There is no other occasion more grand and memorable in Vietnam than Tet. On this special day, the whole country is a beautiful symphony made from the brilliance of red lanterns and yellow apricot blossoms, blending with the delicacy of áo dài worn by people of all walks of life. While other parts in East Asia, influenced by Chinese civilization, celebrate Lunar New Year, Vietnamese Tet has a deeper meaning than just a new year celebration.
Tet is a sacred transfer from the old to the new, perfect for a family reunion, reconciliations, and détente. It provides a way to connect to nature, our heritage, and our better selves — the person we want to become in the new year. The pandemic isn’t going away any time soon, but it definitely won’t stop us from celebrating Tet.
Despite being a Vietnamese cultural practice, foreigners also celebrate this special event. The expat community living, working, or traveling in Vietnam has gradually adapted to the Tet atmosphere — from shopping and preparing for Tet to attending family gatherings. The holiday will undoubtedly bring you closer to the local Vietnamese life no matter where you are from.
Should you find yourself in Vietnam during Tet, there are many activities to make the best memories out of the celebration. Here’s a guide on celebrating Tet like a true local in Vietnam.
Refresh your place and look
Tet marks the beginning of spring and a new year in the lunar calendar. It is the time to look and feel good. To avoid any bad luck from the past and welcome New Year’s fortunes, Vietnamese usually spend half of the month before the Tet holiday just cleaning their houses, washing mattresses and pillows, and trimming trees neatly. They believe lucky fortune will visit the clean, neat and tidy houses on the first days of the year. Therefore, the owners must finish cleaning their homes before the 23rd of December in the Lunar Calendar, the day Ông Táo (the Kitchen God) goes back to heaven to report to the Jade Emperor. Make sure not to sweep the floor during Tet, it is considered as sweeping away any good luck given to the household.
Meanwhile, it is also a tradition for people to refresh themselves with new looks by going to the hair salon, buying new clothes, and shoes. Looking for a custom áo dài? Here are 5 Instagram accounts for áo dài inspirations.
Buy some flowers and decorations
To start bringing the spirit of Tet into your house, you’ll need to buy some flowers and decorations for your living space. Like using pine trees to celebrate Christmas holidays in the West, Vietnamese also use many kinds of flowers and plants to decorate their house in this particular period to lift the mood and spread good vibes. Even though flower availability can vary year on year, chrysanthemum, gerbera, lily, and lisianthus. And above all, three important plants cannot be missing on Tet holidays: peach blossom (hoa đào) for the north, apricot blossom (hoa mai) for the south, and kumquat trees (cây quất).
While peach blossoms symbolize the strong vitality and a brave heart, apricot blossoms represent luxury, wealthy and noble roots of the Vietnamese with its signature yellow color. Kumquat trees, full of yellow fruits, flowers, leaves, branches and roots, symbolize prosperity, promising a new year with a bumper crop, wealthy life and abundant vitality. The tips for choosing a good plant are generated accordingly: the tree must have ripe and green fruits, mature leaves and new buds.
Don’t forget to accompany the flowers with red fabric lanterns, parallel sentences (câu đối), red pockets and lastly, a tray of five fruits (mâm ngũ quả), which includes mãng cầu (soursop) — same as “cầu mong” (wish), sung (fig) — same as “sung” in “sung túc” (well-to-do), dừa (coconut) — same as “vừa” in “vừa phải” (overage), đu đủ (papaya) — same as “đủ” in “đầy đủ” (enough), xoài (mango) — same as “sài” in “tiêu sài” (spend). The tray implies cầu sung vừa đủ xài (to earn enough to spend and live in good conditions).
Taste all the Tet specialties with your friends and family
What’s even ăn Tết (eat Tet) without bánh chưng? Dating back to at least the Hung emperor dynasty, bánh chưng, or sticky rice cake, was believed to be invented during a cooking competition by Lang Lieu, Hung King’s poorest and loneliest son, using the cheapest ingredients including glutinous rice, mung bean, pork and dandelion leaves. The cake impressed the king with its thoughtful appreciation of local ingredients: the squareness emphasizes earth, the importance of rice which feeds and nurtures life and the leaf wrapping represents a mother's protection.
With a rich history and delicious taste, it's no wonder it has earned a fixed stature in the tables of Vietnamese traditions as a way to express gratitude and devotion to our grandparents and parents. Although you can see some local families gathering to make bánh chưng, it is now available at local bakeries and supermarkets with different fillings and prices.
Then there’s bánh tét, which is mostly eaten in central and southern Vietnam. The savory filling of bánh tét is similar to bánh chưng, except it's cylindrical and wrapped in banana leaves. However, there are different versions, including a sweet one with banana fillings; bánh tét lá cẩm, with magenta plant-infused sticky rice; bánh tét trà cuôn, a spin-off from the original pork filling with salted egg and dried shrimp added for more flavors.
Other must-try dishes on Lunar New Year include the tasty thịt kho trứng (braised pork with eggs), gà luộc (boiled chicken), xôi gấc (gấc sticky rice) and chả lụa (pork bologna) as they symbolize luck and fullness. Complement them with củ kiệu (pickled scallions) and tôm khô (dried shrimp), and round off your taste with a variety of hạt (dried nuts) and mứt (candied fruits). Remember to eat them with friends and family, because Tet is all about family reunions and social gatherings.
Blessing ceremony in the temples
This is a custom one cannot miss out right after New Year’s Eve or on the first day of Tet. As a part of their spiritual life, many Vietnamese people believe that Tet is the most sacred time to worship their ancestors and deities, to invite the dead family members to come home and celebrate Tet with living family members. During these times, pagodas are the perfect time to calm yourself and reflect on the past. You can visit any local pagodas to offer incense, dismiss any anxieties and worries as well as pray for blessing, health, happiness, wellness, and fortune in the upcoming year.
After having done all the praying, there’s also a tradition of plucking small buds from pagodas, also known as hái lộc. Bringing a small sacred branch of a tree from pagodas would bring good health and prosperity to your home. Another interesting activity Vietnamese people often do while visiting pagodas and temples is drawing lots. Those lots have short paragraphs to forecast your fortune in a new year.
Giving out lì xì
Lì xì, which translates into lucky money, is often placed in a red envelope, as red equals luck and happiness. It is also supposed to ward off evil spirits. Meanwhile, the money inside is considered a symbol of prosperity. In the past, only the children and the elders received lì xì, now it is given to anyone as a way to express best wishes for the new year. Giving lucky money during the Lunar New Year brings fortune for both donors and recipients.
While the amount of money contained in the envelope can vary depending on you and your relationships, it is important to use new paper money, because old currency is considered unlucky. There are many currency exchange locations in Vietnam, you’ll easily get the new money you need.
When it’s your turn to receive lì xì, it’s recommended to receive it with both hands and do not instantly look inside as a polite gesture. In return, express your new year's greetings and wishes to the donors.
Wander around Tet markets and flower streets
Days before New Year's Eve, many people come to Tet market to purchase Tet essentials like kumquat trees, different kinds of flowers, colorful decorations, red items emblazoned with the Vietnamese zodiacs, and festive gifts. Visiting Tet markets is a must-do activity to immerse in the vibrant Tet atmosphere and get yourself some local specialties at reasonable prices. In Ho Chi Minh City, it is advisable to go to big flower market such as Chợ hoa Hồ Thị Kỷ in district 10 or Chợ Lớn in district 5 — the neighborhood that houses Vietnam's largest Chinese-Vietnamese community.
It is ideal to get dressed up and visit the flower streets around the city during Tet. Specifically, visit the flower festivals on Nguyen Hue walking street, Tao Dan park and Phu My Hung where plenty of beautiful blossom-shaped decorations are built throughout the areas to accompanied the huge variety of flora displays. Additionally, the flower festival on district 1 will be honoring the unforgettable historic period of HCMC which is gradually reviving after months of being the epicenter of the pandemic. There will also be a book street on Mac Thi Buoi, right next to Nguyen Hue flower street.
Get yourself a calligraphy
Not as busy as the flower market, but the calligraphy fair still attracts many visitors on Tet holiday. Tet calligraphy are words of spring greetings, parallel sentences or feng shui words, conveying good wishes for the new year.
The tradition dates back to when Hán and Nôm characters were still preferred in writing scripts, the respect for studiousness and knowledge was set at the highest place. Mastering beautiful handwriting is also an indispensable criterion for being respected and diving in the academic world. Though its golden moments passed, the image of an old scholar (ông Đồ) painstakingly drawing beautiful black handwriting on red papers has been wholeheartedly appreciated during Tet holiday.
You will see a lot of calligraphers wearing áo dài in HCMC Cultural House for Youth on Pham Ngoc Thach street. The most popular terms to ask for are Tâm (Kindness), Phúc (Luck), Đức (Virtue), An (Peace), Lộc (Wealth), Trí (Knowledge), Thọ (to be long-lived) or Tài (Talent). You can hang those characters on walls as goals and reminders for you to strive hard in the coming year.