Location: throughout Vietnam
Dates: Lunar New Year (between 19 January and 20 February)
Level of participation: 3 – a New Year’s Eve as raucous as any
In Vietnam, Tet ushers in the New Year and is by far the biggest day on the national calendar. Tet rites begin a week before New Year’s Day, and the first three days of the New Year are official holidays, but the event visitors will really want to experience is New Year’s Eve. This is the one night that Tet becomes a boisterous celebration; the rest of the time it’s a fairly quiet family affair.
One week before the New Year, Tao Quan – the three Spirits of the Hearth, found in the kitchen of every home – are said to ascend to the heavens to report on the past year’s events to the Jade Emperor. Altars, laden with offerings, are assembled in preparation for the gods’ departure, in the hope of receiving a favourable report and ensuring good luck for the family in the coming year. People visit cemeteries and invite the spirits of dead relatives home for the celebrations. Absent family members return home so the whole family can celebrate Tet together.
A cay neu (New Year’s tree) is constructed to ward off evil spirits. Kumquat trees are popular throughout the country, while branches of pink dao (peach blossoms) grace houses in the north, and mai (yellow apricot blossoms) are popular in homes situated further south. For a spectacular sight, go to ÐL Nguyen Hue in Ho Chi Minh City, much of which is taken over by the annual Tet flower market. In Hanoi, the area around Pho Hang Dau and Pho Hang Ma is transformed into a massive peach-blossom and kumquat tree market.
On New Year’s Eve, prepare yourself for pandemonium. This night the Tao Quan return to earth, and at the stroke of midnight all problems from the previous year are left behind and mayhem ensues. The goal is to make as much noise as possible. Drums and percussion are popular, as were firecrackers until they were banned in 1995.
The events of New Year’s Day are crucial as it’s believed they affect the course of life in the year ahead. People take extra care not to be rude or show anger, and it’s vital that the first visitor of the year to each household is suitable. They’re usually male – best of all is a wealthy married man with several children. Foreigners are sometimes welcomed as the first to enter the house, although not always, so it’s unwise to visit any Vietnamese house on the first day of Tet, unless explicitly invited.
Essentials: memorise the phrase ‘chúc mùng nam mói’ – Happy New Year.
Local attractions: Out of Hanoi, visit the extraordinary rock formations of Halong Bay (or Ninh Binh, the so-called ‘Halong Bay in the rice paddies’), or grab a bike in Ho Chi Minh City and tour the Mekong Delta, one of the most faithfully flat lands on earth.
More info: Vietnam National Administration of Tourism (http://www.huongviettravel.com)
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