Vietnam is a country in the Eastern Hemisphere that was influenced by China for many years. Therefore, the Chinese New Year and Tet, the Vietnamese New Year have many similarities. Tet is the abbreviation of Tet Nguyen Dan which means the first morning of the first day of the new period.
Tet marks the beginning of a new year on the lunar calendar, and the beginning of Spring. Vietnamese are constantly aware of the phases of the moon. All events are planned by the lunar calendar. The New Year begins on the first night of the first moon after the sun enters Aquarius. This is sometime between January 21 and February 19 on the solar calendar.
Tet is a huge celebration lasting three days. Families save money, store food, and plan far in advance for Tet, major holiday in Vietnam. The Vietnamese take extreme care to start the New Year out right. They buy new clothes, paint and clean their homes, cook three days worth of food, pay off all debts and make amends to rid themselves of all bad feelings. Cleaning is frowned on during Tet because one would not want to sweep out any good luck. Digging and drawing water is also not allowed so the ground and water can enjoy the holiday.
The marketplace is very busy the week before Tet, as people buy food, trinkets, firecrackers, flowers, and other items in anticipation of the holiday. At four o'clock in the afternoon on Tet eve all the markets close down so the people can go home and prepare for midnight when Tet begins. Before 1995 firecrackers would explode scaring off all evil spirits and welcoming the New Year. In 1995, because of the huge waste of money and the injury rate, (71 people killed in 1994), the government banned the use of firecrackers resulting in a very quiet Tet.
The atmosphere is very festive. Incense is burned in the homes. The color Red, symbolizing good luck and happiness is seen everywhere. Games of gambling are in the streets, homes and in cars. If a gambler wins then he is said to have good luck gambling in the new year. If a gambler loses, he is said to have good luck in other affairs. There are dragon dances at night. Food is plentiful, homes are decorated, parks are full of crowds of people dressed in their best new clothes, and for three days the people have an ultimate celebration.
Tet is a time for visits from family and friends. The first visitor to a home is very important. If the first visitor is rich, prestigious, or happy then the family will have good fortune that year. Usually this visitor is a relative, but sometimes the family will invite a special guest that they feel will bring them good luck. The first day of Tet is reserved for visiting family and relatives. The second day is set aside for special guests and close friends to visit, and the third day is for teachers and business associates to make a visit. Negative talk, and arguments are taboo. Visitors end their visit with a farewell wish for the family such as, "I wish that money will flow into your house like water, and out like a turtle."
The Vietnamese believe that their deceased ancestors will visit the family for the holiday. Alters are decorated in the homes with incense, flowers, and photographs of deceased relatives. A tray full of fruit, coins, and a tall vase of blossoms are placed in front of the alter symbolizing good luck and prosperity. The third day is also a day to visit the graves of deceased relatives. The graves are decorated with incense, flowers, and candles. Many Buddhists go to their favorite Pagoda to pray for a good year. The Catholics go to a pre-midnight mass.
Not only is Tet the beginning of a New Year, it is also everyone's birthday. The Vietnamese do not know or acknowledge the exact day they were born. A baby turns one on Tet no matter when he/she was born that year. Children say they were born in the year of the symbol of the lunar calendar for that year. On the first morning of Tet, adults congratulate children on becoming a year older by presenting them with red envelopes that contain "Lucky Money," or li xi. These envelopes are given to the children by parents, siblings, relatives and close friends.
Families choose a Tet tree, or tac, which is a cone shaped fruit tree with miniature oranges just ripening. The more fruit on the tree, the luckier the family. Greeting cards and good luck symbols are hung from the Tet trees. Each family also has a branch of the Mai tree in their homes, a symbol of spring, which bear lucky little yellow flowers.
Food plays a major role in the Tet celebration. Tet is a time of excess, one does not enjoy Tet, one "eats" Tet. The first day a feast of boiled male virgin chicken, sticky rice, a special soup made with clear vermicelli and bamboo shoots, boiled pork, and 3 or 5 duck eggs is offered to ancestors who have returned to their homes. Sticky rice and salt are also offered in the streets to any hungry ghosts who might be wandering in the neighborhood. A traditional food is Earth cake, a square cake made with rice beans and pork. When a watermelon is cut they believe that the redder the watermelon the more luck for the family. Several different desserts and dishes are made with coconut. On the third day another feast of virgin chicken is served to say farewell to ancestors returning to their ethereal abodes.
In the United States large populations of Vietnamese celebrate Tet. In Orange County, California, Vietnamese children do not attend school that day. Ladies wear red and yellow, the colors of the Vietnamese flag, and the men wear all black. They go to church, eat earth cake, and have games, carnival rides, food booths and contests that are set up at a local college. The red envelopes are passed with "lucky money" in it. In the evening red firecrackers explode and dragon dances begin.