calendar full of festivals
Life in Vietnam is a succession of major and minor festivals,
mostly based on the lunar calendar – there is seldom a day
when the festival calendar is blank.
The minor festivals are mostly either religious, based upon
pagodas and temples, or village festivals celebrating anniversaries
of significant events or local heroes and ancestors and
based on each village’s communal house. The village festivals
usually involve an array of traditional activities, sometimes
centuries old, ranging from boat racing, tug-of-war, and
mock battles, to banquets, dancing and drinking competitions.
of the ethnic minority groups also hold regular festivals,
often with important ritual significances relating to the
cycle of the year and involving totems and sacrifices to
bring good harvests. Previously ignored or suppressed as
superstition, they are now held in greater esteem as potential
In August, we commemorate the Trung sisters, who carved
their niche in Vietnamese history by leading a revolt against
the Chinese in 40 A.D.
Trung Nguyen (Wandering Souls Day) occurs
during August. This is when lost souls return to visit their
living relatives, who must treat them with respect by offering
them food and presents.
September brings Trung Thu, the seasonal
Mid-Autumn Festival. It is a time for lantern parades and
for children. The traditional food is Moon Cake (banh trung
thu), a moon-shaped cake stuffed with sweet green bean paste.
Tet – the lunar New
Vietnam’s major festival is Tet, the New Year, celebrated
from the first to the seventh of the first lunar month,
which normally falls in January or February. It is by far
the most important event in the calendar, and is the equivalent
of Christmas, New Year and the Fourth of July combined.
It is a time for travel – traditionally, Vietnamese people
return to their families, even from abroad. Special trains
and flights are arranged, and tickets sell out well in advance.
Preparing for Tet
Preparations for Tet begin early. Presents and food stocks
must be bought – the streets are crowded with shoppers.
Special stalls spring up to sell the traditional Tet treats
– banh chung (fatty pork and bean paste in sticky rice),
mut (candied fruits) and fresh fruit. Public buildings,
parks, streets and houses are decorated. Tet is a time for
renewal, so everything relating to the old year must be
taken down, debts must be paid, grievances reconciled, new
clothes must be worn, and resolutions for the coming year
must be made.
The Kitchen God ascends
A week before Tet, the Tao Quan, (a trinity of spirits collectively
known as the kitchen god, or the god of the hearth) ascends
to heaven to report to the Jade Emperor on the past year’s
events. To ensure a good report, the house must be thoroughly
cleaned and the Tao Quan plied with food and gifts. As the
Tao Quan makes its journey on the back of a fish, it is
traditional to release live carp into lakes and rivers.
The days before Tet
On the days just before Tet, the streets are thronged with
people selling the traditional Tet trees, pink peach blossoms
in the north, yellow apricot flowers in the south, and beautifully
trimmed kumquat trees everywhere.
eve - the Kitchen God returns
On Tet eve, huge crowds converge on city centres, completely
blocking the streets. Dragon dancing, displays, music and
dancing are everywhere. The spectacle is repeated on a smaller
scale all over Vietnam. The climax comes at the stroke of
midnight, when the Tao Quan returns to earth. In the cities,
the sky is lit up by huge firework displays (a substitute
for firecrackers, which were banned in 1995 after several
deaths). People rush to gather green leaves for luck, and
the noise reaches a crescendo.
Two or three days of
peace and quiet
The next day, silence! The shops shut and streets are virtually
deserted, and remain so for several days. Families await
their first guest (carefully pre-arranged to ensure that
it is someone who will bring good luck). Tourists coming
to Vietnam in time for Tet and expecting something akin
to a Mardi Gras would be sadly disappointed. Tet remains
a very Vietnamese affair, a time for family and friends.
However, Vietnamese hospitality will always assure a visitor
a warm welcome wherever he or she might go!