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Tết Nguyên Đán Print E-mail
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Sep 19, 2007 at 11:31 PM

Tết Nguyên Đán pronunciation (help·info) (Sino-Vietnamese for Feast of the First Morning, derived from Hán nôm 節元旦), more commonly known by its shortened name Tết, is the most important holiday in Vietnam. It is the Vietnamese New Year which is based on the Chinese calendar, a lunisolar calendar.Tet is the most popular festival in Vietnam and artifacts suggest that it has been celebrated since at least 500 B. C. E. The exact origin is unknown.

Tết is celebrated on the same day as Chinese New Year though exceptions arise due to the 1 hour time difference between Hanoi and Beijing. Tết share many of the same customs of its Chinese counterpart. It is celebrated from the first day of the first month of the Chinese calendar (around late January or early February) until at least the third day. Many Vietnamese prepare for Tết by cooking special holiday foods and cleaning the house. On Tết, Vietnamese visit their families and temples, forget about the troubles of the past year and hope for a better upcoming year. Tết traditionally marks the coming of Spring, so Spring is sometimes used interchangeably with Tết in Vietnamese. Nowadays, the term "Tet" in English often refers to the bloody Tết Offensive, which occurred during Tết in 1968.


Vietnamese people usually return to their families during Tết. Some return to worship at the family altar or visit the graves of their ancestors. Others return to where they grew up. Although Tết is a universal holiday among all Vietnamese, each region and religion has its own customs.

Generally, Tết in the three Vietnamese regions can be divided into three periods, known as Tất Niên, Giao Thừa, and Tân Niên, representing the preparation before Tết, the eve of Tết, and the days of and following Tết, respectively.

Tất Niên

Preparations for Tết start months before the actual celebrations. People try to pay off their debts in advance so that they can be debt-free on Tết. Parents buy new clothes for their children so that the children can don them when Tết arrives. 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 Tết, the streets and markets are full of people. Everyone is busy buying food, clothes, and decorations for their house. If someone lives far away from home, they will try to go home to celebrate it with family.


Vietnamese families usually have a family altar, to pay respect to their ancestors. During Tết the altar is thoroughly cleaned and new offerings are placed there.

Traditionally, the three kitchen guardians for each house (Ông Táo), return to heaven on the 23rd day of the last month of the Chinese calendar. They were to report to the Jade Emperor about the events in that house over the past year. Their departure is marked by a modest ceremony where the family offers sacrifices for them to use on their journey. Often, Vietnamese families smear honey over the mouth of the image of Ông Táo, to allow him to say only sweet things of the family.

In the days leading up to Tết, each family traditionally cooks special holiday foods such as bánh chưng and bánh dầy. Preparations for these foods are quite extensive, and cooking them can take several days. Family members often take turns to keep watch on the fire overnight, telling each other stories about Tết of past years.

Giao Thừa (New Year's Eve)

Each home is thoroughly swept and decorated with flowers and offerings for ancestors by the night before Tết. At midnight, many families traditionally light firecrackers to welcome the New Year, though this practice was banned since January 1, 1995 due to safety reasons. In the morning, actual Tết celebrations begin.

Tân Niên

The first day of Tết is reserved for the nuclear family. In big cities, the streets are usually empty as most people stay at home or leave the city to visit their close relatives in the countryside. Children receive lì xì from their elders. Usually, children don their new clothes and give their elders the traditional Tết greetings before receiving the money. Since the Vietnamese believe that the first visitor a family receives in the year sets their fortunes 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 Tết is called xông đất or đạp đất. Usually, people with happy demeanor or who had experienced luck during the previous year is invited first into the house. In some instances, any person with names such as, Phúc (happy), Tài (wealth), Lộc (luck), will be invited to perform this act of xông đất. 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 just to prevent anyone else who will potentitally bring any unfortunate events in the new year for the household.

Sweeping during Tết is taboo or xui (unlucky), since it symbolizes sweeping the luck away. It is also a taboo for anyone who experiences a recent loss of a family member to refrain from visiting anyone else during Tết.

During subsequent days, people visit relatives, friends, and local Buddhist temples to give donations and to get their fortunes told. Fortune-telling based on Truyện Kiều is also popular. Children are free to spend their new money on toys or on gambling games such as bầu cua cá cọp, 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.


Each family displays a New Year Tree called cây nêu, consisting of a bamboo stick 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.

A kumquat tree is a popular decoration for the living room during Tết. Its many fruits symbolize the fertility and fruitfulness that the family hopes will come in the coming year.


The traditional greetings are "Chúc mừng năm mới" and "Cung chúc tân xuân" (Happy New Year). People also wish each other prosperity and luck. Common wishes for Tết include:

  • * Sống lâu trăm tuổi (Live up to 100 years): used by children for elders. Traditionally, everyone is one year older on Tết, so children would wish their grandparents health and longetivity in exchange for mừng tuổi or lì xì.
  • * An khang thịnh vượng (Security, good health, and prosperity)
  • * Vạn sự như ý (A myriad things go according to your will)
  • * Sức khoẻ dồi dào (Plenty of health)
  • * Cung hỉ phát tài, from the Cantonese Kung hei fat choi meaning "Congratulations and be Prosperous"
  • * Tiền vô như nước (Money flow in like water): used informally


In Vietnamese, to celebrate Tết is to ăn Tết, literally meaning "Tết 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 Tết. These food include:

  • * Bánh chưng and Bánh dầy: essentially tightly packed sticky rice with meat or bean fillings wrapped in banana leaves, bánh chưng (rectangular) and bánh giầy (circular) are symbolically connected with Tết and are essential in any Tết celebration. Preparation is time-consuming, and can take days to cook. The story of their origins and their connection with Tết is often recounted to children while cooking them overnight.
  • * Hạt Dưa: roasted watermelon seeds, also eaten during Tết
  • * Củ Kiệu: pickled vegetables
  • * Mứt, including mứt dừa, which is sweetened coconut: These dried candied fruits are rarely eaten at any time besides Tết.
  • * Cầu Dừa Đủ Xoài - In southern Vietnam, popular fruits used for offering at the family altar are the custard-apple/sugar-apple/soursop (mãng cầu), coconut (dừa), papaya (đu đủ), and mango (xoài), since they sound like "cầu vừa đủ xài" ([we] pray for enough [money] to spend) in the southern dialect of Vietnamese.

Calendar differences

The Chinese calendar is based on astronomical observations and therefore dependent on what is considered the local standard time. North Vietnam switched from UTC+8 to UTC+7 on August 8, 1967, with South Vietnam doing likewise in 1975 at the end of the Vietnam War. As a result of the shift, North and South Vietnam celebrated Tết 1968 on different days [1]. The moving backwards of one hour had a similar effect to the 1929 Beijing time change and effect of this change was also seen with the Winter Solstice of 1984. On Hanoi time the solstice fell on 21 December, though on Beijing time the solstice fell on the 22 December.

As the 11th month of the Chinese calendar must contain the Winter Solstice, it is not the month from November 23, 1984 to December 21, 1984 as per the Vietnamese calendar, but rather the one from December 22, 1984 to January 20, 1985. The effect of this is that the Vietnamese New Year would fall on January 21, 1985, whilst the Chinese New Year would fall on February 20, 1985. The two calendars agree again after a leap month lasting from March 21 to April 19 is inserted into the Vietnamese calendar.

From 1975 to 2100, there are only four occurrences where the Lunar New Year begins at different dates in Vietnam and in China, which are:

Year Vietnamese New Year date Chinese New Year date 1985 21 January 20 February 2007 17 February 18 February 2030 2 February 3 February 2053 18 February 19 February

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Last Updated ( Sep 20, 2007 at 09:44 AM )
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