For centuries, Vietnamese people have celebrated Tet, the lunar new year. As they welcome the coming year and bid farewell to the past, they draw on traditional customs to mark this special day.
Erecting the Tet pole
As the spotted dove chirps three times announcing Tet
Let us erect the Tet pole and eat bean cakes
Whether a farmer in the countryside or worker in the city, everybody in Vietnam is stirred by this folk song. The image of a Tet pole raised in front of a village house (where it is thought to bring good luck and protection from evil spirits to the family within) inspires sweet memories of family gatherings and past celebrations. While it varies from region to region, the pole is usually made from a bamboo trunk that has been stripped of its lower branches, leaving only a few young leaves at the top. Attached is a bamboo basket containing betel and areca nuts and votive paper money.
poles are also raised in pagodas where they join baked clay musical instruments, votive paper and festive banners. Lime powder is sprinkled around the entrance of the pagoda to chase away ghosts.
Incense burning at Tet has a long history and continues today because the smell of burning incense is thought to create harmony between heaven and earth, man and spirit. There are many kinds of incense, such as frank incense, black incense, spiral incense, and musk incense, which can be burned not only in worship but also to rid a home of insects and bad odours. It is said that the smell of burning incense can lift a person's spirit. Perhaps that's why teachers used to burn it in their studies.
Freeing birds and fish
Releasing captured birds and fish is a Buddhist custom that is carried out at Tet because people consider it a good deed that will help them enter the New Year with luck. In the final day of the outgoing year, people flock to buy birds and fish, which they then release on the morning of the following day: the first day of the New Year.
Another way to enhance one's luck for the upcoming year is to walk away from the home, village or some other place at a time and in a direction that has been selected by a fortuneteller.
Visiting the pagoda
According to belief, people often visit their neighbourhood pagoda or temple once they have completed Tet celebrations at home. Such a visit will bring blessing from Buddha and from the spirit world. Worshipers jostle to approach the pagoda's altar and, once thete, they pray for luck in the coming year.
Many will buy incense at the pagoda and carry it home, where they will burn it in offering to Buddha, the family's ancestors and protective spirits such as the Kitchen God, who will travel to heaven carrying news of each family members' good and bad deeds. Others, instead of buying incense, pick a branch from a tree within the pagoda's grounds (usually Banyan) and in the same way offer it as a gift to their ancestors by placing it on the family altar. Often, a family will ask the eldest woman amongst them to carry out this task. Families who pay particular attention to tradition will ensure that she visits the pagoda at a specific time and from a specific direction as foretold by a fortuneteller. She must pluck a branch from the oldest tree in the pagoda grounds or from a Banyan near the village gate. Because of its long life, the Banyan represents longevity in people and is valued for that reason. Also, its name in Vietnamese, da, can have several meanings, one of which is 'much'. Thus the tree offers not only longevity but also plenty.
Buying good luck and selling foolishness
In days of yore, markets sprung up around Vietnam during the first few days of the New Year where people came to buy good luck and sell foolishness. Each item they sold would relieve them of the previous year's misfortune while each item they bought would bring good luck in the coming months. At these markets, goods changed hands rapidly and no one returned home empty handed. During those first few days of Tet, one could hear vendors cry: "Who will buy foolishness?" The goods they sold included rice, cakes, sweetmeats and toys, all of which were sold without profit.
According to custom, the first person to visit a home in the New Year must be someone who will bring good luck and prosperity to the family. That person must be of good character and is usually a man. Only once that person has entered the home can children leave it to present Tet greetings to their elders.
If the visitor is not a family member, he should be invited in before entering and will bring with him a firecracker, which he will light at the gate before entering the home and offering his greetings to the family inside. According to ancient beliefs, the firecracker will chase away ghosts while letting happiness in.
Greetings made during the Tet period are special and are custom made for each recipient. To an old man or woman, younger people should offer longevity and happiness; to a farmer, the greeting should promise favourable wearher and a. bumper crop; to a trader, it should hope fora thriving business and to a government official, rapid promotion. Sometimes, these greetings are accompanied by lucky money offered inside a small red envelope.
While the annual exercise of Tet customs may morph with time, their essence remains unchanged. They are proof, if proof be needed, that Vietnam's cultural traditions are alive and well, travelling safely from generation to generation.