Vietnamese New Year Traditions: A Guide to the 12 Days of Tết
Vietnamese New Year Traditions
Têt, or Vietnamese New Year, is the largest and most important festival in the Vietnamese calendar. Vietnamese New Year Traditions are anchored into the 12 days of Tết which are filled with religious ceremony, quality family time and purification rituals aimed at washing away all the bad luck of the old year and welcoming the new one afresh. As a foreigner in Vietnam the extra hustle and bustle of Tết can be confusing and a even a little frustrating. This guide to the 12 days of Tết pulls back the curtain on the myriad of Vietnamese New Year traditions by walking you through the 12 days of Tết.
Day One: Praying to The Kitchen God – Lễ Ông Công Ông Táo
28th January 2019 (23rd of Lunar December)
Tết all kicks off a week before Lunar New Year when Vietnamese Pray to Ông Táo, The Kitchen God. Vietnamese folk law says each house has three gods who protect the family and watch over their behaviour for the whole year. On the 23rd of the last Lunar month (28th January 2019), the Kitchen God returns to heaven on a Carp (fish) to report to the Jade Emperor on all of the goings on in the house. Vietnamese people like to help the kitchen God on his way by making offerings on their family shrine and releasing goldfish into nearby lakes, ponds and rivers. If you’re in Vietnam on the 28th January expect to see women in traditional conical hats selling goldfish from the back of old motorbikes, families placing meals and pieces of elaborately decorated paper on small tables in front of their homes, and women and young couples releasing goldfish into any open body of water. As soon as the ceremony is over the family will clean the whole kitchen, polishing every utensil ready for the Kitchen God’s return.
Releasing koi fish to support Kitchen God gets return to heaven.
Day Two-Three: Sweeping out the Old Year
29th-30th January 2019 (24th-25th of Lunar December)
It’s really important to start the new lunar year free from bad luck. For Vietnamese people this means you have to literally sweep it out of your home. They believe that luck clings to dust and dirt. That’s why between the 24th and 25th of the last Lunar month (29th-30th January 2019), families will start a huge spring clean of their whole house. Every spot of dust, overlooked stain and tatty old rag is scrubbed and cleaned to purify the house and avoid an unlucky year. During the first 4 days of Tết when the house is pure, it becomes unlucky to sweep any of the new dust out in case you sweep any of the New Year’s luck out with it.
Day Four: Bringing home the New Year’s Tree – Hái Lộc Đầu Xuân
31st January 2019 (26th of Lunar December)
Decorating the house is an important Tết ritual and the most famous decorations are blossoming fruit trees. Around the 26th of the last lunar month (31st January) Vietnamese cities and markets are flooded with fruit blossom and kumquat trees. You’ll see them lining the streets and comically strapped to the back of motorbikes. It’s an old tradition that represents fertility and prosperity and signals a bountiful year ahead.
In the past many Vietnamese used to keep and tend their own trees in their gardens. With rapid urbanisation and fewer places to look after plants, this has become hard for people in the big cities. Lots of families keep the tradition alive by keeping a tree in their hometown and paying for someone to tend it for the year. When Tết, comes around they bring the tree back into the city around the 26th of the last lunar month and return it on the 5th day of tết.
Other tết decorations include bowls of ripe fruits, yellow flowers that represent longevity, old fashioned paintings and calligraphy of ancient Vietnamese proverbs. In Southern Vietnam some cultures create their own Tết tree by fixing each of the elements above onto sticks of bamboo. If you are in the old quarter of Hanoi or downtown Saigon you might see street stalls covered in a blaze of red and yellow paper offerings calligraphy and flowers ready for the new year.
Day Five: Wrapping Banh Chung – Gói Bánh Chưng
1st February 2019 (27th of Lunar December)
Banh Chung are thick cakes of rice filled with stewed meat or eggs and wrapped in banana leaves. They are boiled for up to 24 hours so the essence of the banana leaves soak into the rice. For many Vietnamese people Banh Chung are the quintessential Tết food. They are given as gifts to colleagues and friends and a good New Year’s dinner wouldn’t be complete without a Banh Chung or two on the side. Wrapping and cooking the Banh Chung has become an important part of the Tết holiday. It takes many hours to cook the Chung cakes and a good time for sharing stories and news.
Day Six-Seven: Stocking up on supplies and buying New Clothes
2nd-3rd February 2019 (28th-29th of Lunar December)
Stocking up on supplies for the New Year meal
Most markets and food stalls are closed over Tết so families have to buy all of the food they need and get it cooked before the markets close. Families make a last minute dash for the markets to buy all the ingredients they need for the traditional Tết feasts. Women of the household will typically spend the evenings making slow cooked soups and stocks, storing away cured meats and preparing fruit and veg. You can find more about what people eat over the holidays in our Guide to traditional Tết food.
Buying New Clothes
A new year needs new clothes, particularly if you’re a child. Just like Vietnamese don’t want to start the new year with a house full of last years dust and bad luck, they don’t want to start the new year with clothes that might still be clinging to the old year’s bad luck. In the last few days of the new year city centres are heaving with people looking for new outfits for them and their children so they can start the New Year new and fresh.
Day Eight: New Year’s Eve Fireworks, Family Time and Herbal Baths – Đêm Giao Thừa
4th February 2019 (30th of Lunar December)
Lunar New Year’s Eve is the real start of Tết for most families. Parents will eagerly await for family members to return from their work or studies in big cities and the streets are throbbing with people hurrying to complete last minute preparations. Over the next few days shops will be closed and families will spend all their time relaxing with each other and visiting friends and relatives.
In the lead up to Tet families have purified their homes, paid off any outstanding debts and bid farewell to the Kitchen God. Just before the new year starts, it’s time to purify themselves. Many Vietnamese people believe bathing in water treated with medicinal herbs washes away all of the previous years misfortune and sets them up for a clean and prosperous New Year.
Since Firecrackers were banned in the late 90s, firework shows have become an even larger part of Vietnamese New Year. Traditionally New Year was marked by locals making loud noises to scare off evil spirits from ruining the New Year. In big cities up and down the country families will gather around lakes and rivers just before midnight to watch huge displays bring in the New Year. In some places locals perform dragon dances and carry whistles, rattles, gongs and bells to make sure those evil spirits think twice about ruining the New Year.
Day Nine: New Year’s Day (Mồng 1 – Tết Cha)
5th February 2019 (1st of Lunar January)
New Year’s Day officially marks the start of Tết. The family have all come home and are catching up with stories of their time away. The cupboards are fully stocked and the kitchen is full of meats, sweets and soups. All that’s standing in the way of quality family time are a few rituals.
The first one over the threshold
The first person to enter the house on New Year sets the benchmark for the whole year to come. Vietnamese people are very cautious about the first person to enter their homes believing what comes to you on New Year’s Day sets the tone of the year to come. If someone with an unlucky star sign or of bad character is the first then the rest of the year will be filled with misfortune. A good match could be someone who has a good matching star sign with the house owner or an elder with characters you want in your year such as wealth, fertility, strong morality or a keen intellect. If a homeowner can’t find someone to match what they need they might nip outside themselves a few minutes before midnight and nip back in just after to make sure the first person isn’t an undesirable.
Top tip: don’t enter anyone’s home on New Year’s Day without being invited first.
Lucky Money (Tiền Mừng Tuổi)
Tet isn’t just a time for renewal, it’s a time for redistribution too. Family members who are earning a wage will put money into little red envelopes and hand them out to younger family members after the main meal of the day. Kids will spend them on treats and their education. In some families younger people also give lucky money to the old so they can give it back to the young or supplement their pension.
Inviting the Ancestors to eat
Tết is a time for family, both alive and dead. Most Vietnamese people believe the spirits of their ancestors live alongside the living. Most homes, businesses and offices have a family shrine dedicated to the deceased that are carefully tended to throughout the year with meals being offered, incense lit and special paper offerings burnt. Around Tet this custom becomes more important as the family prepares to invite all of their ancestors to “An Tet” (eat tet) with them. Before the big holiday family tombs are visited, weeds are cleared and any repairs are made. On New Year’s Day special offerings of elaborately decorated paper, fruit, food and wine are made to the deceased and left on the altar until the 4th day of tết.
The first family meal of the new year is a hugely important event. The whole family gathers around the table and enjoys plates of boiled meat, Banh Chung cakes, Pickled onions (Hanh Muoi), special soups and sweet sticky rice treats. All of the foods eaten on the day have a long history in Vietnamese culture. You can find out more by reading our Guide to traditional Tết meals.
Putting on your New clothes
Starting the New Year clean and fresh is incredibly important. Most Vietnamese people will start by putting on brand new clothes to start the New Year free from the bad luck that might be hidden in their old ones.
Day Ten: The Second Day of Tết (Mồng 2 – Tết Mẹ)
6th February 2019 (2nd of Lunar January)
The first day of Tết really is for immediate families and families living in the same home. The second day is for extended family. The whole family will ride their bikes, cars or bicycles to their auntie’s, uncle’s, brother’s or sister’s homes to feast all over again, enjoy a few cheeky drinks and hand out lucky money to the kids. People are careful to pay homage to the ancestors shrines at their relative’s homes and they offer a second round of offerings on their own family shrine.
Day Eleven: The Third Day of Tết (Mồng 3 – Tết Thầy)
7th February 2019 (3rd of Lunar January)
The Third Day of Tết is for visiting family, friends and teachers. In years gone by this meant visiting their homes and enjoying another tết feast. In recent years more and more businesses have opened on the third day allowing people to meet at restaurants, in coffee shops and at Tra Da stands all over the cities. At the end of the third day the head of the household makes the final offering on the family shrine and everyone gets ready for the biggest meal of the year.
Day Twelve: The Biggest Meal of the Year (Hoá Vàng)
8th February 2019 (4th of Lunar January)
The last day of Tết is seen off with a bang as the 12 days of Vietnamese New Year Traditions come to a close. All of the special papers and food placed on the family altar over the past three days are collected in one place. The paper is burned as prayers and wishes are recited, sending the offerings into the other world. The food from the altar is added to a huge feast which can last several hours. Expect to see people setting up shrines outside their homes and parties spilling out of restaurants and homes onto the streets.