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Getting ready for Tet in Vietnam

Thursday, February 08, 2018, 15:00 GMT+7
Getting ready for Tet in Vietnam
Young Vietnamese dress as Kitchen Gods to perform rituals on the Kitchen Gods' Day (December 23rd in the lunar calendar, which is February 8, 2018). Photo: Water Wise Vietnam

Cleaned the house? Made the Kitchen Gods happy? Busy making cakes? Then you’re on the right track to a great Lunar New Year or Tet!

The cleaning is not just about starting the new year on the right foot. Apparently Vietnamese believe that luck clings to dirt and dust, so when Tet comes you are collecting the ‘new luck’ of the new year. It’s also why they don’t usually sweep the house during the first four days of the lunar year! It’s probably the best excuse I’ve ever heard of being lazy about housecleaning!

Have you got your Vietnamese phrase memorized yet? ‘Chuc Mung Nam Moi’ is roughly spoken like ‘Chook Muung Nam Mooi (‘oi’ sound)’. It doesn’t matter about what the gold and red banners are saying, it’s pretty obvious – mostly making wishes for the coming year.

Keep in mind that the actual holiday stretches out over 1 day before and about 3 to 5 days after the real date (the 16th of February) so lots of shops, banks, and importantly, visa offices will close earlier and re-open later. I often check with my local pubs and favorite shops about this so there are no nasty surprises.

People buy food in preparation for Tet in Ho Chi Minh City. Photo: Tuoi Tre
People buy food in preparation for Tet in Ho Chi Minh City. Photo: Tuoi Tre

The nation is already on the move with many universities closing soon now and students on their way back to their hometowns. It is sometimes expensive too. Nha Trang University offered free bus travel to students whose families were affected by Typhoon Damrey, as just one example of many charitable efforts we’ll be hearing more about in the lead up to Tet.

Already charitable people and organizations have been busy carting up foodstuffs, cooking oil, warm clothes and toys to the rural poor. It’s heart-warming that Tet has some similar feelings to Christmas and helping others. And it doesn’t help that it’s been a very hard winter on top of the damage still being repaired after Damrey.

More customs you should consider; pay off your debts! Vietnamese believe this makes way for a more prosperous year to come. So don’t be surprised if you see people forking out moola even on Lunar New Year’s Eve, the 15th of February! So to all the jaded vile old expats who owe me millions (dong, of course), cough up!

The Tet schedule is busy. In the lunar calendar, December 23rd is Tet Tao Quan; Kitchen Gods’ Day – that’s when you’ll see the big tables outside homes with all the fruit and paper to burn. Between the 26th and 28th – it’s time to make cakes; those square packets wrapped in green leaves sold everywhere and given as gifts. Family reunion arrivals should be done by December 30th, Lunar New Year’s Eve and everyone heads off to the pagodas and temples to pray to the gods and ancestors. After LNYE it’s visiting time; generally parents, relatives, teachers and friends – in that order. If you’re planning to visit someone – check which day of Tet is most suitable.

New Year’s Tree is generally bought around the 26th (lunar date). Flowers and colors play a huge role in Vietnamese culture, in this case; about fertility, prosperity and getting most of what you want! I can’t speak for other parts of Vietnam but I have been told the extended cold weather has reduced the flower harvests this year. Yellow flowers also represent longevity.

Young Vietnamese women dress up for Tet, or Vietnam's Lunar New Year. Photo: Tuoi Tre
Young Vietnamese women dress up for Tet, or Vietnam's Lunar New Year. Photo: Tuoi Tre

Suitable gifts for locals are a big question on Facebook for many expats and tourists too. Lucky money for the kids is a must – put in however much you want to give in a red envelope – 2 dollars per munchkin is pretty good. For Westerners, most standard gifts are good: flowers, candy, maybe a good bottle of someone for dad and as at any time of the year, fruit!

Things to do: just take a walk. If the weather is good, it’s wonderfully relaxing to stroll around and check the neighbors’ fruit trees and decorations. When it’s hot, a lot of families leave the front doors open so you see dad sleeping in front of the telly, a left-over Christmas tree in the corner and the ladies chatting on the floor mat with kids giggling all over the place. The sense of community is charming and really will fill you with good cheer and a smile on your face.

And that’s it… Tet is about family and community – the powerful bond that has protected the Vietnamese for generations. It’s a time to slow down and treasure the really important things in life such as love, togetherness, companionship and that uniquely Vietnamese zest for life.

Chuc Mung Nam Moi! (Happy New Year!)

Stivi Cooke / Tuoi Tre News Contributor

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