Tet Nguyen Đan
, more commonly known by its shortened nameTet, is the most important and popular holiday and festival in Vietnam. It isthe Vietnamese New Year derived from the Chinese New Year based on the Lunarcalendar, alunisolar calendar. The name Tet Nguyen Đan is Sino-Vietnamese forFeast of the First Morning

Tet is celebrated on the same day as Chinese New Year though exceptions arise due to the one-hour time difference between Hanoi and Beijing. 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. Tet shares many of the same customs of its Chinese counterpart, having been derived from it. Many Vietnamese prepare for Tet by cooking special holiday foods and cleaning the house. There are a lot of customs practiced during Tet, like visiting a person’s house on the first day of the new year (Xong Nha), ancestral worshipping, wishing New Year’s greetings, giving lucky money to children and elderly people, and opening a shop.

Tet is also an occasion for pilgrims and family reunions. During Tet, Vietnamese visit their relatives and temples, forgetting about the troubles of the past year and hoping for a better upcoming year. They consider Tet to be the first day of spring and the festival is often called Hoi Xuan (spring festival).


Vietnamese people usually return to their families during Tet. Some return to worship at the family altar or visit the graves of their ancestors in their homeland. Although Tet is a national holiday among all Vietnamese, each region and religion has its own customs.

Tet in the three Vietnamese regions can be divided into three periods, known as Tat Nien (Before New Year’s Eve), Giao Thua (New Year’s Eve), and Tan Nien (the New Year), representing the preparation before Tet, the eve of Tet, and the days of and following Tet, respectively. All of these customs are in Tet in Vietnam.


This period begins one or two weeks before the actual celebration. The general atmosphere leading up to Tet is in the bustle of shopping, decorating the home, cooking traditional Tet 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 Tet. Parents buy new clothes for their children so that the children can wear them when Tetarrives. 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 Tet, the streets and markets are full of people. As the shops will be closed during Tet, 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 fruits on their altar called “Ngu Qua”, including banana, orange, kumquat, pomelo and finger citron [some other places have Custard Apple, Coconut, Papaya, Mango and Pineapple; since it spells out Cau, Dua, Du, Xai]. Each fruit conveys a different meaning. Pomelos promise a lucky and sweet year. Banana and finger citron symbolize a protective hand while kumquats and oranges represent success and prosperity. During Tet the altar is thoroughly cleaned and new offerings are placed there. Traditionally, the three kitchen guardians for each house (Ong Tao) (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.

In the days leading up to Tet, 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 Tet of past years.


The first day of Tet is reserved for the nuclear family. Children receive a red envelope containing money from their elders. This tradition is called Mung Tuoi (happy new age) in the north and lì xì in the south. Usually, children wear their new clothes and give their elders the traditional Tet 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 Tet is called Xong Dat, Xong Nha or Dap Dat, which is one of the most important rituals during Tet. 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 Tet 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 Tet.

During subsequent days, people visit relatives and friends. Traditionally but not strictly, the second day of Tet is usually reserved for friends, while the third day is for teachers. LocalBuddhist temples are popular spots as people like to give donations and to get their fortunes told during Tet. Children are free to spend their new money on toys or on gamblinggames such as Bau Cua Ca Cop, 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.


Traditionally, each family displays Cay Neu, 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 Tet every house is usually decorated by Hoa Mai – Ochna integerrima (in the central and southern parts of Vietnam) or Hoa Dao – 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). In the north or central, the kumquat tree is a popular decoration for the living room during Tet. Its many fruits symbolize the fertility and fruitfulness that the family hopes for in the coming year.

Vietnamese people also decorate their homes with bonsaiand flower plants such as chrysanthemum (Hoa Cuc), marigold (Van Tho) symbolizing longevity, Mao Ga in Southern Vietnam and paperwhite flower (Thuy Tien), lavender (Violet), Hoa Buom 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 Phap (calligraphy pictures).


The traditional greetings are “Chuc Mung Nam Moi“ and ”Cung Chuc Tan Xuan“ (Happy New Year). People also wish each other prosperity and luck. Common wishes for Tet include:

  • Live up to 100 years: used by children for elders. Traditionally, everyone is one year older on Tet, so children would wish their grandparents health and longevity in exchange for Mung Tuoior Li Xi
  • Security, good health, and prosperity
  • May a myriad things go according to your will
  • Plenty of health
  • Congratulations and be prosperous
  • May money flow in like water


In Vietnam, to celebrate Tet is to An Tet, literally meaning “Tet eating”, showing the importance of food in its celebration. Some of the food is also eaten year-round, while other dishes are only eaten during Tet. Also, some of the food is vegetarian since it is believed to be good luck to eat vegetarian on Tet. Some traditional food on Tet are:

Banh Chung and Banh Giay: essentially tightly packedsticky rice with meat or bean fillings wrapped in banana leaves. Banh Chung (rectangular) and Bánh Giay (circular) are symbolically connected with Tet and are essential in any Tet celebration. Preparation is time-consuming, and can take days to cook. The story of their origins and their connection with Tet is often recounted to children while cooking them overnight.

Hat Dua: roasted watermelon seeds, also eaten during Tet.

Dua Hanh: pickled onion and pickled cabbage.

Cu Kieu: pickled small leeks.

Mut: These dried candied fruits are rarely eaten at any time besides Tet.

Cau Dua Du Xoai – In southern Vietnam, popular fruits used for offerings at the family altar in fruit arranging art are the custard-apple/sugar-apple/soursop (Mang Cau), coconut (Dua), papaya (Du Du), and mango (Xoai), since they sound like “Cau Vua Du Xai” ([We] pray for enough [money] to spend) in the southern dialect of Vietnamese.

Thit Kho Nuoc Dua Meaning “Meat Stewed in Coconut Juice”, it is a traditional dish of pork and medium boiled eggs stewed in a broth-like sauce made of young coconut juice and Nuoc Mam. It is often eaten with pickled bean sprouts and chives, and white rice.


People are delighted to enjoy exciting games during Tet: Bau Cua, Co Tuong, Nem Con, Choi Trau, Da Ga, marshmallow toss, etc…They also participate in some competitions presenting their knowledge, strength and aestheticism such as: bird competition and Ngam Tho competition.

People can also visit fortune tellers, in temples and in the streets, to have their fortunes told. You must know your zodiac sign and the star you were born under to have your fortune read.


These customs come from traditions passed from generation to generation and have become standard. Because of the idea that the beginning will affect the middle and the end of the year, Vietnamese people avoid doing bad things and try to do good things during Tet holiday.


One should give people lucky presents to enhance the relationship between themselves and others: new clothes, peach branches (for expelling evil), cocks (wishing for good manners), new rice (wishing for being well-fed), rice wine in a gourd (wishing for a rich and comfortable life), Banh Chung (or Banh Tet) and Banh Giay which symbolize sky and earth (for worshipping the ancestors), red things (red symbolizes happiness, luckiness, advantages) like watermelon, dogs (the bark – Gau Gau – sounds like the word Giau – richness in Vietnamese language), medicated oil (Dau in Vietnamese, also sounds similar to Giau).

One should give lucky Dong Ho Paintings such as: “Ga Dan“ (wishing for having many children), or ”Vinh Hoa”, but should not give unlucky Dong Ho paintings like “Danh Ghen“ related to legal proceedings.

One should buy a lot of water for Tet, because people wish for money to flow like water currents in a stream (proverb: “Tien Vo Nhu Nuoc”).

One should sprinkle lime powder around the house to expel evil.

One should return all things borrowed, and pay debts before Tet.


One shouldn’t say or do bad things during Tet.

One shouldn’t hurt or kill animals or plants but should set them free. The reason for this originates from Buddhism’s causality.

One shouldn’t sweep the house or empty out the rubbish to avoid luck and benefits going with it, especially on the first day of the new year. One shouldn’t let the broom in confusion if people don’t want it to be stolen.

One shouldn’t give these presents to others: clock or watch (the recipient’s time is going to pass), cats (Meo in Vietnamese language pronounced like Ngheo, poverty), medicine (the receiver will get ill), cuttle fish (its ink is black, an unlucky colour), writing ink (for the same reason), scissors or knives (they bring incompatibility).

One shouldn’t have duck meat because it brings unluckiness.

One shouldn’t have shrimp in case one would move backwards like shrimp, in other words, one would not succeed.

One shouldn’t buy or wear white clothes because white is the colour of funerals in Vietnam.

One shouldn’t let the rice-hulling mill go empty because it symbolizes failed crops.

One shouldn’t refuse anything others give or wish you during Tet.

| by Tieu Nhi |
photos: Flickr

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