The Lunar New Year is the most celebrated holiday in Vietnam. Called Tet (pronounced “tdate” and not “tet” the way Americans in hokey war movies do) after Tet Nguyen Dan, this celebration usually lasts a full seven days, beginning with Giao Thua (or New Year’s eve), which falls on January 28th this year.
The Vietnamese uphold several traditions in honor of this holiday. First off, their entire houses are cleaned beforehand. This is to evade sweeping away all the good fortune – a superstition the Vietnamese harbor. In addition, the house is also trimmed with flowers and fruit. Small orange trees and hoa doa (blossoming peach trees) are staples for this purpose. This décor symbolizes rebirth and growth, both desirable things for the coming New Year. On Giao Thua, a ceremony seeing the departure of Ong Tao (or the Kitchen God) also takes place. It is believed that Ong Tao dwells in every Vietnamese household. On the last day of the year, he returns to the Jade Emperor (the big kahuna that rules the heavens) to report on the family’s behavior.
New clothes are also worn to symbolize the coming of a new year. At the toll of midnight, firecrackers are lit to ring in the New Year, as well as scare away any evil spirits that may be wandering about (yes, the Vietnamese are a superstitious people). On the actual first day of the New Year, pagodas or churches are visited and time is spent honoring ancestors. For this purpose, many houses prepare small alters set with fruit, flowers, incense, and portraits of the deceased ancestors. Some people keep these alters year-round in their houses.
Voluminous amounts of fantastically delectable food (such as the Hot Pot Open House occurring at the ACC, 1-4 pm this coming Sunday sponsored by the Chinese Culture Club), mut (sugary, candied fruits) and baked goods is also prepared and eaten in celebration of Tet, and li xi (little red envelopes full of lucky money) are passed out to children in exchange for kind wishes. Sometimes, li xi are also given out as birthday gifts. This is because many Vietnamese do not keep track of the exact dates of their birth (which is why my parents thought I was 17 for the past 3 years). Instead, people say they were born in the year of the symbol of the lunar calendar for that year, and everyone turns a year older on the New Year.
For the remaining days of Tet, dragon dances and gaming (gambling) take place, relatives and friends are visited, and gifts are exchanged. In America, Tet Festivals may be held to give Vietnamese families the opportunity to come together and celebrate old traditions away from the homeland. These festivals can also serve as tools to introduce the culture to non-Vietnamese communities.