As Tet (the Lunar New Year Festival) comes closer it’s the busiest of times for everyone. All are eager to welcome in the spring and Vietnam’s largest traditional festival, and the different climate, terrain and local customs make Tet a diverse experience from the north to the south of the country.
When pink peach blossoms appear on the streets and in shops, restaurants and houses to brighten the grey days of the chilly winter and drizzling rain in the north, it’s a sign that Tet is just around the corner. The peach blossoms are symbolic of the northern New Year as they only grow in colder climes. They’re also believed to bring luck, following the Oriental concept of red and pink representing good fortune. Everyone therefore has a tree or at least a branch of peach blossom for the home to welcome in the New Year and the hope for happiness and luck.
When the northern people of Vietnam expanded towards the south centuries ago they missed the peach blossoms at Tet. Without cool weather peach blossoms were soon replaced by ochna integerrima (also known as the Mickey Mouse plant), which blooms in hotter weather and represents longevity and wealth.
Whether peach or ochna integerrima, typical flowers of spring are found in every Vietnamese home around Tet.
Though living in different regions, Vietnamese conduct the same ceremonies for Tet with only some slight changes.
One of the most important is the farewell ceremony for Tao Quan (the Kitchen Gods) on their yearly visit to Heaven. Tao Quan, the guardian spirits of the kitchen, are believed to comprise two male gods and one female god, who bless the household and keep up the kitchen fire - the symbol of family happiness and prosperity.
Legend has it that Tao Quan ride carp to heaven on the 23rd day of lunar December to deliver an annual report on the household’s activities to the God of Heaven. On Tet Eve they return and continue their duties in the kitchen.
With the hope that Tao Quan will bless them for the New Year, people usually conduct a farewell ceremony with offerings to show their respect. They also clean and decorate the household altar with fresh flowers and fruit and offer a tray of food and sweet dishes to help Tao Quan prepare a ‘sweet’ report.
On that day, people in the north also burn paper money and clothing, including nice hats, robes and boots, which are considered an important package for Tao Quan when they front the God of Heaven. The paper costume imitates that worn by official mandarins when working in the palace during feudal times and expresses the idea that Tao Quan are the servants of the God of Heaven.
As Tao Quan use carp for travel it’s also a tradition to release live carp into lakes and rivers, in the belief that they will transform into dragons and help Tao Quan reach heaven. In Asian culture, carp turning into dragons also expresses a spirit of patience and effort to overcome difficulties to achieve the best in life. Releasing carp is also considered a kind-hearted deed when praying for good luck.
Meanwhile, people in the central region offer paper horses to Tao Quan instead of carp. Though believing in the legend of carp turning into dragons, they look upon the topic as being taboo because the dragon was the symbol of the emperors during their hundreds of years of reign during feudal times.
The ceremony of people in the south is even simpler. They also don’t believe in the carp or the outfit, so only give the Gods a full stomach with food and also a paper horse or stork (a popular bird of the south) to fly to Heaven.
Another significant ceremony is the offering of a five-fruit tray at the altar. Less than five types of fruit is also acceptable, as the most important thing is that it expresses respect to the ancestors and their wishes for the New Year.
In the north, the five-fruit tray’s spirit is also based on the five basic elements of Eastern philosophy: metal (white), wood (green), water (black), fire (red) and earth (yellow), to balance everything out. Thus, different fruit is selected, to represent not only these colours but also the fruit’s meaning. A common tray usually includes banana (for protection), grapefruit (prosperity), orange, kumquat or persimmon (success), peach or dragon fruit (promotion), and melon (luck).
Though living in the kingdom of fruit on fertile land, people in the south prefer a tray of mãng cầu (soursop), sung (fig), dưà (coconut), đu đủ (papaya) and xoài (mango). Said together they sound like ‘cau sung vua du xai’, which means ‘wishing for enough prosperity to spend’.
After constantly suffering storms, floods and drought every year, the central region - Vietnam’s most impoverished land - has little in the way of fruit, so the five-fruit tray is full of whatever happens to be available as long as they are fresh and delicious.
Along with decorations and ceremonies, food is another key part of Tet - the time for ‘eating and relaxing freely’ at the end of one year and the beginning of another.
Bánh chưng, a traditional cake that first appeared in Vietnam’s earliest days, also shows respect towards the ancestors, nature and the land, according to legend, and so is the most important dish at Tet.
Featuring glutinous rice, pork, and green beans, bánh chưng is square in shape in the north. With the same ingredients and in a cylindrical shape, it’s known as bánh tét in the south, while both can be found in the central region.
Meat is the second most important part of a Tet meal. Through thousands of years of war and poverty, many poor families only had meat at Tet after working hard and saving during the whole year, which is why meat is such an indispensable part of a traditional Tet meal.
A Tet meal in the north also includes onion preserved in salt (to eat with bánh chưng to cut down on its greasiness), pork sausage, boiled chicken, and a soup of dried bamboo and ribs or pig’s feet, which are particularly suitable during cold weather. Fried spring rolls are not traditional but are common, to add more flavour to the feast.
People in the central region also focus on meat for their Tet meal, including boiled pork, beef sausage, and braised beef, which are spicier, as is all of their food. Moreover, well-known specialities of central region are also enjoyed, such as tôm chua (sour shrimp sauce) or nem chua (fermented pork).
Meanwhile, a traditional Tet meal in the south is very simple, just like their easy-going nature. Together with bánh tét, a dish of braised pork and eggs and a bowl of bitter melon soup is the most popular food. In the southern dialect, bitter melon is khổ qua, which sounds like ‘difficulties gone’. So this is eaten on the last day of the old year, saying goodbye to any problems and hoping for a better New Year.
Despite the differences, there is one commonality shared by all Vietnamese: a warm family atmosphere, with all members gathered together at home and spending yet another memorable Tet under the one roof.