Vietnamese Tết Traditions And Reconnection

As soon as the big feast, ceremony and fireworks on Lunar New Year’s eve end, people usually go to bed so they may wake up early the next day for a few other Tết rituals.

First week of the New Year

On Lunar New Year’s Day, my parents would get up early despite going to bed late the night before. We had a whole list of things to do, places to be that day so there’s no time to waste.

My dad would clean up the ashes of burned offerings from the previous night’s ceremony release them in lake Ngọc Khánh near our house. In the meantime, my mom would be reheating the food from the midnight ceremony, my brother and I help her and by the time my dad comes back, we would sit down to enjoy our New Year’s brunch.

Visiting Temple or Pagoda

In the new year, one should always pray to the deities for another year of luck and fortune. That’s why you will find pagodas and temples jam-packed on Lunar New Year’s Day as visiting deities should be one of the first things to do.

Many wake up early to visit a temple or pagoda, light a scent stick, say their New Year prayers to all the deities and leave some donations for the pagoda. Sometimes, if there’s any left, the monks also give out small gifts like snacks, fruits or candies that have been offered on the altar and taken down, food that has been blessed: we call it lộc chùa which means “pagoda’s gift”.

The first people we visit every year are my grandparents, aunts and uncles who live in the residential neighbourhood near Chùa Bộc street, a street named after the pagoda by the same name so we would often come to this pagoda for the Lunar New Year’s prayers.

The gates of Chùa Bộc pagoda

I remember every year coming here, the pagoda was always overcrowded, not unlike other pagodas. In my last year in Hanoi, my family moved to the suburbs near the West Lake and Thiên Niên Cổ Tự pagoda was much closer to get to early in the morning. I would highly recommend visiting this beautiful pagoda, with its big courtyard and a very nice view of the West Lake.

The gates of Thiên Niên Cổ Tự pagoda near the West Lake
Housewarming tradition

Just like how you pray to deities to bless you and your family in the new year, you would want to do the same thing but for your home. However, this time around, you’re asking someone in your community: a family member, a friend, a neighbour or a colleague, etc.

This tradition is called xông nhà or “housewarming”. The principle is that depending on your zodiac animal and that of the year, you ask someone whose zodiac animal is harmonious to yours and ask them to be the first person to enter your house in the new year. Often times, people would make arrangements and invite the house-warmers weeks before the new year, to ensure that the individual with the harmonious zodiac will bring good fortune to their home.

My family never took this tradition extremely seriously. Once, while I was waiting outside the gate for everyone to finish getting ready, my mom suddenly remembered the housewarming tradition. As I ran inside, she asked my dad which visiting zodiac would be harmonious for the house that year and they came to realize it was the Monkey, my zodiac. They just shrugged it off and accepted that I was the accidental house-warmer and that it was all good.

Things to do/to avoid in the New Year

Here are a few unfounded beliefs of things to do or to avoid in the New Year:

  • If a close member of your family had passed away in the previous year, don’t visit other people as this will bring bad luck to their home. But it’s totally fine if they visit you because they will bring good luck to you.
  • Pay off your debts before the New Year. It is considered unlucky if you have outstanding debts that carry into the New Year. (I don’t think this applies to mortgages…)
  • Don’t cut your hair or your nails and limit showering since it’s a symbol of you washing away all the good luck in the New Year.
  • Don’t clean your house within the first week or the first few days of the New Year. It’s a symbol of you throwing out all the good luck coming to you. Do the cleaning before New Year’s Eve or a week after.
Perks for kids

As a kid, I remember my favourite part about Tết was receiving lucky money (lì xì) from family and family friends whom we visited or who visited us. My brother and I often had a competition to see who would receive the most money from the 3-4 day visits marathon but we would almost always tie.

My favourite snack: pumpkin seeds. Since it wasn’t my place to participate in grown-up conversations, I just happily sat there to eavesdrop and eat the small pumpkin seeds. It was quite addictive to bite on those tiny delicate seeds and remove the shell; if you bit too hard, the shell will mix with the seed and you can’t eat it.

Final thoughts

Similar to Christmas in the West, Tết in Vietnam is all about family and friends, taking a break from your busy life to build and strengthen your relationship with loved ones you might not often see.

Personally, this 3-part sharing about Tết has been a wonderful reflection exercise for me. Not only was it a good way to revisit childhood memories I thought I had forgotten but it was also an opportunity for me to reconnect with Vietnamese culture and write about rituals that I no longer practice. Because even if they aren’t part of my present, they are always part of my past.

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