishes to confess, to forgive, to express love and wishes for their beloved ones, there’s no better time to do it than the last dinner of the year (called tat nien). Before tat nien, food offerings are taken down from the ancestors after asking for permission from ancestors. This is often done by the most prominent person in the family, usually the father. Tat nien is when you can find the most popular Tet foods within one meal. During tat nien, family members recall what everyone has done it the past year, share stories and wish Happy New Year (Chuc mung nam moi) while giving toast. Altogether, they look forward to a prosperous year ahead with good luck and health for everyone.
In the last decade or so, there’s also a part that is indispensable in any Tet’s Eve. And that is the annual national TV show called Tao Quan or the “Kitchen God”. This show is an amusing manifestation of all major national events that happens in the last year, starred by some of the most famous Vietnamese comedians. This show often keeps tens of millions of audience from around Vietnam sticking together in front of TV from tat nien to more than one hour until giao thua or the Eve.
In Vietnam, fireworks have been more and more popular as the grand celebration for giao thua. This means more and more cities and towns are performing fireworks, not just major cities. And even in these big urban areas, these spectacular displays are placed in an increasing number of new spots, often lakes. However, the most famous spots are Hoan Kiem Lake in Hanoi and the Bitexco Financial Tower in Saigon, one of the tallest skyscrapers in Vietnam. Although not everybody flocks to the streets to watch the fireworks, the streets are still very crowded, with children with their parents, friends, couples, older people or even some foreigners wishing to submerge themselves in the most wonderful and magical time of the year of the country during their Vietnam trip. So there’s how Vietnam prepare for their Lunar New Year - Tet. Next week, as we come even closer to the Year of Goat, we will tell you about the traditions and customs around Vietnam during the first days of the New Year. Thank you for being here.