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Once you have completed all the preparation for Tết, it’s time to celebrate! Here is how I remember it at midnight in Hanoi. I’ll be listing as many traditions and folk tales linked to Tết as I can remember so this is going to be a long blog post but I hope this can give you an idea of Vietnamese traditions and culture.
Every year, on December 30th in the Lunar calendar (all months in the Lunar calendar only have 30 days), my family and I would be watching the end-of-year comedy show while preparing for the midnight ceremony. The TV show is a popular 2-3 hour long program featuring all of our best actors and comedians. But first, a background story:
Táo Quân yearly report to Ngọc Hoàng, the King in the sky
In Vietnamese and Chinese mythology, there are 3 deities called Táo Quân responsible for the family’s fortune and fate: Thổ Công (God of the House), Thổ Địa (God of the Land) and Thổ Kỳ (God of the Kitchen).
The belief is that the three gods are present in each house and are protectors of the house and the family (the equivalent of Hestia – goddess of the right ordering of domesticity, the family and the home in Greek mythology). On the 23th of December of each Lunar calendar, they ride a carp and fly to the sky to bring their yearly report to Ngọc Hoàng, the King in the Sky, the deity who oversees the sky, the earth, the sea and the underworld (more or less our version of Zeus minus all the cruelty and transformation into animals).
The King in the Sky always has 2 advisors at his side during these report meetings: Nam Tào and Bắc Đẩu. The three Táo Quân deities then present their report on human beings’ activities on earth that year, and as soon as it was over, they fly back to earth to continue their task of watching/protecting humankind.
The comedy show is based on this mythology but with a twist: instead of having the 3 deities of the family and fortune, we had actors portraying multiple deities: God of Traffic, God of Telecommunications, Health and Food Safety, Education, Economy, etc. Since we had gods watching over the family, we should have gods also watching all aspects of society. The show often recapped all the events during the year, the trends and events that took place and the comedians mocked the corruption scandals, the horrifying news that some harmful products have been used in our foods, the reverse logic in our education and school admission system, etc. It was one of the things I looked forward to every year because it was a good occasion for everyone to look at our society and to honestly recognize the problems we still needed to fix. Yet, every year, the same themes would come back: same actors portraying the same “god” and criticizing an issue similar to last year. In retrospect, I think the show had some good jokes and criticism but the call-to-action at the end was never strong and convincing enough.
The cast of the End-of-Year Comedy Show
On New Year’s Eve (2017’s will fall on January 27th), all families will start cooking a feast to be put on the altar by midnight as offering to Buddha, the deities (I will elaborate on them below) and the ancestors. The food we prepare is very much similar to the ones served during death anniversaries:
- gấc sticky rice
- a whole boiled chicken with its head and feet, giblets removed and used in other dishes
- a stir-fried dish with chicken giblets and veggies like kohlrabi, carrots, woodear mushrooms and shiitake mushrooms
- a bowl of soup from the chicken broth, with added shiitake mushroom, pork cracklings, carrots, kohlrabi and glass noodles
- Vietnamese cold cuts: giò lụa which is pork sausage, wrapped in banana leaves and boiled. Giò thủ is Vietnamese head cheese, made from pork belly, pig’s ears and woodear mushrooms, wrapped in banana leaves and compressed in a tube mould until the gelatin in the pig’s ears makes all ingredients to stick together.
Vietnamese head cheese, spring rolls, and gấc sticky rice
- Bánh chưng, bánh tét and/or bánh dày. Bánh chưng is a cube/square rice cake made from sticky rice, stuffed with pieces of seasoned pork belly and mung beans, wrapped in leaves and then boiled/steamed. We usually don’t make these ourselves since it takes an entire day and a whole extended family to do so, we just buy it at the market. Bánh tét is the same concept but the only difference is that it’s in a cylindrical shape. Bánh dày is a round cake, similar to the Japanese mochi but a lot more sticky and chewy. You can stretch it out and wrap it around a piece of cold cut.
- Regular white rice
- Spring rolls
- Fruits, whatever is in season
- Snacks like confectionaries (mứt) made from fruits, lotus roots, lotus seeds, ginger, and coconut and other dry snacks like pumpkin seeds or cashews
Dried snacks to be served to guests visiting the next few days: cashews (plain or seasoned), pistachios, dried lotus seeds and lotus roots, dried ginger, dried Chinese apples, dried coconut, etc. These confectionaries are often slow roasted with sugar which will then melt and form a coat around the piece of fruit.
My mom always told me that dinners to be served on the altar should always have at least one stir-fry dish, one deep-fried dish, chicken, sticky rice and a soup/broth dish. And yes, this is quite a feast and you will have plenty of leftovers for the following days when you’re busy visiting family and friends across the city and don’t have time to cook! A tradition that thinks and prepares ahead 🙂
When I used to live in a townhouse in Hanoi, we would always hold the small ceremony on our terrace under the sky, unless it was raining. We set up a small table, placed small plates for each of the dishes made, my parents lighted some scent sticks, recited the prayers and then we moved on to burning the paper clothing and monopoly-like money for the 3 deities. We even had a goldfish, as a replacement for the carp that took the deities to the sky. As soon as the prayers and the burning of the offerings were completed, the clock hit midnight and the fireworks started. My parents always had their timing precise.
In Hanoi, the fireworks were organized around major lakes in the city like the West Lake or Hoàn Kiếm Lake in the old quarter. We lived a few footsteps away from Lake Ngọc Khánh which was relatively central in the city so as a kid, it was always nice to watch the fireworks explode right above your head.
Storytime: the tale of bánh chưng bánh dày
Aside from classic Disney fairy tales, I also grew up with Vietnamese folk tales. Here is the story behind the meaning of bánh chưng and bánh dày.
The bánh chưng I found in Canada is tied with the red ropes but in Vietnam, they wrapped with Phrynium leaves (lá dong) because they are strong enough to be boiled/steamed for a few hours and still last.
After fighting off invaders and bringing peace to the land, the 6th king of the Hùng dynasty in Vietnam thought it was time to select a successor as he knew he wouldn’t live much longer. However, he couldn’t choose which one among his 20 sons. (With that many options, I would be indecisive too).
For the New Year, he decided to organize a competition: among all the princes, whoever could come up with a new, delicious dish that is meaningful and heart-warming will be chosen as his successor. The king thought this was a good way to select the best future monarch and to avoid causing animosity among the princes (flawed logic in my opinion…)
So all the princes started their separate quests to find rare and precious ingredients to make the best dish possible. The kind-hearted and filially pious 18th prince, Lang Liêu, seemed to be the only one who didn’t embark on a quest. You see, his mother died when he was a little kid so he was quite a loner and didn’t have much help figuring out what to cook.
One night, a deity appeared in his dreams and told him: “On Earth, there is nothing more important than rice because rice feeds all people. Take sticky rice and make it into square-shaped cakes to symbolize the Earth, round-shaped cakes to represent the Sky, add stuffing to symbolize parents’ hardwork and love. Finally, wrap the cakes in leaves.” (This is like Master Chef’s no. 1 rule: keep it simple).
Lang Liêu woke up, picked the best sticky rice and started making the cakes, stuffing the square-shaped cakes with mung beans and pork (bánh chưng), and using finely ground rice grains to make the round-shaped cakes (bánh dày). The day to showcase came and the prince’s savoury cakes looked overly simple compared to his brothers’ dishes. Curious, the king asked about the cakes and Lang Liêu told him about the dream and the meaning of the cakes. The king tried a bite, was impressed with the taste, the simplicity and the heart-warming meaning of the cakes and that was how the 7th king of the Hùng dynasty was chosen.
Here is how you cut the rice cake: DO NOT use a knife. The cake is very sticky and you will mess up its shape. Instead, place some kitchen twines on the cake the way you want to cut it (picture 1), flip the cake and bring the 2 opposite ends of the rope together (picture 2) and then it cuts the cake and the stuffing perfectly (picture 3)
Statistically and officially, the majority of Vietnamese are atheist but living in Vietnam, you will see that most people practice Buddhism and/or Taoism. They go to pagodas or temples to pray during the mid-month full moon or during special occasions such as the new year; they organize death anniversary dinners, light scent sticks and pray to the souls of their ancestors; or like my family, they cook dinner and prepare for the midnight ceremony to the deities. I can see people embracing these ritual practices but I’m still unsure whether they accept or reject the religious beliefs. For me, Lunar New Year’s Eve is that time of the year when you really realize how blurred the line is between religion and culture in Vietnam.