Beautiful Vietnam
Tết traditions endure changing times
  • | | February 04, 2011 03:10 PM

Offering foods to ancestors is one of Tết customs. Photo by Hoai Luong

Tết Nguyên Đán, the Vietnamese Lunar New Year, has been celebrated for centuries. But with rapid economic changes in recent decades, such as a five-fold leap in per-capita income, has the Vietnamese New Year, like many Westerners claim is true for Christmas, been distorted by commercialism? As Vietnam has increasingly opened its borders more to the rest of the world, have the traditions associated with the cherished Tết holiday been diluted in any way? We spoke to a few residents of Hanoi to find out what they think.

When people share their favorite memories of Tết, it seems their minds immediately turn to food. In fact, the Sino-Vietnamese name Tết Nguyên Đán actually means Feast of the First Morning. The expression An Tết also captures a culinary focus: it means, literally, Eat the New Year. “It’s all about eating and enjoying,” explains 37-year-old poet Nguyen Phan Que Mai.

Que Mai recounts stories of her childhood, when there was a flurry of activity in the kitchen during the days leading up to the New Year. “The last meal of the year is very important,” she says. Her family would cook a huge meal, pray to their ancestors, and then eat together on New Year’s Eve. Housework, she explains – including cooking – was strictly forbidden on the first day of Tết, so they had to prepare all of their food beforehand. She claims that most families she knows still follow these traditions today.

Of course, it is impossible to talk about Tết foods without talking about bánh chưng, the sticky rice cakes cooked inside neatly-tied parcels of dong leaves. These cakes are traditionally made by the father of the family. Twenty-year-old Bui Dinh Vu recalls, “When my grandfather was still alive, we prepared chung cakes together and waited all night for them to be ready.”

Retired manager Pham Quang Cong, age 61, has similar memories. “My family made the square cakes, and I helped clean the leaves for wrapping,” he recalls. “The excitement was in the preparation and the cooking, which took twelve hours. Back then, almost everyone made their own square cakes,” says Cong.

Que Mai explains that now “people have more money but no time. So they buy them from the market instead.” Forty-four year old herbalist Hoang Thi Khanh concurs, pointing out that nowadays, people buy a much wider variety of foods, confections, and candied fruits than in the past.

Increased buying power is perhaps the most noticeable shift in the way many Vietnamese families celebrate the Tết holiday. However, many older people feel nostalgic for the remembered simplicity of times past and the feeling of abundance at the New Year.

Fifty-six year old Le My Ha, a retired secretary, recounts going to the market with her grandmother just before the New Year and being given sweetened apples on a stick and colorful clay toys. Says Ha, “I was very excited about Tết because I would get new clothes and more food at home.”
Que Mai, too, recalls, “We didn’t have much, so we only got to wear new clothes on the first day of the New Year. The excitement was incredible. And we never had any pocket money, so when we got lucky money, it was very special.”

Cong also treasured receiving new clothes and plastic sandals, as well as lucky money, pointing out, that “the money was very little, only enough for cheap local sweets,” while today “kids can be given hundreds of thousands or even a million dong.”

The trouble, remarks Que Mai, is that Tết has become “more materialistic” than it used to be. “People now get more stressed because they are very worried about buying gifts for people, so it’s not as relaxing.”

Still, despite changes in spending and available free time, according to Khanh, “Basically, the air and the spirit of Tết have stayed the same over the past few decades.” Vu, her son, agrees. Having grown up in the countryside, he supposes Tết is less likely “to be affected by foreign influence. To me it has been the same in recent years,” he asserts, “except for price inflation.”

Vu describes how he and his father clean the house carefully, then go to the bustling market in the village to buy a peach or kumquat tree for their house, as millions of Vietnamese families do each year.

Que Mai shares that the tradition of cleaning the house and making it beautiful is one that will always be important, as it signifies a fresh beginning for the coming year. She still faithfully practices the tradition of Xông đất as well, carefully choosing the right person to be the first visitor to her house each New Year’s Day – someone who is successful and will bring good luck for the whole year.

Like many others, Cong used to get a thrill from setting off firecrackers at the New Year. Khanh explains, “Before the government banned fireworks, people set them off all through the night. Now some people still use them, but only for about fifteen minutes after the welcoming the New Year at midnight.”

In the 17th century, Alexandre de Rhodes brought his missionary work to Vietnam, where he incorporated some Christian symbols into the lunar new year celebration. At that time, the expression Ba Vua, Lễ Nến, Tết đến sau lưng came into usage: “If Epiphany and Candlemas have come, Tết cannot be far behind.” But today, says Vu, despite the fact that more people are putting up Christmas decorations and dressing up as Santa Claus, “Tết isn’t affected by Christmas.” He only echoes the older saying: “When Xmas is over, then we know Tết is coming soon.”

All traditions are bound to change over time, as people adapt to the changing economic, social and cultural environment. For now, however, it seems that most of the time-honored tastes, smells, and customs of the Tết holiday have been lovingly preserved by Vietnamese families, as they have been for generations.

Leave your comment on this story