Tet Beliefs and Traditions
There are a lot beliefs and traditions associated with Tet, most of them marking a new start.
The family starts preparing for Tet weeks in advance, clearing out the old and making way for the new.
Many will try to clear out old debts and resolve any lingering conflicts for a fresh start. This belief even extends to the fridge, where any “unlucky” items are eaten before the new year begins.
The home also gets decorated for Tet, with yellow (the color of gold or wealth) and red (the color of luck) prominent. Lanterns, gold foil trees and streamers are popular decorative items this time of year.
Another feature of Tet is prosperity and rebirth. The cities explode with all types of flowers and fruits which have been carefully nurtured for months so that they come into bloom right at Tet. The streets of Vietnam come to life with potted marigolds, flowering bamboo and more.
Yellow apricot flowers are popular in the South while pink peach blossoms are more common in the North. Fruit trees including kumquat, pomelo, orange, lemon, and mandarin are popular, their branches impossibly laden with fruit.
Some of these flowering and fruit trees can cost into the thousands of dollars. If it’s especially valuable, the farmer will come pick it up after the holidays and take care of it throughout the entire year before repeating the cycle.
In the days just before Tet, families will start buying new clothes for the children, and cleaning out the home. Vietnamese believe in a Kitchen God who usually occupies a small altar in the kitchen. He carefully watches over everything that happens, and just before Tet, it’s believed he rides a magic carp to heaven to report to the Jade Emperor everything that has gone on inside the home for the past year. The Vietnamese will make sure his altar is well-stocked with offerings before Tet to ensure he carries a favorable report back to heaven!
As Tet is a time to be with family, the whole country practically shuts down for 7 to 10 days as the cities begin to clear out with people returning to their hometowns. For some, it’s the only time during the year when the entire family is together. Relationships are rekindled, gifts are given, and everyone pitches in to make special Tet foods, like “banh chung”, or square sticky rice cakes filled with mung beans and pork, wrapped in banana leaves and then boiled all night.
Another favorite is candied fruit, including strips of coconut, ginger and lotus seeds.
The first two days of Tet are usually spent with family, praying to God and lighting incense to the ancestors for a year ahead full of health, wealth and prosperity. Little red envelopes known as “li xi” are given to children and other family members, bringing luck to both giver and receiver. Another way to curry prosperity is by inviting a successful friend or family member to be the first person to step foot in your house in the new year.
On subsequent days, time is spent with friends and family, often eating, drinking and playing cards.
While there are many ways to bring good luck, there are an equal number of ways to avoid bad luck, including:
- Not sweeping the house or throwing out trash in the first few days of Tet for fear of throwing out good fortune.
- Not borrowing fire or water from a neighbor (lucky items) for fear of giving away your good fortune.
- Being very careful not to break anything (unlucky omen)
- Not starting or getting involved in arguments or conflicts
Tet for Travelers
While the first few days of Tet are usually quiet in the cities or reserved for private celebrations with close family, there is still a lot to do for visitors to Vietnam
Wander through the Tet markets: The abundance of flowers and fruits make for really colorful backdrops for photography. These little pop-up markets are often found near larger markets or in parks. Ask your hotel to find out where the closest one to you is
Sample Tet Foods: Popular Tet foods include boiled chicken, sticky rice cakes, candied fruit and braised caramelized pork. You’ll find many of these items in supermarkets and in local wet markets in the days leading up to Tet
Relax: The cities are unusually quiet during the first few days of Tet. For many, it’s a welcome respite from the traffic and noise, even if just for a few days. Most restaurants and attractions are closed. Hotels, of course, remain open, as are most restaurants and pubs that cater to tourists and expats. If unsure, call ahead.
During Tet: For those who haven’t been lucky enough to be invited to join a local family for Tet, many hotels will organize a Tet celebration, complete with special menu and perhaps even a dragon dance performance. In Saigon, there is an annual flower show on Nguyen Hue Street right in downtown Ho Chi Minh City. The entire street is closed off to traffic and transformed into a colorful display using flowers of all types. It’s free and in 2018, will be open to the public from February 13-19.