Tet in Vietnam: A Party with The Ancestors and Everyone’s Invited
By Daniel Thomas, ROP Fellow - Vietnam It’s not easy to convey to people who aren’t from Vietnam the cultural importance, weight and enthusiasm the Lunar New Year celebration, Tết Nguyên Đán, or just Tết for short, involves for the Vietnamese people. Translated, it goes something along the lines of “The Feast of the First Morning of the First Day”, but in actuality, the feasting stretches for significantly longer than a single morning (to say the least).
Tet is a time of celebration, renewal; the settling and forgiveness of debts; a chance to start afresh. If the tropical air has applied its gradual, ubiquitous layer of vibrant mold on the walls of your house for a year too many, this is the time to paint it; if your shop’s sign is looking a little sun-faded or has had a few too many months exposed to the ceaseless exhaust fumes of the city, it’s a good time to buy a new one. Houses undergo a true ‘spring-cleaning’; it’s highly unadvisable to enter the New Year with unwanted baggage, trash or dust.
Tet is also the time to remind the ancestor spirits that they are still remembered, with plenty of ceremonial offerings of food and other goodies that can be enjoyed in the afterlife. These are offered through a series of ceremonies leading up to the New Year. Paper money, often in the guise of gold hundred-US dollar bills, is burnt regularly so that the ancestors also have access to some extra pocket money.
In the major cities, the days leading up to Tet are marked with a palpable, ever-increasing sense of frenetic energy, people rushing around town buying the requisite gifts, food, drinks and new clothes and miscellaneous home improvement items. It’s not uncommon to see motorbikes with 20 cases piled sky high on the back during normal times, but the volume of these makeshift delivery vehicles is noticeably increased during Tet. On the eve of Tet, millions of motorbikes will enter towns or metropolitan areas from outlying suburbs, communes and villages to watch the firework displays that light up the sky throughout the thousand mile north-south length of Vietnam.
While the feeling in the cities can be loosely described as something along the lines of nervous excitement, in rural Vietnam the atmosphere is a lot more jubilant and relaxed. This is the time of home-comings, when the millions of migrants who have gone to seek work in urban centers will return to their families and ancestral homes bearing gifts, stories and their presence, which for many is limited to this single week each year. The religious customs of Tet are more rigidly adhered to, the drum rolls of Buddhist troupes can be heard as they pass through neighborhoods blessing the houses and shops whose owners care to pay for the ceremony; elaborate dragon costumes with two or three individuals affecting mesmeric, alien movements that serve to heighten the impression that their business is rooted in an otherworldly place.
To celebrate Tet is to ăn Tết – to eat Tet. Food in Vietnam is taken very seriously, and Tet showcases the apex of this national obsession. Banh chung – a square cake made of glutinous rice filled with different layers of meat and mung bean paste, is a quintessential part of the feasts. The origins of banh chung are interesting but complicated – essentially the square cake represents the Earth, as it was perceived to exist in ancient times. Served with bánh dày, the other prerequisite culinary treat of Tet, these two dishes symbolize the Earth and the Sky: our world and the afterlife, the living with the ever-present ancestors.
Tet is unlike any festive season in the Western world because of its exclusivity; its unique identification with the civilization that progressed and survived over two thousand years of conflicts, periods of stability and prosperity, famines and modernization into what is the contemporary nation of Vietnam. It connects people regardless of religion or social status, it represents a type of birthday for both individuals and their communities, and is a time for celebration and for reflecting on the impermanence of life that makes its enjoyment and ‘mindful’ navigation so important. It’s definitely the party of the year.