In with the new

Tet truly is a magical time of year and celebrated over the course of several days. Think of it as a combination of Christmas meets New Years meets Thanksgiving.

By Hung John on February 05,2015 09:14 AM

In with the new

As January gives way to February there’s a heightened state of chaos and frenzy. Accountants frantically crunch the final numbers, merchants with a renewed sense of urgency try to sell off their inventory, and people go to banks to withdraw small fortunes (preferably new crisp bills). To an outsider it may seem like people are prepping for an imminent apocalypse and it may very well look that way if you find yourself in one of the desolate cities on February 19.

However, if you pay close attention you’ll hear people’s jovial chatter and notice the subtle grins on their faces. People aren’t preparing for the end but rather for a long festive slumber, officially nine days (from 15 to 23 February). Barely recovered from the hangover of the Western New Year celebrations, the glitter and lights are up again in preparation for Tet - the lunar new year. This is by far the most important holiday for the Vietnamese.

It signifies the end of the harsh winter and the emergence of new beginnings associated with spring. It is a time for family to gather in their respective hometowns to pay tribute to their ancestors and look forward to the days ahead. Traditional dishes like xoi gac, or red-coloured sticky rice, cu kieu, or pickled leeks, mut, or dried candied fruits, and the symbolic banh chung if you’re in the north and banh tet if you’re in the south (both variations of glutinous rice filled with meat or bean fillings and wrapped in la dongdong leaves) find their way onto every dinner table.

The elderly gather to reminisce and recount stories of yesteryear to whoever will listen, older children gamble away their mung tuoi or li xi (lucky money enclosed in red envelopes) on traditional games like bau cua tom ca (a game played with three dice), while others gather around the television set. All the while, ‘Happy New Year’ by ABBA plays for the umpteenth time in the background.

Spending the Tet holiday with a Vietnamese family will certainly give you a greater appreciation of what makes Vietnam and its people special. However, here’s the disclaimer: it’s not all fun and games.

Tet is a very ritualistic holiday that is filled with customs and superstition. The Vietnamese religiously believe that what happens on the first day will significantly influence the rest of the year. They are meticulously careful in following customs and to not do anything that could bring about bad luck. This includes pre-selecting the first person to visit their home in the new year, in a custom called xong dat or xong nha. The individual should be someone who is successful, happy and compatible with the family, as he or she will bring good fortune to the family for the year ahead.

One is expected to wear only new clothes (red is ideal) and should make a concerted effort to be happy and joyful. Everyone, even children, are discouraged from crying, displaying anger or grief, or arguing, as negative emotions will bring back luck. Make sure the house is clean before the new year as cleaning, particularly sweeping, during Tet is believed to wipe away the good luck. Also be sure to pay off all your debts beforehand or buy salt to bring in luck. Ask someone for a lighter and you are bound to get dirty looks. Additionally, while li xi was a great concept when I was younger and on the receiving end, I’m now expected to hand them out.

Luckily for me I was able to write this column well ahead of the new year. I’ve decided to take this Tet off. By the time you’re reading this I’ll be venturing north through mountainous terrain with my high school maths teacher and his ragtag group of middle-aged misfits. One thing is certain: my banh chung will be packed in my backpack right along side some celebratory alcohol.

Happy New Year! Chuc mung nam moi!

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Dining fine

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Though largely informal, there’s the odd rule to follow when eating in a Vietnamese home.

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