Tết – Tết Nguyên Đán, more commonly known by its shortened name Tết or “Vietnamese Lunar New Year”, is the most important and popular holiday and festival in Vietnam. It is the Vietnamese New Year marking the arrival of spring based on the Chinese calendar, a lunisolar calendar. The name Tết Nguyên Đán is Sino-Vietnamese for Feast of the First Morning, derived from the Hán nôm characters 節元旦.
Tết is celebrated on the same day as Chinese New Year, though exceptions arise due to the one-hour time difference between Hanoi and Beijing resulting in the alternate calculation of the new moon. It takes place from the first day of the first month of the Lunar calendar (around late January or early February) until at least the third day. Many Vietnamese prepare for Tết by cooking special holiday foods and cleaning the house. There are a lot of customs practiced during Tết, such as visiting a person’s house on the first day of the new year (xông nhà), ancestral worshipping, wishing New Year’s greetings, giving lucky money to children and elderly people, and opening a shop.
Tet Nguyen Dan, or Tet for short, is considered the biggest and most popular festival of the year in Vietnam. Celebrated on the first day of the first month in Lunar Calendar, Tet’s celebration is the longest holiday which may last up to seven days (with the exception of Tet 2012 when the holiday is expected to last for 9 days!).
Tết is also an occasion for pilgrims and family reunions. During Tết, Vietnamese visit their relatives and temples, forgetting about the troubles of the past year and hoping for a better upcoming year. They consider Tết to be the first day of spring and the festival is often called Hội xuân (spring festival).
Vietnamese people usually return to their families during Tết. Some return to worship at the family altar or visit the graves of their ancestors in their homeland. They also clean the grave of their family as a sign of respect. Although Tết is a national holiday among all Vietnamese, each region and religion has its own customs.
Tết in the three Vietnamese regions can be divided into three periods, known as Tất Niên (Before New Year’s Eve), Giao Thừa (New Year’s Eve), and Tân Niên (the New Year), representing the preparation before Tết, the eve of Tết, and the days of and following Tết, respectively. All of these customs are to celebrate Tết in Vietnam.
Before New Year’s Eve
This period begins one or two weeks before the actual celebration. The general atmosphere leading up to Tết is in the bustle of shopping, decorating the home, cooking traditional Tết food and waiting for relatives to return home. People try to pay off their debts in advance so that they can be debt-free on Tết. Parents buy new clothes for their children so that the children can wear them when Tết arrives. Because a lot of commercial activity will cease during the celebrations, people try to stock up on supplies as much as possible.
In the days leading up to Tết, the streets and markets are full of people. As the shops will be closed during Tết, everyone is busy buying food, clothes, and decorations for their house.
Vietnamese families usually have a family altar, to pay respect to their ancestors. Vietnamese families have a tray of five different fruits on their altar called “Mâm Ngũ Quả” (five fruits type). During Tết the altar is thoroughly cleaned and new offerings are placed there. Traditionally, the three kitchen guardians for each house (Ông Táo) (Kitchen God), who report to the Jade Emperor about the events in that house over the past year, return to heaven on the 23rd day of the twelfth month by lunar calendar. Their departure is marked by a modest ceremony where the family offers sacrifices for them to use on their journey.
In the days leading up to Tết, each family cooks special holiday foods such as bánh chưng and bánh dầy. Preparations for these foods are quite extensive. Family members often take turns to keep watch on the fire overnight, telling each other stories about Tết of past years.
The New Year
The first day of Tết is reserved for the nuclear family. Children receive a red envelope containing money from their elders. This tradition is called mừng tuổi (happy new age) in the north and lì xi in the south. Usually, children wear their new clothes and give their elders the traditional Tết greetings before receiving the money. Since the Vietnamese believe that the first visitor a family receives in the year determines their fortune for the entire year, people never enter any house on the first day without being invited first. The act of being the first person to enter a house on Tết is called xông đất, xông nhà or đạp đất, which is one of the most important rituals during Tết. According to Vietnamese tradition, if good things come to the family on the first day of the lunar New Year, the entire following year will also be full of blessings. Usually, a person of good temper, morality and success will be the lucky sign for the host family and be invited first into the house. However, just to be safe, the owner of the house will leave the house a few minutes before midnight and come back just as the clock strikes midnight to prevent anyone else entering the house first who might potentially bring any unfortunate events in the new year to the household.
Sweeping during Tết is taboo or xui (unlucky), since it symbolizes sweeping the luck away. It is also taboo for anyone who experienced a recent loss of a family member to visit anyone else during Tết. That is why they clean before the new year.
During subsequent days, people visit relatives and friends. Traditionally but not strictly, the second day of Tết is usually reserved for friends, while the third day is for teachers, who command respect in Vietnam. Local Buddhist temples are popular spots as people like to give donations and to get their fortunes told during Tết. Children are free to spend their new money on toys or on gambling games such as bầu cua cá cọp, which can be found in the streets. Prosperous families can pay for dragon dancers to perform at their house. There are also public performances for everyone to watch.
These celebrations can last from a day up to the entire week, and the New Year is filled with people in the streets trying to make as much noise as possible using firecrackers, drums, bells, gongs, and anything they can think of to ward off evil spirits. This parade will also include different masks, and dancers hidden under the guise of what is known as the Mua Lan or Lion Dancing. The Mua Lan is an animal between a lion and a dragon, and is the symbol of strength in the Vietnamese culture that is used to scare away evil spirits. After the parade, families and friends will come together to have a feast of traditional vietnamese dishes, and share the happiness and joy of the New Year with one another. This is also the time where the elders will hand out to red envelopes with money to the children for good luck in exchange for Tết greetings (below).
Traditionally, each family displays cây nêu, an artificial New Year Tree consisting of a bamboo pole 5 to 6 m long. The top end is usually decorated with many objects, depending on the locality, including good luck charms, origami fish, cactus branches, etc.
At Tết every house is usually decorated by hoa mai – Ochna integerrima (in the central and southern parts of Vietnam) or hoa đào – peach flower (in the northern part of Vietnam) or hoa ban (in mountain areas). In the north, some people (especially the elite in the past) also decorate their house with a Prunus mume tree (also called mai in Vietnamese, but referring to a totally different species from Ochna integerrima). In the north or central, the kumquat tree is a popular decoration for the living room during Tết. Its many fruits symbolize the fertility and fruitfulness that the family hopes for in the coming year.
Vietnamese people also decorate their homes with bonsai and flower plants such as chrysanthemum (hoa cúc), marigold (vạn thọ) symbolizing longevity, mào gà in Southern Vietnam and paperwhite flower (thủy tiên), lavender (viôlét), hoa bướm in Northern Vietnam. In the past, there was a tradition that old people tried to make their paperwhite flowers blossom right the watch-night time. They also hung up Dong Ho Paintings and thu pháp (calligraphy pictures).
The traditional greetings are “chúc mừng năm mới” (Happy New Year) and “cung chúc tân xuân” (gracious wishes of the new spring). People also wish each other prosperity and luck. Common wishes for Tết include:
Sống lâu trăm tuổi (Long life of 100 years): used by children for elders. Traditionally, everyone is one year older on Tết, so children would wish their grandparents health and longevity in exchange for mừng tuổi or lì xì利是.
An khang thịnh vượng (安康興旺, Security, good health, and prosperity)
Vạn sự như ý (萬事如意, May myriad things go according to your will)
Sức khỏe dồi dào (Plenty of health)
Cung hỉ phát tài, from the Cantonese Gung hy fat choy (恭喜發財, Congratulations and be prosperous)
Tiền vô như nước (May money flow in like water): used informally
How Tet is calculated?
Different from the Gregorian calendar, Lunar Calendar has a fix number of twelve months with 30 days each, and a leap-year will have a whole intercalary month instead of the 29th day of February. The new year of Lunar Calendar normally will start in late January or beginning of February according to Gregorian calendar. That explains why Tet days vary from year to year: it is because the leap month may fall shorter or longer which create a smaller or bigger gap between the two calendars. For example, in 2011, Tet day falls on February 3rd but in 2012, it will be January 23rd. In 2013 Tet is on February 10th.
What is Tet?
Tet is the occasion for Vietnamese to express their respect and remembrance for their ancestors as well as welcoming the New Year with their beloved family members. Moreover, in the past, Tet was essential as it provided one of few long breaks during the agricultural year, which was held between the harvesting of the crops and the sowing of the next ones. To make it easier, one can imagine Tet as a combination of Christmas and New Year: every family will get together to have big meals, decorate Tet trees and eat Tet food but to welcome the new year instead of a religious cause.
Watch our latest video: My heart can feel Tet for the most vivid image from Tet in Vietnam.
How is Tet celebrated?
Since Tet occupies an important role in Vietnamese’s religious beliefs, Vietnamese will begin their preparations well in advance of the upcoming New Year. In an effort to get rid of the bad luck of the old year, people will spend a few days cleaning their homes, polishing every utensil, or even repaint and decorate the house with kumquat tree, branches of peach blossom, and many other colorful flowers. The ancestral altar is especially taken care of, with careful decoration of five kinds of fruits and votive papers, along with many religious rituals. Everybody, especially children, buy new clothes and shoes to wear on the first days of New Year. People also try to pay all their pending debts and resolve all the arguments among colleagues, friends or members of family.
Like other Asian countries, Vietnamese believe that the color of red and yellow will bring good fortune, which may explain why these colors can be seen everywhere in Lunar New Year. People consider what they do on the dawn of Tet will determine their fate for the whole year, hence people always smile and behave as nice as they can in the hope for a better year. Besides, gifts are exchanged between family members and friends and relatives, while children receive lucky money kept in red envelope.
No matter where Tet is celebrated, it must be clarified from the beginning that Tet is not a day, but several days of celebration.
The general process is as follow (all dates quoted in lunar calendar):
1. Ông Công, Ông Táo Day (Kitchen God day) – December 23rd
2. Wrapping Chung cake – December 26-28th
3. Family reunion and Tất niên – December 30th
4. Giao thừa – New Year’s Eve: including praying sessions to God and Ancestors, Xông đất (First visit to a family in the new year)
5. First three days of the new year: visit paternal side on the first day, maternal side on the second day and teachers on the third day
6. Visit relatives, friends and neighbours: can take place from January 3rd – 5th
7. Hóa vàng – burn the offerings near Tet’s end for ancestors: January 4th
8. Reopen business: usually owners pick a good date that matches their age
9. Tết Nguyên Tiêu: January 15th
Food for Tet
The following food is often consumed during Tet; some are particular to Tet and often associated with the grand celebration:
Read more about Essential Food for Tet holiday
Travelling to Vietnam during Tet
Tet has a very special attached meaning to all Vietnamese. It is the time for everybody to come back to their hometown, gathering with family, visiting relatives and having a good relaxing time after a hard-working year. If you have the opportunity to visit Vietnam during Tet holiday, make sure you join this festive and happy moments of Vietnamese!
You can also read our tips on travelling to Vietnam during Tet here.