Tet, also known as the Tết Nguyên Đán in Vietnamese, Vietnamese New Year, Spring Festival, or Lunar New Year, is the most important festival in Vietnam. It’s a major celebration focused on family reunions, gift-giving, special foods, and vibrant public events. While all of Vietnam, from its biggest cities to remote rural areas, celebrates similar Tet traditions, they do vary from region to region and family to family.
Among Vietnamese expats, Tet traditions take on new forms in their homes away from home. Those living in bigger Vietnamese communities around the world, including approximately 1.3 million Vietnamese immigrants in the United States, might get to enjoy big public Tet celebrations.
Many Vietnamese people abroad have to create Vietnamese New Year traditions on their own. Doing so often means introducing the joyous celebrations, rituals, and delicious foods of Vietnamese culture to new friends who are eager to learn about New Year’s traditions around the world.
Tet New Year Traditions in Vietnam
Vietnamese New Year, also called Tet Nguyen Dan, is on the same day as Chinese New Year. They both follow the lunar calendar. This year, it is on February 1st and the zodiac sign is tiger.
Vietnamese New Year traditions involve three full days of official Tet new year celebrations, during which most businesses close and people travel to be with family, plus several additional days of preparation for the coming year. Families prepare by doing major spring cleaning at home, buying holiday gifts and special foods, and cooking a large feast.
During the New Year, most will visit friends and family members, and attend public festivals with lion and dragon dances and fireworks displays. Many people visit temples, create altars, and honor their ancestors as well. Some people will hit the gong and set firecrackers to scare bad luck and evil spirits away.
The first day of Vietnamese New Year
The first day of Tết is reserved for the nuclear family. On the first morning, children receive red envelopes containing money from their elders. This tradition is called mừng tuổi (happy new age) in the North region and lì xì in the South region.
Usually, children wear their new clothes and give their elders the traditional Tết greetings before receiving money.
Since the Vietnamese believe that the first visitor to a family in the year determines their fortune for the entire year, people never enter any house on the first day without being invited first. The action of being the first person to enter a house at Tết is called xông đất, xông nhà, or đạp đất, which is one of the most important rituals during Tết.
According to Vietnamese tradition, if good things come to a family on the first day of the New Year, the entire coming year will also be full of blessings.
Two important tips: If you’re traveling to Vietnam or visiting your Vietnamese friends during the Lunar New Year, keep these tips in mind.
Sweeping during Tết is taboo, or xui (unlucky), since it symbolizes sweeping the good luck away. That is why one cleans before the new year. It is also taboo for anyone who experienced a recent loss of a family member to visit anyone else during the New Year.
The second and third days of Vietnamese New Year
During subsequent days, people visit relatives and friends. Traditionally but not strictly, people visit friends on the second day of Tết, while the third day is for teachers, who command respect in Vietnam. Local Buddhist temples are popular spots because people like to give donations, pray for good luck, and get their fortunes told during Tết.
Children are free to spend their new money on toys or on games such as bầu cua cá cọp, which can be found in the streets.
Prosperous families can pay for dragon dancers to perform at their house. Also, public performances are for everyone to watch.
The three-day public holiday event features around 150 pavilions, foods from all over the country, a flower festival in the city center, and fireworks on New Year’s Eve. In 2004, the celebrations included making the world’s largest Tet cake weighing 1.9 tons, according to Guinness World Records.
In Hanoi, many shops and businesses close for a full week around Lunar New Year. Public spectacles include dragon and lion dances, folk activities, and huge fireworks displays over Hoan Kiem Lake.
Throughout Hanoi, people buy symbolic pink peach boughs at Quang Ba Flower Market. The alleys of the Old Quarter are taken over by hundreds of altars along the curbs. Other popular places to visit are Da Nang and Hoi An.
Traditional Foods for Tet
These are some typical Tet foods that Vietnamese families prepare during the New Year:
Banh chung/Bánh tét
Also called Vietnamese square sticky rice cake, the main ingredients are glutinous rice, pork meat, and mung beans wrapped in a square of bamboo leaves that give the rice a green color after boiling.
According to the old legends, banh chung appeared during the Hung dynasty. This cake symbolizes the ground, expressing gratitude to the ancestors and the earth. It also emphasizes the important role of rice and nature in the culture.
In contrast to the fast food of modern life, the process of making banh chung is time-consuming and requires several people working together. Family members often take turns to watch the fire overnight, telling each other stories about Tet.
Mut (candied fruits)
Mut is an indispensable treat during the Lunar New Year festival in Vietnam. Everyone prepares boxes of colorful candied fruits to give to visitors, gift to friends and family, and offer to ancestors.
Typically, guests eat candies and roasted watermelon seeds and drink a few cups of tea. Children enjoy the candied fruits as little snacks.
Thit kho trung
For this dish, cubes of pork are soaked in garlic, fish sauce, sugar, and coconut water. Hard-boiled eggs are used in this dish because they symbolize happiness.
The pork and peeled eggs are cooked in a pot for a few hours, then served with pickled vegetables (dua hanh and kieu).
This red sticky rice is made from gac fruit and typically paired with chả lụa, the most common type of sausage in Vietnamese cuisine. (Chả lụa is made of pork and wrapped in banana leaves).
Tet Festivals in California
California is home to the largest Vietnamese population in the United States, and therefore hosts a wide array of Tet celebrations each year. Vietnamese expats living in Southern California and the Bay Area celebrate Vietnamese New Year traditions in elaborate fashion.
The Tet Festival of Southern California, held yearly since 1982, is the largest Vietnamese Lunar New Year festival in the United States. Its current home is the OC Fair and Event Center in Costa Mesa, and the event is organized by the Union of Vietnamese Student Associations.
It includes many exhibits and galleries, food vendors, community performances, an ancestral altar procession, and a replica of a traditional Vietnamese village. The festival kicks off with the “Raising of the Bamboo” ceremony and closes with the “Lowering of the Bamboo.”
The San Diego Tet Festival is another large event celebrating Vietnamese culture in California. A three-day celebration, it takes place at the Mira Mesa Community Park and attracts more than 25,000 attendants annually. The event is run by the Vietnamese Federation of San Diego and the Vietnamese American Youth Alliance.
San Jose, California, which has over 300,000 Vietnamese residents, presents the annual San Jose Tet Festival at the Santa Clara County Fairgrounds. It’s organized by the Coalition of Nationalist Vietnamese Organizations of Northern California and attracts up to 70,000 people.
Other U.S. Vietnamese New Year Festivals
In New Orleans, the Mary Queen Church of Vietnam hosts a large Tet festival every year, which attracts an estimated 30,000 people. The church is notable for holding a large collection of relics of Vietnamese saints.
Since 1996, Tet in Seattle has presented a free, two-day festival at the Seattle Center. It includes art displays, food, music, and many Tet traditions to celebrate Vietnamese culture and the local Vietnamese-American community.
More Tet Festivals Around the World
In Australia, the second-biggest destination for Vietnamese migrants, Vietnamese New Year traditions are celebrated in several different cities.
An annual Tet Festival in Melbourne, Australia, has in past years been held at Sandown Racecourse, but for 2021 went entirely online. Typical events include a lion dance ceremony and fireworks display along with Vietnamese music, arts, and cultural offerings.
The virtual event features a fashion show, Tastes of Tet series, and the Iron Stomach Competition, which involves contestants eating stomach-churning foods. The event is organized by the Vietnamese Community of Australia (Victoria Chapter).
Canada also has a sizeable Vietnamese immigrant population, and some of its bigger cities host annual Tet festivals. These include the Tet Community Festival, hosted in previous years by the Vietnamese Association, Toronto.
Celebrating Vietnamese New Year Traditions at Home
People worldwide who are interested in celebrating the Tet holiday and learning about Vietnamese New Year traditions should seek out local Vietnamese community groups. Look into Buddhist temples and Christian churches serving Vietnamese communities and Vietnamese cultural centers, and student associations.
Sometimes, Tet celebrations are included as part of larger Lunar New Year events serving Chinese, Korean, and other Asian populations.
Even if you can’t find any public Tet events, there are countless ways to enjoy Tet traditions at home. Take inspiration from the many ways in which Tet is celebrated in Vietnam, and adapt them to fit your own lifestyle. Here are some suggestions:
- Spend a day doing mindful spring cleaning.
- Buy a kumquat tree or flowering peach blossoms to place outside your front door.
- Treat yourself to new clothes and a haircut, both common Tet traditions.
- Decorate your home or room with red and gold paper garlands.
- Prepare a Tet cake, spring rolls, bitter melon soup, or other traditional Tet foods listed above.
- Enjoy a big meal with family and friends, and spend New Year’s Eve staying up late, watching uplifting movies, playing games, and enjoying good company.
- Give dried fruit to adults and red envelopes, or so-called “lucky money,” to children. Here’s how to easily send money to Vietnam if you have loved ones there.
Chúc mừng năm mới!
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