25 Jan 2016   |   Lists

Top 10 Customs for the Tet Holiday in Vietnam

In the days leading up to the most important holiday of the year, known as Tet or the Vietnamese New Year, Vietnam undergoes a remarkable transformation. Shops convert their storefronts into holiday spectacles with gold tinfoil and signs cheering “Chuc Mung Nam Moi!” or “Happy New Year!”, major streets are lit up with thousands of multicolored lights, holiday hampers are at the ready to be delivered complete with traditional Vietnamese sweets and flower markets are preparing the freshest blooms for the anticipated holiday rush. 

A wishing tag hung on a golden apricot blossom tree

The date varies each year according to the lunar calendar but it always falls around late January or early February. This year, the Vietnamese welcome the Year of the Monkey on Feb. 8 and celebrate for a full week. If you happen to visit Vietnam during this time, here’s a little bit of background on the traditions and cultures you may encounter along the way.

Pay off debts

The Vietnamese, especially salespeople, believe debts should be paid off, partly because they should and partly because they believe paying off that debt will make for a more prosperous year ahead. It may not come as a surprise to find creditors pulling payment from their wallets just a few hours before the New Year. 

Prepare festive dishes

Many nations celebrate culinary specialties for the new year. In Vietnam, bánh chưng (steamed sticky rice dumplings wrapped in arrowroot leaves), mứt (sugar-braised fruits or vegetables) and different kinds of pickled vegetables are special treats made in the  days leading up to Tet and are served throughout the holiday.  

A traditional snack served at Tet. (Image by Vu Pham)

Freshen up

The Vietnamese love to start the new year with a fresh look. At this time, fashion shops and beauty salons are almost fully booked one or two weeks before the holiday. In addition to a new look, this belief is extended to their homes as well. Many try to tidy up as much as possible and work out the kinks before guests arrive.

The locals dress up in new clothes at Tet. (Image by Vu Pham)

Rituals

Tet holiday is a time when the Vietnamese reunite with their ancestors and deceased loved ones through various types of rituals. They prepare a feast as an offering and burn incense. 

This Vietnamese man prepares a ritual for Tet.

Visit Tet flower markets

Tet is the only time in the new year when the demand for flowers is off the charts high, and so locals open up temporary flower markets one week before the holiday to answer that demand. These flower markets tend to draw large crowds for their beautiful displays.

A local girl visits a Tet flower market. (Image by Hieu Truong)

New Year’s Eve celebrations

While older generations normally stay at home to practice Cúng Giao Thừa - a ritual to drive out negative energy and to welcome the new year — younger family members head out with friends for the countdown and fireworks shows.

People enjoy the Tet fireworks. (Image by Hieu Truong)

Give lì xì (lucky money)

On the first day of Tet holiday, the whole family will dress up and gather together to offer new year’s greetings and wishes to each other. The elders will give each of their younger relatives advice, well wishes for the new year and a red envelope containing ‘lucky money.’    

A little girl in an ao dai holding li xi. (Image by Anh Le)

Pay spiritual visits 

Visiting relative’s graves on the first few days of the new year is a tradition that the Vietnamese have held for many generations. Even those practicing Buddhism will pay a visit to a nearby pagoda to pray for peace, health and prosperity. 

Incense sticks are burned as a way to connect with the deceased and spiritual beings. 	(Image by Hieu Truong)

Play traditional games

Traditional folk games such as wrestling, blind man’s bluff, tug of war, boat racing, stilt walking, and buffalo fighting draw big crowds during the lunar new year festivities.

Wrestling is a traditional pastime at Tet. (Image by Hieu Truong)

Visit each other’s houses

As a favorite tradition amongst the Vietnamese, friends and family will meet to wish each other a happy new year and reminisce. Negative words or stories are not to be mentioned at this festive time.