Tết celebration is so much more than wearing áo dài and giving lì xì — it’s about spending time with family and preserving ancient traditions. One important custom Vietnamese religious practice is Kitchen God Day or Tết Táo Quân. It may not be as familiar or as big as Tết, the observance of Tết Táo Quân is just as significant to the Vietnamese culture.
According to the legend, Tết Táo Quân is a tale of three people — Trong Cao, the husband; Thi Nhi, the wife; and Pham Lang, the second husband — who turned into gods after they all died tragically for love. The story began with Trong Cao and Thi Nhi struggling to bear any children after years of marriage. Their frustration and frequent fights took a toll on their relationship and resulted in Cao hurting his wife and casting her out of their house.
After wandering for days, Nhi met Pham Lang and later married him. As time went on, Cao felt guilty and realized his fault; he decided to find his beloved wife. Eventually, Cao discovered his wife’s new home; they talked for hours and begged her forgiveness. When Nhi’s new husband arrived from work, she immediately told her first husband to hide in a pile of straw in the backyard to avoid any misunderstanding.
Not knowing a person was hiding in a pile, Lang torched the straw to make fertilizer for his farm. The story had a tragic ending — Nhi chose to jump into the fire to die with Cao and Lang, seeing his dead wife, also killed himself in the same fire. As they crossed to the other side, Jade Emperor Ngoc Hoang turned them into gods and granted them the title of “Tao Quan.” Pham Lang became the God of Kitchen, Trong Cao the God of Land and House, and Thi Nhi the God of Market. And together, they kept an eye on the well-being of the believer’s house and property.
There are different versions of the legend, but each consistently depicts a story of love, forgiveness, and sacrifice. Sending out a message that if you follow a life of honesty and goodness, the heavens will shower rewards. Or turn you into a god.
In the present day, Vietnamese religious believe that every 23rd day of December in Lunar New Year (January 25, 2022), the three gods would travel up to the heavens to relay information to the Jade Emperor and pray for prosperity in the coming year. They also believe that Cao, Nhi, and Lang come back to Earth on New Year’s Eve to continue their duties for the rest of the year.
On January 25, Vietnamese residents commemorated this year’s Kitchen God Day by freeing carp in the river and offering prayers. Vietcetera photographers Rita Ha Vu and Bobby Vu captured the farewell rituals in District 4 Saigon River and Dieu Phap Pagoda in Binh Thanh District.
No one knows when the Kitchen God worship custom began but it has been practiced by countless generations in Vietnam… including the younger generation.
Freeing the carps is a way to show respect and gratitude towards the animals and wish for good fortune in the upcoming year.
Families gather to give thanks for the past year and offer prayers for a better year ahead.
They have a fish-setting-free day to see out the creature that will take the gods to heaven. The reason behind this is the legend of carp turning into a dragon. In Chinese mythology, a carp that could swim upstream and then leap the falls of the Yellow River at Dragon Gate (Longmen) would be transformed into a dragon.
The transformation of a carp into a dragon refers to the sublimation, constancy, and willingness of every Vietnamese to overcome the hardships and eventually achieve a better life.
Tao Quan can only travel up to the heavens with the help of golden carps, as carps are used to be the heavens’ animal and are very good swimmers.
Vietnamese believe the Kitchen Gods’ report to the Jade Emperor will determine their fate in the coming year.