Happy Lunar New Year! Chuc Mung Nam Moi!

by ThingsAsian, Mar 1, 1999 | Destinations: Vietnam / Hanoi


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Planning a Celebration?

Sequence of the Tet Celebration

Do it right. Here's a step-by-step sequence of the Tet Celebration

Preparation.During the week before Tet, some families visit the graves of parents and grandparents. Fresh earth is placed on top, weeds removed from around it and incense is burnt to invoke the souls of the dead from the other world to return to visit the family home.

The Kitchen God (Ong Tao or Mandarin Tao) is also called the Hearth God, the Stove God or the Household God. This god who was privy to the family's most private business and intimate secrets for the ending year, returns to Heaven to make his report to the Jade Emperor. This report includes the year's activities of the household in which he has lived. On the 23rd day of the 12th month, a farewell and thank you dinner is given to the Kitchen God by the household. The Kitchen God will need a week for his mission to Heaven.

Folklore has made the spirit of the hearth into a picturesque character, a buffoon who is the butt of crude jokes. Although he is a messenger of the Jade Emperor in Heaven, he is depicted as so poor as to be unable to afford much clothing. He wears an important mandarin hat but goes about with bare legs because he has scorched his pants in the hearth fire. Another version tells that he was in such a rush to get back to Heaven that he forgot his pants and ascended in only his underwear. Efforts must be made to put him in a proper mood to secure a favorable report to the Jade Emperor of the family's activities. Offerings are made to him. These gifts certainly aim at influencing the outcome of the report. But no one considers such gifts to be crass bribery. Such pleasantries merely sweeten the god's way, as perhaps cookies placed by the fireplace will please Santa Claus, who might be tired from delivering so many gifts on Christmas night.

The paper carps, horses and clothing (hats, robes and boots) will be burned by the family and thus transformed into a spiritual essence usable by Ong Tao in the world beyond. Like Santa Claus, the Kitchen God is loved and respected. Both have the capacity to bring fortune and happiness into the home depending on the previous year's behavior. Although beliefs about the Kitchen God have changed over the years, he remains an important figure in the rich texture of Vietnamese New Year. The Kitchen God travels on the back of a brightly colored and powerful paper horse or sometimes a grand bird with great wings, such as a crane. Or he might ride on a carp with golden scales. Paper images of these vehicles are purchased at Tet or a living specimen of fish is bought and later set free. The day of his departure is marked by the calls of fishmongers from the countryside carrying baskets of fish hanging from their shoulder poles and calling "Fish for sale, fine mounts for the Household Gods to make their ride!" Live fish held in tanks of water and plastic bags are released into ponds, lakes, rivers and streams to impress the god with the kindness of the household. In Hanoi, the Sword Lake is a favorite spot for releasing Ong Tao's fish-vehicle. In some cases, three fish are released to account for the possibility that one must please all three Hearth Gods.

Most frequently we hear of only the Kitchen God, but many legends support the trinity of Kitchen Gods. Ong Tao represents the blending of all three.

In the old days, and still in some countryside homes, cooking occurs over clay tripods. Three stones were all that was needed to hold up the pot over the fire. Few people spend time thinking about the nature of the Kitchen Gods or the specific meaning of the items that are associated with them. The three Hearth Gods are represented at Tet by three hats and shops sell sets of three miniature paper hats: two men's hats and one woman's. These are burned as offerings to Ong Tao. The God will also need a new pair of boots to wear as he travels to Heaven. Two favorite gifts for the triad of household deities are gold and wine.

In the central part of Vietnam, cooking tripods or blocks that make up the family hearth, even if they are still usable, are ritually discarded when the God leaves. One week later, new blocks will greet his return or the arrival of his replacement assigned by the Jade Emperor.

After the Kitchen God has left, preparations for the New Year festivities begin in earnest. The week before New Year's Eve is a period of Tat Nien. Tat Nien (literally meaning the end or 'to extinguish the year') is the celebration of the last session of a period, such as the last class of school, the last bus home, the last day in the office, even the last bath, all with parties and great ceremony. There is a festive holiday atmosphere before New Year's Eve with dragon dances.

Some families set up a Tet tree in the week before New Year's Eve. The Tet tree called cay neu, is a bamboo pole stripped of most of its leaves except for a bunch at the very top. The Tet tree has Taoist origins and holds talismanic objects that clang in the breeze to attract good spirits and repel evil ones. On the very top, they frequently place a paper symbol of yin and yang, the two principal forces of the universe. Sometimes a colorful paper carp flag will fly from the top. The carp (or sometimes a horse) is the vehicle on which the Hearth God travels to make his report. This tree is more common in the countryside now than in the city. It is ceremonially removed after the seventh day of Tet.

Sweeping and scrubbing is done in advance as tradition discourages cleaning during the holiday itself. During this time, shops and restaurants close while the cleaning spree proceeds in earnest. On hands and knees, the floors will be scrubbed; bronze will be polished to a brand new finish. Closets will be ransacked for old clothes to be tossed out. Shoppers swarm the streets at temporary Tet stalls that have sprung up, lit with tiny gaily-flashing lights. Everything needed for the celebration from food to decorations is at hand and in abundance at these Tet markets.

Two items required for the proper enjoyment of Tet are flowering branches and the kumquat bush. For the sale of these and other flowers and plants, a lively flower market is held in the center of the ancient quarter of Hanoi on Hang Luoc Street. A massive flower market was organized on Nguyen Hue Street in Ho Chi Minh City and attracts crowds who walk up and down the street admiring the flowers, meeting old friends and making new ones. However, this was moved out of the center in 1996. Throughout the country on bicycles of roving vendors, flowers create great splashes of color. In the south, the bright golden yellow branches of the mai apricot are seen everywhere. In the north, the soft rose-colored dao peach flowers decorate homes and offices. A truck driver will adorn his truck with a dao branch to cheer him on a long-distance run.

Miniature kumquat bushes about two or three feet tall are carefully selected and prominently displayed. To carefully choose a kumquat bush, the buyer must pay attention to the symmetrical shape, to the leaves and to the color and shape of the fruit. The bushes have been precisely pruned to display ripe deep orange fruits with smooth clear thin skin shining like little suns or gold coins on the first day. Other fruits must still be green to ripen later. This represents the wish that wealth will come to you now and in the future. The leaves must be thick and dark green with some light green sprouts. The fruits represent the grandparents, the flowers represent parents, the buds represent children and the light green leaves represent grandchildren. The tree thus symbolizes many generations. Guests will caress the light green leaves about to sprout and compliment the discerning host who chose so carefully. The Sino-Viet pronunciation of the word for orange sounds like the word for wealth and the tangerines signify good luck.

Crowds of shoppers at the markets become thicker and more frantic each night, holding up traffic as they jostle each other to reach the counters with the best buys. Prices are a bit higher, but then thriftiness is not considered a virtue at Tet. Everyone is wishing each other Chuc Mung Nam Moi!

One must purchase the sugared fruits, banh chung and the colorful decorations before the afternoon of Tet.

While shoppers roam the streets, banh chung patties wrapped in leaves are steaming in giant vats. The outside has taken on a lovely light green tinge after being boiled inside a wrapper of leaves. Banh chung in the north is a square patty measuring seven inches and two inches thick, filled with shreds of fatty pork surrounded by a dense mixture of sticky rice and mashed ground green beans. In the south, a similar dish is cylindrical. It is given as a gift at this time of year and has a similar long life and social significance as the western Christmas fruitcake. These are frequently called sticky rice cakes, but are unlike sweet cakes in the western sense. There is however, a sweet version made without meat but with sugar added called banh ngot (sweet rice patty).

Suddenly, as if by command of some magic wand, the spree of activity, the light, the noise, all vanishes. By early evening, markets and shops are abandoned. Shops, stalls and restaurants are locked leaving a notice hung on the door announcing the date of reopening. Special dishes must be completed that are expected to serve the family and its guests for the first three days of the new year. People desert the outer world and disappear on the requisite trip to their home villages and inside their homes for intimate family celebrations.

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Giao Thua. As midnight approaches, all eyes maintain a close look on clocks and watches. The Giao Thua ritual occurs at that most sacred moment in time. At midnight on the last day of the year, every Vietnamese family whispers similar fervent prayers. Bells ring and drums beat in temples. The old year gives over its mandate to the New Year. The words Giao Thua (Giao means to give and Thua means to receive) mean a passing on or a receiving and handing down of life, and the recognition of that gift by the present generation. It marks the magical transition time from one year to another. Those who practice Buddhism will pray in the pagoda.

In the Gia Tien (family ancestor) ritual or calling of the ancestors, invitations are extended to the deceased relatives to visit for a few days in the world of the living family. They are lured home and kept happy until they leave. The head of the household lights incense and folds hands at heart level in the position of prayer. The prayer may proceed as follows: "In the year of&. And the date of&. Make these offerings and invite all of our ancestors to join in eating Tet with us."

The past generations are invited to share the family's joys and concerns to enjoy a meal with the living, to catch up on the family news and to lavish riches and honors on their descendants.

"I pray to the Heavenly King, the Jade Emperor, to his assistants and to the Earth God and the guardian spirit and to any other spirits present. On behalf of the &family, we offer you incense, gold and silver, fruit and flowers, alcohol and fixings for the betel quid. We are all here to make these offerings so that the next year will be free of disasters and harmful occurrences and that the family will prosper. Please bless us all, young and old, with happiness, prosperity and long life. (Here he might mention some events of the past year such as the birth of a child, someone's new employment or the successful entrance of a child into a good school). Please forgive us any transgressions we may have unknowingly committed against you or others."

Bowing motions, called Le, are performed at least three times and the ceremony ends when all have prostrated themselves (or in more modern families, folded hands and prayed) before the altar. After the "money for the dead" and other paper gifts are burnt in the courtyard, the family watches the ashes dance away on warm currents of air, a sign that the dead have received their gifts. The spiritual presence of the ancestors will be palpable during the days of Tet.

In recent times, a new tradition has evolved to celebrate the important evening of the new year. Those who are not at home praying at this momentous time may be socializing with friends. In the cities, there will be community fireworks displays that will draw the young from their homes into the square or park. Although firecrackers are now illegal in Vietnam, some kind of loud noises will be made. It can be the banging of cans, the use of electronic popping firecrackers or human voices whooping it up. People will break off branches and twigs that contain newly sprouted leaves to bring a sense of freshness and vitality into their home. This follows a Buddhist tradition of bringing fresh new leaves and "fortune bearing buds" into the home from the pagoda.

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First Morning or Head Day is reserved for the nuclear family, that is, the husband's household. Immediate family members get together and celebrate with the husband's parents. A younger brother, if the parents are not alive, will visit his older sibling. Faraway sons and daughters journey to be with their parents on this day. Children anticipate a ritual called Mung Tuoi, or the well wishing on the achievement of one more year to one's life. With both arms folded in front of their chest in respect, they thank their grandparents for their birth and upbringing.

Reciprocally, the grandparents will impart words of advice or wisdom to their grandchildren, encouraging them to study seriously, to live in harmony with others. The promises made by the children are similar to New Year's resolutions made during the western New Year. Adults will make silent promises to themselves to improve their lives, habits and relationships in the coming year. The children accept small gifts, usually crisp bills. Ideally, part of the gifts will be saved for future "investment," and part spent for Tet amusements. The words on the little red envelope in which the bill may be tucked read: Respectful wishes for the New Year. When there was a king ruling Vietnam, the mandarins of the royal court formally wished the King and Queen, "Happiness as vast as the southern sea; longevity as lasting as the southern mountains." Each trade and professional guild in Vietnam has a founder or guardian spirit and on this or one of the next several days, the craft workers will make offerings to their guild ancestor.

The family displays the offerings of food on the altar table for the first meal for the ancestors since they have returned to the world of the living. The head of the family, dressed in fresh clothes, steps respectfully in front of the family altar and presents the offerings of food, liquor, cigarettes, betel fixings, flowers and paper gold and silver. He lights three sticks of incense, kneels, joins hands in front of his chest, bows his head and prays. The names of the deceased of the family up to the fifth generation are whispered as they are invited to participate in the feast prepared for them.

After the ceremony, the entire family sits down to enjoy the meal typically consisting of steamed chicken, bamboo shoot soup, banh chung and fresh fruits. They reminisce with their ancestors.

The Vietnamese do not say "celebrate" when speaking of Tet; the words "to eat" are used as in the expression, "Will you eat Tet with your family?" or "Where will you eat Tet this year?" It does not refer to the filling of one's stomach, although in the old days, when hunger was a constant problem, Tet time was a time of plenty during which one could eat one's full. "To eat" here means more to be nourished by, or to partake in the mutual communion with others, a spiritual eating or being nourished.

There is a Vietnamese saying related to ancestor worship: "Trees have roots; water has a source; when drinking from the spring, one must remember the source." Thanks are offered to those ancestors who labored long ago to dig irrigation channels and remove mountains for this generation to have an easier life. The present is only one link in the cycle of coming back to the past as one looks to the future.

The second day of Tet is for visiting the wife's family and close friends. Some shops have opened and a few lottery stands are busy selling chances to people who feel lucky. Everyone is out on the street parading around in their new clothes.

On the third day of Tet, the circle of connections becomes larger and is extended to the broader community outside the family by visits to teachers, bosses or a helpful physician. The Vietnamese visit teachers and physicians although long out of school and long cured of their illness. This may be the time to have one's fortune told to see what the coming year will bring. These days in Vietnam, there are fortunetellers using computer software. People are also especially interested in the significance of their first dream of the new year.

The evening of the third day marks the departure of the ancestors by burning votive objects such as gold and silver, for them to take with them on their journey back to Heaven.

Now the connections to the world beyond the family can take place. The non-family member who will be the first visitor is carefully chosen. The "first footer" is an auspicious guest who is considered to be good luck for the family. The first non-family visitor to the house brings in the year's luck. This figure's karma will charm the household for the entire year and determine the luck of the family. It is customary to invite a respected person to visit at that time, so that this turn of luck is not left to fate. This person, whose aura is believed capable of promoting the fortune of the household in the following year, is usually someone healthy, successful and prosperous. Some Vietnamese lock their doors to all chance visitors until after the visit of the chosen "first footer."

On the fourth day, banks and shops reopen. Transactions, although slower, will be conducted more cheerfully than usual. Offices open and work resumes. Careful attention is paid to the resumption of activities. The first outing is the first time in the New Year that a family leaves their home. A propitious time is chosen in advance for this outing and one sometimes asks the advice of fortunetellers.

Formerly, scholars initiated their new brushes and paper with a small ceremony with the wearing of new clothes. This also requires an auspicious hour. The theme of the proverb or poem is considered carefully and newly purchased high-grade paper was used. Today's students are less formal in their initiation rites, but most enjoy a new pen and a fresh notebook for the New Year. Everyone determines to do what he or she can to help fate along to make the next year most successful.

In the countryside, there are rituals to enliven the land out of its winter's rest. The Rites of Dong Tho activate the soil to bring it alive from its sacred rest. When there was a king in Vietnam, he symbolically initiated the harrowing of the first furrow of the planting season in a royal rite.

A hundred years ago, on Hang Buom Street, a ceremony was performed right after Tet called the Beating of the Spring Ox. This ceremony initiated the breaking open of the agricultural land and chased away the winter cold. A ceramic image of the ox was beaten with sticks until it broke into pieces. Everyone scramble to grab and take home a piece of the sacred ox.

On the fifteenth day of Tet (called Ram Thang Gieng), the first full moon, there are ceremonies in Buddhist temples. This is considered the most auspicious day of the Buddhist year. "Paying homage to Buddha all year long is not as effective as praying on the 15th day of the first lunar month." The devout flock into pagodas, their eyes stinging with the blue haze of incense. After prayers, shared blessed offerings from the temple keeper are stuffed into bags carried with them for that purpose. Over the years, this Buddhist sacred day has transformed into a holiday of other cults.

It is also called Tet Trang Nguyen or the feast of the first laureate. There is a legend associated with its beginnings: the emperor once staged a banquet on the full moon to which the most prominent scholars of the kingdom were invited. They drank exquisite liquor and each man composed a formal poem on a theme chosen by the emperor. On that day, many families celebrate Tet all over again by eating banh chung.

This is also called the Little New Year or full moon New Year and celebrated by farmers following an indigenous practice of welcoming Spring at the first full moon. Later, it became infused with Buddhist meanings.

The Vietnamese traditionally celebrated Tet from the fifteenth day of the twelfth month to the fifteenth day of the first month.

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Excerpted from Tet: The Vietnamese Lunar New Year by Huu Ngoc and Barbara Cohen

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What Sign Are You?

The Twelve-year-cycle

Year of the Rat

  • 1948

  • 1960

  • 1972

  • 1984

  • 1996

  • 2008

Year of the Buffalo

  • 1949

  • 1961

  • 1973

  • 1985

  • 1997

  • 2009

Year of the Tiger

  • 1938

  • 1950

  • 1962

  • 1974

  • 1986

  • 1998

Year of the Cat

  • 1939

  • 1951

  • 1963

  • 1975

  • 1987

  • 1999

Year of the Dragon

  • 1940

  • 1952

  • 1964

  • 1976

  • 1988

  • 2000

Year of the Snake

  • 1941

  • 1953

  • 1965

  • 1977

  • 1989

  • 2001

Year of the Horse

  • 1942

  • 1954

  • 1966

  • 1978

  • 1990

  • 2002

Year of the Goat

  • 1943

  • 1955

  • 1967

  • 1979

  • 1991

  • 2003

Year of the Monkey

  • 1944

  • 1956

  • 1968

  • 1980

  • 1992

  • 2004

Year of the Rooster

  • 1945

  • 1957

  • 1969

  • 1981

  • 1993

  • 2005

Year of the Dog

  • 1946

  • 1958

  • 1970

  • 1982

  • 1994

  • 2006

Year of the Pig

  • 1947

  • 1957

  • 1971

  • 1983

  • 1994

  • 2007

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Upcoming Dates for TET

February 16, 1999 -- Year of the Cat

February 5, 2000 -- Year of the Dragon

January 24, 2001 -- Year of the Snake

February 12, 2002 -- Year of the Horse

February 1, 2003 -- Year of the Goat

January 22, 2004 -- Year of the Monkey

February 9, 2005 -- Year of the Rooster

January 29, 2006 -- Year of the Dog

February 18, 2007 -- Year of the Pig

February 7, 2008 -- Year of the Rat

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