As the Vietnamese Lunar New Year or Tet coming closer and closer, Vietnamese people working in big cities have been starting to book tickets to return to their homeland. Stores are packed with candied fruits and gift baskets, and on the streets, the vehicles are attached to traditional flowers for Tet.
In our previous post, we introduced a list of the 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. In this post, we will get closer to seeing how people in Vietnam prepare for their grandest festival of the year. Make a plan for your Vietnam trip at this special time of the year to understand more about it.
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After the “Renovation” (“Doi Moi”) in 1986, Vietnam 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, and 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.
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 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 in their hometown and altogether, they play the traditional games with fun and joy. Meanwhile, to their parents, the long-lasting homesickness is now replaced with warmth and happiness, when the grand family now gathers around the cozy fire to cook banh chung or banh tet. This is when stories of the past are told, the 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 home is considerable, the streets in Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City become less and less crowded over time. Many of the elderly say 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 of the houses is always an indispensable part of any New Year in the world. Without it, New Year is just some other day that people have a long series of days off. 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 of 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 that contain foods and flowers afterward. Cleaning has to be done 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 luck 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 a peach flower (hoa dao), whose blossoms range from pale pink to almost red. A symbol of bravery and vitality, the peach flower is regarded as the core of a house during Tet.
In the South, due to climate differences, ochna integerrima, (hoa mai - photo above) 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 tree (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 their fruits instead. A fruitful kumquat tree is considered a good sign of 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, and a five-fruit tray along with flowers on both sides in order to pay homage to their ancestors. And the altar cannot lack the presence of traditional incense. With many, the aroma of incense evokes the feeling of Tet. It is also believed that these slowly burning sticks of incense are what connect living people to the spiritual world.
When everyone within the family has been home and decorations are set and done, people across Vietnam are now ready for Tet’s Eve, with importance equivalent to New Year’s Eve in the West. Family members gather together at the last dinner of the year (called tat nien meal). They cook traditional food to worship their ancestors. When the incense is burned out, food offerings are taken down from the altar after asking for permission from ancestors. This is often done by the most prominent person in the family, usually the father.
During tat nien meal, family members recall what everyone has done in the past year, share stories, and wish Happy New Year (Chuc mung nam moi) while giving a 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 the TV after the tat nien meal until midnight when they have another worshiper to God, mostly taken outdoors.
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.
At this time, the streets are 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.
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