Vietnam Lunar New Year – Local Experience with Tet Traditions & Customs

Vietnam Lunar New Year

It was Vietnam Lunar New Year a couple of days ago and it was my first time celebrating it here in Vietnam. Vietnamese Lunar New Year is the biggest and most important festival and holiday of the year. Also, it is called Tết Nguyên Đán in Vietnamese, or Tet in short. I am a Korean and we also celebrate Lunar new year in Korea. So I usually go back home to visit my families during this time. But this year, I decided I want to stay in Vietnam to experience Tet here. 

I was really excited to see how Hanoi turned into festive vibe with streets full of decorations and lime trees and peach branches for sale. For instance, there was a special flower market open in the centre of Old Quarter for this occasion. I studied and heard lots of traditions and customs related to Tet holiday. Honestly, I was filled with fascination learning about the little details. Mostly because I could feel how Vietnamese people value and appreciate this occasion.

At the same time, I heard the city becomes empty and peaceful during Tet. Thus, I was really curious to see how Hanoi would be like without all the traffic and people.

My boyfriend is Vietnamese, so I was going to spend the Lunar New Year in his hometown. We headed to his hometown outside of Hanoi before Lunar New Years Eve, which was the 24th January. 

We decided to drive motorbike this time as most buses and public transportation were either unavailable or charge extra as Tet fee. We’ve driven this road for many times and we were prepared for some bad traffic jam with all the others heading home from Hanoi city. However, it was empty the entire journey. I mean there was almost no one, but us! Even my boyfriend could not believe it as he’d done this route around this time before and it had never been this empty.

So that was my first glimpse of Hanoi being evacuated and I must say, I really loved it! After the ride and when we arrived, we had a good rest that evening. 

Lunar New Year in Hometown

On Lunar New Years Eve, my boyfriend and his family were super busy with cleaning the house and preparing for the New Year. The morning was spent for cleaning and tidying the house from the altar to the floors and every corner. To me, this was all very interesting, because Korean Lunar New Years are much more focused on cooking, and not so much about cleaning.

Once the house was all clean and tidy, my boyfriend and I went to his sister’s house to pick up his cute little nieces. We then headed to a local market for shopping. We bought the girls some presents and also some for his parents as gifts.

A common custom between Korea, China and Vietnam is the envelops of lucky money. Vietnam considers red and yellow colours as bringing luck and prosperity, so they mostly use these colours for the lucky money envelops. And my boyfriend and I prepared lots of envelops of lucky money, called Lì Xì (red envelop) for his family and relatives. 

Vietnamese Lunar New Year Tet - Lucky money envelops
My first lì xì - lucky money envelops!

Tet Foods!

In the evening, we visited his grandparents, uncles and aunties in the village to say hello and wish them a happy new year. My boyfriend said sunflower seeds is also a prominent part of Tet holiday and I found out why. It’s because it’s time when everyone is visiting one another. In other words, every house prepares sunflower seeds and / or some kinds of snacks for nibble for the visitors. 

Besides sunflower seeds, we cannot miss out on the famous bánh chưng cake. This is a symbolic food of Tet holiday in Vietnam. It is made of glutinous rice, mung beans, and pork meat wrapped in banana leaf and cooked for hours. I tried it for the first time and I was excited for it because I love sticky texture food. Frankly, I was surprised with lack of seasoning, but it allowed the natural flavours to stand out. Also, as I said, I loved the stickiness of it. Another surprising fact is that people dip it in sugar and eat it slightly sweetened. 

Huong Duong Sunflower seeds - Tet holiday
Sunflower seeds are perfect for a chat time (source: Thethao247)
Vietnamese Lunar New Year Tet - Banh Chung
Homemade banh chung cake - made by a relative
Vietnamese Lunar New Year Tet - Banh Chung
Mung bean and pork belly inside the glutinous sticky rice!

Before Midnight

What’s more is that I found out a huge difference between Korean and Vietnam Lunar New Year traditions is that in Korea, the main event is in the morning of the New Year and Vietnam is at midnight when it turns New Year. Therefore, after few visits to his relatives’ houses, we came back and took a nap before midnight as we had a long day from early morning.

Then we woke again before midnight and began the final preparation for the main event. The altar inside the home was filled with foods, fruits, peach blossoms for the family ancestors. Additionally, a table outside at the yard was set up for other spirits. 

Vietnamese Lunar New Year Tet - Altar at home
Family altar inside house and Tet playlist playing
Vietnamese Lunar New Year Tet - Pray table for spirits
Altar at yard prepared for other spirits

Midnight of Lunar New Year

And at midnight, my boyfriend’s mother opened a book of prayer, lit an incense at the altars in and outside of the house and prayed. In the meanwhile, the quiet village was heated up with fireworks from here and there. Everyone was wishing happy new year in Vietnamese, “chúc mừng năm mới” to each other. I gave the lucky money envelops to my boyfriend’s parents and his cute nieces.

I have to say I truly loved the moment and was grateful to be part of the family during this time of festivity and excitement.

One more super interesting tradition is that the first person to enter the house after the midnight of Lunar New Year was very important. The person is symbolic of all the luck that is to come that year. Hence, a traditional custom is to arrange a specific person (usually man) who can be in good harmony with the father of the house to visit after midnight. 

I heard that this tradition may not be practised in many families nowadays. However, my boyfriend’s parents had arranged one of his cousins in law to visit. So few minutes after midnight, he came and joined the celebration. 

A feast of food was prepared as the first meal of the Lunar year. Everyone exchanged wishful blessings for each other during the meal. And I was there just being stunned with this very local and unique culture of Vietnam Lunar New Year. 

When the meal was almost over, my boyfriend’s mother was out in the yard with the two nieces. They were burning paper money and envelops to send to their ancestors. It is one very common custom in Vietnam you can see even on other days than Tet holiday. They burn these wishing their ancestors can spend the money for what they need and want in their after-lives. And I joined them to experience this very local ritual for the first time!

Vietnamese Lunar New Year Tet - burning paper money
The children were saying "I hope you'll buy nice clothes with this money" while burning 🙂

After Midnight

After the meal, it was around 1AM in the morning. And my boyfriend, his two nieces and I started another tour of visiting his other relatives. He said that when he was young, the streets at this time were full of people visiting families and relatives after the meal. However, the tradition has faded and we were the only ones out on the streets.

Some of his uncles and aunties were already asleep when we arrived. But, I loved how they were readily and happily welcoming us. I could feel that they appreciated to be visited. And quite frankly, we were all very sleepy and tired, but I absolutely loved the experience.

Chúc Mừng Năm Mới, everyone!

To sum up my entire experience of Vietnam Lunar New Year, I had a truly wonderful time. I appreciated the opportunity to get involved and experience the very local traditions and customs.

I also loved noticing similarities and differences in Vietnamese and Korean cultures of the new year. Honestly, it couldn’t have been more authentic and genuinely local experience than this. 

That’s why I wanted to share my very personal experience of Vietnamese Lunar New Year with you. I hope you’ll have an opportunity to visit a local home even when it’s not Tet. It will be an amusing and fantastic time to understand Vietnamese culture, delectable local dishes and its beautiful people.

Chúc Mừng Năm Mới to you all! Happy Lunar New Year from Vietnam! 

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