Tet Nguyen Dan

January 27 - February 4, 2014
Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam
Photo credit: Staffan Scherz via Flickr Creative Commons
Tet Nguyen Dan
Crowd
    Intimate to                 Massive
Attendees
    Local to                 International
Participation
    Spectator to                 Immersive
Preparation
    Simple to                 Complicated
Transformation
    Quiet to                 Life-Altering

Overview

Tet Nguyen Dan is the most important celebration in the Vietnamese calendar, marking the arrival of spring and the start of a new year.

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Festival Stats
  • Crowd
  • Attendees
  • Participation
  • Preparation
  • Transformation

Location

Tet Nguyen Dan is celebrated by Vietnamese all over the world but the main festivities can be found in Ho Chi Minh City in the south of the Vietnam.

Chip's take

There's no better time to visit Vietnam than during the Tet festival, an event…

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There's no better time to visit Vietnam than during the Tet festival, an event that rivals Chinese New Year in Hong Kong (in fact, if I had to choose between the twohaving done CNY in Hong KongI would pick Ho Chi Minh for the Tet). This is an immersive event for all your senses as the wafting incense, the wide variety of culinary experiences, the robust music, the flowing robes of tactile fabrics, and the aesthetic beauty make it an experience your five senses will never forget.

Check out the blossoming peach trees in the north or the apricot trees in the south and you'll understand why this is annual rite of spring to celebrate the gifts of nature. With so many unique rituals, many of them specific to a region, it helps if you can stay with a local family. This is a time when you'd be better off doing an Airbnb or homestay than staying in a hotel as it will give you an insider's look at these fascinating family traditions. Be prepared for lots of firecrackers so you may want to bring ear plugs!

The aesthetic beauty make it an experience your five senses will never forget.

Photos & Videos From the Festival

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Essentials

Take a stroll down Nguyen Hue. The main street of Ho Chi Minh is transformed into a floral wonderland in the week before Tet.

Learn this popular phrase “Chuc mung nam moi” (or “Happy New Year” in Vietnamese). If you can conquer that one try this informal well-wish “Tien vo nhu nuoc”  (May money flow in like water).

Be prepared to eat . . . a lot. Food plays a huge role in the Tet celebrations. Some foods that are consumed are unique to the holiday such as Banh Chung (steamed square rice cakes with mung bean and pork, wrapped in banana leaves). This tasty treat is symbolic of the Earth and more importantly able to last for days at room temperature.

Take a ride in a cyclo. Ho Chi Minh is widely known for its chaotic traffic, albeit a controlled mess of motorbikes and cars. This pedal-powered ride will get you up close and personal while providing an exhilarating tour of the city. Tip: To avoid scammers, arrange for the cyclo to drop you off at your hotel and agree on the price beforehand.


Practicalities

The Vietnamese take this holiday very seriously. This is a time for locals to spend with close family and as such it is important to note that many local shops and restaurants will be closed over the holiday period.

Like any major national holiday, hotels and flights get fully booked both domestically and internationally so it is best to plan your trip well in advance. While you are visiting Ho Chi Minh City be sure to include a quick trip to the Mekong Delta for a taste of rural life in Vietnam.

Details

Tet Nguyen Dan is the Vietnamese traditional celebration to welcome in the New Year and the arrival of spring.

The name Tet Nguyen Dan, or Tet as it is more commonly known, literally translates to the first morning of the first day of the new period. It officially marks the beginning of the New Year and takes places on the first day of the first month of the lunar calendar.

Throughout history, the Vietnamese people have had a strong affinity with the land as farmers and fisherman. For many villagers, Tet marks the communion of man with nature, the rebirth of a new year with the universal renewal that comes with the dawning of spring.

Drums, gongs, and firecrackers are popular choices and can be heard throughout every neighborhood.

Preparing for the New Year

Since Tet is deeply tied to the Vietnamese religious beliefs, preparations begin some weeks in advance of the New Year. Similar to many other Asian New Year traditions, people clean and decorate their shops and homes in an effort to get rid of any bad luck from the previous year. In addition, any debts should be paid off to welcome the New Year with a clean slate.

On the 23rd day of the twelfth lunar month it is said that the three kitchen guardians (known as Tao Quan) ascend to the heavens to report to the Jade Emperor on the events of the house over the past year.

Special attention is given to the ancestral altar that is carefully decorated with a tray of five different fruits called "Mam Ngu Qua," along with joss sticks and other offerings. These offerings are assembled in the hope of a favorable report to ensure good luck for the family.

Essential Food and Flowers

Markets are packed with people stocking up on goods since most shops will be closed over the Tet holiday. This is a busy period in the family home dedicated to cooking the many special holiday delicacies such as Banh Chung (steamed sticky rice cake wrapped in banana leaves, an essential element of the family altar during Tet), Gio Cha (Vietnamese sausage), Xoi (sticky rice) and Thit Ga (boiled chicken) among other tasty treats.

During this time it is common to see motorbikes carrying kumquat trees whizzing by, which will be placed in someone's home. A good plant must have both ripe and green fruits, mature leaves and a new budall of which represent wealth and luck to the family for the New Year.

The streets are filled with colorful flowers, with displays of blossoms throughout the city and the most spectacular reserved for the Tet Flower Market along the main street of Nguyen Hue. This heavily trafficked street is converted into a temporary garden that is bursting with color and perfume.

Ringing in the New Year

As with many cultures, New Year's Eve is the most celebrated night of the New Year holiday period. For the Vietnamese this is the night that the Tao Quan are set to return to earth and at the stroke of midnight the problems of the previous year are left behind. The idea is to be to make as much noise as possible. Drums, gongs and firecrackers are popular choices and can be heard throughout every neighborhood.

The first days of the New Year are steeped in tradition. The transition between the old year and the new is a ritual unto itself. The first day is to be spent with one's immediate family. Children wear their newly purchased clothes and make sure to be on their best behavior in the hope of receiving red envelopes containing money from their elders.

Vietnamese believe that the first visitor will determine their fortune for the entire year. Particular care is taken to arrange in advance to have the visitor be wealthy, good tempered and successful.

Traditional Folk Games

Most of the games played during Tet are centered around obtaining good fortune. Gambling is prevalent, even among children. While the games may vary throughout the country here are some of the more popular ones:

Bau Cua Ca Cop (Gourd, Crab, Fish, Tiger) Common in southern Vietnam, this game of luck is played by both adults and children. Players place money bets on a game board containing images of a deer, gourd, crab, shrimp, rooster and fish. Three special dice with images of those six animals are then thrown by the dealer. Players who have bet on the animal that is rolled win. Winnings are doubled or tripled depending on the number of dice showing the same image.

Other games include: Human Chess, Blind Man's Bluff, Tug of War, Bamboo Swing, Wrestling, Coin Toss, Slip Pole Climb, Tend Card Singing, Walking the Bamboo Bridge, and Cockfighting.

Overall, Tet is an occasion for an entire nation to practice and share in the common ideal of peace and new beginnings.