What Is Tet?

There are many Tet festivals in Vietnam, but by far, the one that is most celebrated is Tet Nguyen Đán, or simply, Tet. Tet marks the New Year on the Lunar Calendar.

To regard Tet simply as New Year’s Day, as one would in the West, would display a poor knowledge of the people of Vietnam.

In spite of its impressive credentials, the Gregorian New Year has not been generally accepted in Vietnam, in the countryside in particular. Our people pay it a courteous homage but reserve their heart and soul for the traditional Tet.

Tet falls sometime between the last ten days of January and the middle part of February.

For a nation of farmers attached to the land for millennia, it has always been a festival marking the communion of man with nature. In the flow of seasons it is a pause during which both the field and the tiller enjoy some rest after twelve months of labor. In this period of universal renewal the Vietnamese man feels surging within himself a fountain of youth. That feeling explains many fine customs: in the New Year all action should be pure and beautiful for it may be an omen foretelling events in the twelve months that follow.

For three days, one takes extra care not to show anger and not to be rude to people. The most nagging mother-in-law will make peace with her daughter-in-law; a quarreling couple will smile pleasantly at each other; the new world should be the best of worlds. When the holiday ends, people will resume their activities in a new spirit following so-called opening rituals in which the ploughman will open the first furrow, the official applies his seal to the first document, the scholar trace the first character with his pen brush, the trader receives his first customer.

As a rule, all members of the extended family try to spend the holiday (the idiom used is to “eat Tet”) together under the same roof. Children vow to be well-behaved and are often given gifts of cash wrapped in red paper. Several times a day, joss-sticks are lit on the family altar and offerings made of food, fresh water, flowers and betel. Family graves are visited, generally, before the end of the ‘outgoing’ year; fences are mended and the burial mounds tidied up.

The Vietnamese Tet is an occasion for an entire people to share a common ideal of peace, concord and mutual love. I know of no communal celebration with more humanistic character.

Excerpted from Sketches for A Portrait of Vietnamese Culture, by Huu Ngoc

Other Tet Celebrations

Tet Trung Thu

Held in Vietnam on the 15th day of the eighth month of the lunar year, Tet Trung Thu, or the mid-autumn festival, celebrates the first full moon’s glow when it shines at its brightest. Although the moon is physically at its greatest distance from the earth, it appears large on the horizon in an unusual reddish glow. In the West, it’s called a harvest moon.

During the festival, children parade in the streets with glowing lanterns, which observe the light of the moon, and wear masks in the form of animals, while lion dancers and drummers join the youngsters. It’s a wonderful time for children to delight in the season’s revelry.

The festival provides families an opportunity to gather and enjoy each other’s company and eat sweet moon cake pastries filled with a variety of meats and in different shapes and sizes. Vietnamese moon cakes include an unbaked, white and sticky Bánh Deo and a baked brown Bánh Nuong. Where families gather to feast, they also honor ancestors with incense and by burning fake money, which rises up to deceased relatives in the smoke.

Tet Thanh Minh

The “Pure Brightness” or ancestral rituals are celebrated in the third lunar month, 15 days after the Spring equinox. It is a day for cleaning of the ancestor’s gravesides and tombs, time for tidying up the graves. People from Hanoi travel to the countryside cemeteries to place fresh earth on the graves, pull weeds, replant flowers and repaint the tombs.

Tet Doan Ngo

It’s on the fifth day of the fifth lunar month. This is also celebrated in China. It corresponds to the Summer solstice, the time of peak growth. It is thought to be an unhealthy period of time, a time of epidemics. Vietnamese people pray to avoid epidemics and eat nhng, the larvae of the silkworm. Vietnamese people believe that on the fifth day of the fifth lunar month, the intestinal worms emerge and that this provides an opportunity to eradicate them by eating green fruit and rice with liquor, called ruou nep. Liquor makes the worms drunk and the fruit will kill them. This is also the time to take a therapeutic shower and rub ones body with mint leaves. People go into the countryside and pick medicinal herbs to dry and store because samples picked that day are believed to cure parasitic diseases. It is also a day of prayer for freedom from crop destroying insects.

Tet Trung Nguyen

This holiday is celebrated on the fifteenth of the seventh month. It is a time to make offering to the dead. Beside porridge, fruits, cakes and candies are offered and paper clothes burned for use by the spirits in the world beyond. Sinners in hell are forgiven, so the Vietnamese offer these items to lost souls who visit this world to enjoy themselves so they will be in a good mood to help the living.