Happy New Year! And no, I’m not late in sending my wishes but right on time for Lunar New Year/ Chinese New Year or as we call it in Vietnam, Tết Nguyên Đán or just Tết for short. The last time I celebrated Tết in Vietnam was in 2008 (that’s 8 years ago!) Although the Vietnamese community in Canada celebrates Tết, the atmosphere just isn’t the same as it is back home, so I thought I could share with you how I remember Tết as a kid.
There are usually a few indicators signaling that Tết is approaching one or two months prior: the streets get filled with vendors selling pink peach blossoms and kumquat trees; the cold, humid and windy weather in Hanoi; and stores selling new year decorations. Just like malls in Canada put up lights and decorations in red and green, stores and malls in Vietnam will decorate in bright yellow, gold, and red colors: lanterns, new year wishes, chữ nôm calligraphy which is the old Vietnamese language, red envelopes and drawings of the animal for that year (2017 is the year of the Rooster – Đinh Dậu). You will mostly find these decorations in the Old Quarter of Hanoi, on Hàng Mã street. Here are a few tips I have for pedestrians in Hanoi.
Decorations with new year wishes
In Hanoi, every household will rush to buy pink peach blossoms and/or kumquat trees to decorate their house. Some people would spend days hunting for the perfect pink peach blossom, with the proper shaping, green leaves, colour and amount of flowers blooming. The ideal peach blossom has both fully bloomed flowers and smaller buds, a deeper pink, a crooked trunk zigzagging towards the top with as many branches as possible, forming a round-shaped canopy: overall, it has to look like it is growing and expanding, symbolizing growth and prosperity. You don’t want a peach blossom where the top is small as it will look like your fortune recedes.
This is what an ideal pink peach blossom looks like, colour and shape. A tree like this can cost a few dozen millions of VND.
Colder and rainier winters will ruin peach blossoms as the flowers get damaged by the rain while warmer winters will make the flowers bloom faster and wilt by the time Tết arrives.
The pink peach blossom from my last Tết in Vietnam
For choosing a kumquat tree, people would look at the following aspects: its shape, the trunk, fruits, flowers, and leaves. The tree should have a natural shape with a trunk more or less straight, it has to have some green and some ripe kumquats but they can’t be too big as they will sag the branches, a few flowers or buds would be good and leaves must be green, big and glossy.
Some ideal kumquat trees
In Southern Vietnam, since the climate is warmer, people don’t buy pink peach blossoms but rather yellow apricot blossoms. Kumquat trees are also available but not many people would have both in their house. I don’t blame them, it is quite a lot of work to search and maintain both festive trees at the same time.
Yellow apricot blossoms are the symbol of Tết for Southern Vietnamese
The holidays wouldn’t be the same without overplayed holidays music, wouldn’t it? Here are a few lovable songs that guarantee you will hate after the holidays or at least, that’s the case for me.
For some reason, ABBA is extremely popular in Vietnam so who doesn’t love combining ABBA and the holidays? The lyrics of the band’s ‘Happy New Year’ have nothing to do with Tết but when the song starts playing in stores, in malls, hotels, and on TV, you know the holidays are coming soon. And they will play it on repeat, every single day until you hate it. It’s as if the song has become the standard reminder to every Vietnamese to get ready for the holidays and its overuse is the equivalent of your neighbours/colleagues/families constantly asking you “Have you done your Christmas shopping?” Fun challenge: try to make it through the holidays season in Vietnam without coming across this song at least once a day.
There are also Vietnamese songs about the new year and there will be new music videos on TV made especially for the holidays. They might be different music videos but they actually all look the same: adorable children, all dressed up in traditional clothing, running around gardens or visiting their grandparents and singing about the new year; young men and/or women dressed in traditional clothing, walking gracefully through pink peach blossom gardens and singing about spring and sending their best wishes to everyone in the new year. Here is an example from ages ago. The general theme of holidays songs is about the beginning of spring and arrival of warmer weather, the new year bringing joy and fortune to families.
An old tradition: new year couplets
Much of Vietnamese vocabulary and expressions are Sino-Vietnamese (words or phrases borrowed from Chinese) and would often be used to form câu đối or couplets (poetry). One of the old traditions for Hanoians is to go to the Temple of Literature and ask for couplets for the new year to serve as decorations.
An example of a New Year couplet: “new year, new happiness, new wealth; more gift, more fortune, more peace”
In the old days of the former Vietnamese language (chữ nôm which resembles Chinese characters), literacy was considered a privilege for the rich and educated, and everyone had high regards for scholars. The Temple of Literature in Hanoi, the first university in Vietnam, is considered a symbol of knowledge and education and where you can find these ông đồ (or thầy đồ): old men with white beards, sitting at tables with a brush, an inkstone, writing couplets on red papers and giving them out to people. They were highly respected not only for their knowledge but also for the fact that they were teachers and were making education more accessible to commoners.
Thầy đồ traditionally have white beards, are dressed in black and write New Year couplets on red papers
Nowadays, the official Vietnamese language follows an alphabet system and the old Vietnamese language is considered an art. Thầy đồ are considered artists and you can find them at the Temple of Literature closer to the new year.
For those travelling in Vietnam during the holidays season, here are a few common wishes/phrases you can use to interact with Vietnamese people:
Chơi Tết = preparing for Tết or Sắm Tết = Tết shopping. The two phrases are interchangeable.
Chúc mừng năm mới = Happy new year. “Chúc” in Vietnamese means “wish you”. So you can literally say “wish you” and start listing all your good wishes to people. Vietnamese grammar is just simple like that 🙂
An khang thịnh vượng = Literally “good health” (an khang) and prosperity (thịnh vượng).
Vạn sự như ý = May all your wishes come true. “Vạn” means “a thousand”, “sự” means happenings/events, “như ý” means “as you want”.
Sức khoẻ dồi dào = Wishing you good health. “Sức khoẻ” means “health” and “dồi dào” means “plentiful”.
Tiền vào như nước = May the new year bring you good fortune. A literal translation would be “money coming in like water/flood”.
Hay ăn chóng lớn = eat lots and grow fast (for kids). Yes, we associate eating with growing up and not really growing fat.
Sống lâu trăm tuổi = literally translates to “may you live up to 100”, a general wish for longevity, usually kids addressing to their grandparents in the family. In Vietnam, you turn a year older on Tết and not on your birthday. We also count your lunar age which includes the 9 months you are in the womb. So all babies are one-year-old on the day they are born.
Apart from trees and other decorations like flowers, people would be going to the banks to get new bills of money. Instead of gift giving, we put new non-crumpled bills of 10k, 20k or 50k VND, then put them in bright red envelopes and give them to kids. We call this lì xì (lucky money) or the act of giving the money is called mừng tuổi, which translates to good wishes with the new age (since everyone ages in the new year).
Some red glossy envelopes for lì xì
And of course, we also prepare plenty of snacks and dishes for the holidays but I will elaborate on these in the next post since there’s so much to say about food.
The entire preparation leading up to Tết reminds me much of the atmosphere in November/December before Christmas: lights, decorations, overplayed holidays songs, buying trees and plants to decorate the house, etc. But more than objects and activities, it is the warm thought of seeing friends and family, and catching up with loved ones in the new year that make the holidays’ atmosphere the way it is, no matter which culture you are from 🙂