YOUR TET OPTIONS
In the past, most markets and malls closed for nearly a week during Tet, and families used to mob them beforehand to buy food for the festive week ahead. For some reason, the scene has gradually shifted. One reason might be the profits during Tet — prices are always than at other times during the year — or maybe people simply want to work and not gain too much holiday weight. Now, most of these shopping centres close for just one or two days (normally the first and second day of Tet, which fall on Feb. 19 and Feb. 20 this year).
In the process of writing this article, most of the places I called didn’t have their final Tet schedules. “Maybe just like last year!” is the reply I got most often.
As far as restaurants, their schedules mostly depend on their owner’s vacation plans. Check in advance.
One of the biggest questions expats have is what to do for fun during Tet. One sure-fire option is to head to the backpackers’ area in Saigon or the Old Quarter in Hanoi — restaurants and bars will be open as if there was no such thing as Tet. Having a few drinks or joining a darts game with friends is one of the best ways to kill time over Tet.
As Tet is traditionally a time to watch Vietnamese comedy films, most cinema complexes will be open through Tet. Although these movies usually have English subtitles, there will also be Hollywood movies playing. The list includes The Wedding Ringer (playing Jan. 30 to Feb. 19), Jupiter Ascending (Feb. 6 to Feb. 19), The SpongeBob Movie: Sponge Out of Water (Feb. 6 to Feb. 19), Kingsman: The Secret Service (Feb. 13 to Feb. 26) and Fifty Shades of Grey (Feb. 13 to Feb. 26).
Amusement parks are another good option. Most of their doors will open through Tet... just beware of the crowds during the third ‘hang-out’ day, Feb. 21.
Keeping Fit For those who put keeping fit at the top of their lists, 10 days without exercise might seem unbearable. But Tet is also a rare opportunity for the types of outdoor exercise Vietnam’s busy city streets don’t normally encourage. If you like running or cycling outdoors, tie up those laces — few sidewalk vendors will block your progress. Yet, if the idea of lifting weights and treadmill workouts still lingers in your mind, swimming pools and gyms in the five-star hotels are still open, and will welcome you — though their fees are always higher than at normal city gyms.
HOW TO AVOID THE CROWDS
Just like Christmas is a time for going home and reuniting with family in the west, Tet is the time for Vietnamese people to gather. And this makes for some crowded roads, and unexpected situations.
Take the case of Ho Chi Minh City. 30 percent of its official population of eight million people were born elsewhere, and most go to their hometown for Tet. In Hanoi, an even larger number of the city’s residents come from outside the capital.
This means a Tet exodus to the countryside back to the official ‘family home’. And for those who remain in town, they often stay in their homes — just relaxing, or because of Tet taboos (they don’t want to catch a cold, or get any kind of bad luck, as it reflects badly on the year ahead). Over Tet, both Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City turn into ghost towns — don’t worry, not literally!
Travelling in-country isn’t a great option for the claustrophobic. For Tet travellers, the lack of buses, trains and planes can be a big — and expensive — problem. Some book their tickets months before, or end up waiting at the station to get a last-minute fare at a high price. But travelling to a foreign country is a great option. For the last couple Tets, my uncle’s family have spent their holiday in countries in Southeast Asia that don’t celebrate the Lunar New Year. Only six countries — China, Mongolia, the Republic of Korea, North Korea, Singapore and Vietnam — are preparing for these special days.
The first Tet meal is usually abundant with dishes combining yin and yang — the complementary forces of light and darkness in everything — aiming to bring luck, prosperity and good health to the family in the next year. The following are the most common dishes:
A square, leaf-wrapped rice cake, it’s made from glutinous rice, mung beans, pork and other ingredients. Its origin is found in the legend of Lang Lieu, a son of the last king of the Sixth Hung Dynasty. He became his father’s successor thanks to his creations of banh chung and banh day, symbolising earth and sky.
Considered an essential element of the Tet family altar, the making and eating of banh chung during this time is a widely-observed tradition. It’s especially prevalent in northern Vietnam.
A savoury and sweet cake made with glutinous rice, rolled in a banana leaf into a thick, cylindrical shape, filled with mung bean and/or pork, then boiled. After cooking, the banana leaf is removed, and the cake is sliced into wheel-shaped servings. It demonstrates the importance of rice in Vietnamese culture as well as its historical value. It originated in southern Vietnam.
Originally from Quang Nam — think Hoi An — it is made from glutinous rice and sugar, wrapped in a banana leaf, then steamed. The word to (‘origin’ or ‘root’) honours one’s ancestors.
Thit Kho Trung
A southern dish made from sautéed pork and eggs. Back in the days when everything closed for Tet, it was one of the best ways to store cooked food. Now it is made in smaller portions, and served at one or two meals.
To make thit dong, mix sautéed pork or chicken, the meat’s skin, mushrooms and other ingredients, then cool it. This jelly dish started in the north as a way to store food for Tet, but now it’s popular in many regions. While people from the south usually use fridges to cool the mixture, people from the north just lean on the cold winter temperatures.
Tom Kho Cu Kieu
A simple and quick dish containing dried shrimps and pickled cu kieu — a member of the shallots family. It is one of the Tet favourites of Vietnamese drunkards.
Cha / Gio
Cha (Southern Vietnam) or gio (Northern Vietnam) are popular forms of processed meat, sometimes translated as Vietnamese sausage or meat roll. There are many variations including cha bo or gio bo (‘beef roll’), cha lua or gio lua (‘pork roll’) or cha ca (‘fish roll’). They are often served alongside beer.
THE FIVE FRUITS
The five fruit tray is usually displayed on the family altar or living room table during Tet. Through their colours and names, they express the family’s wishes.
Different regions have different arrangements. In the north, they include chuoi (banana), buoi (grapefruit), dao (peach), hong (persimmon) and quyt (mandarin) — although sometimes ot (chilli), quat (kumquat) or le (pear) are substituted. Northerners don’t tend to care that much, as long as the fruits have nice, bright colours.
Meanwhile, the trays in the south must have certain fruits, including mang cau (soursop), dua (coconut), du du (papaya), xoai (mango) and sung (fig) — forming the sentence “Cau sung (tuc) vua du xai” — a wish for prosperity. Sometimes, a pair of thom or dua (pineapples) will be added. Southerners try to avoid fruits which have names that remind them of bad things, like chuoi, which has a similar pronunciation to chui (failure); cam (orange), understood as suffering; or luu (pomegranate), which calls to mind a grenade. Fruits with bitter and pungent tastes are also out.
With the idea that the tray is expressing the owner’s wishes through fruit names, younger southerners have jokingly created some alternative versions. One of the most popular ones is “Cau xai mut chi” — a wish to have an endless source of money, based on soursop, mango, mut (plastic foam) and chi (thread). Another jokey version is “Cau vu vua du xai” — a wish to have a big enough pair of breasts.
While there is no proof the owner will get what they wish for, for a generation the mischievous young people of the south have wanted to see them try.
There are many bad luck taboos surrounding Tet, and people still take them seriously. Here are seven things to avoid doing on the first day of the Lunar New Year, falling on Feb. 19 this year.
Don’t let abandoned cats into the house. The sound of a cat’s meow in Vietnamese is meo meo — which has the same sound as ngheo ngheo (‘poor’). It’s believed that if you let a stray cat into your house on the first day of Tet, your family will be poor through the year.
Avoid borrowing money. It is said: “If you start the year with someone else’s money, all year you’ll need loans; if you start the year lending money, all year you will suffer losses.”
Avoid breaking furniture and other household items. All year round broken furniture is considered unlucky. However, in today’s society, when children accidentally break furniture it will not matter as long as an elder quickly says: “A New Year has come, a New Year comes (for the broken object); no mishap in every New Year.” That changes the bad luck to good luck.
Do not sweep or take out garbage. Don’t sweep the house or take out the garbage on New Year’s Day — you might accidentally sweep or dump out all the good luck from the house.
Don’t ask others to reach into your pocket. During the New Year, don’t ask people to take things from your pocket — otherwise, all year people will be reaching into your pocket.
Don’t collect debts. During Tet, it is considered bad luck to collect debts. And don’t allow others to collect debts from you either!
Avoid Doing Laundry. There is a water god, and the water god’s birthday is two days after Tet begins. Give him a break during Tet.
As a part of the tradition, Tet is often accompanied by greetings, referred to as ‘chuc tet’ in Vietnamese — usually auspicious words, phrases or sayings. These phrases are printed in gold letters on the red lucky money envelopes, another way of expressing New Year’s wishes. The sayings may be used when visiting relatives and other families, or before children receive their red envelopes. Children and their parents can also pray in pagodas or churches, in hopes of getting blessings for the year to come.
Chúc Mừng Năm Mới — Happy New Year
Vạn Sự Như Ý — May all your wishes be fulfilled
Sức Khỏe Dồi Dào — May you have plenty of health
Làm Ăn Tấn Tới — May your business prosper
Tiền Vô Như Nước — May money flow in like water
Sống Lâu Trăm Tuổi — May you live to 100 years
Chúc Gia Đình Hạnh Phúc và Nhiều May Mắn — May your family have happiness and good luck
Tôi chúc bạn bận bịu trong công việc, vui vẻ trong cuộc sống, may mắn trong đánh bạc, điên cuồng trong tình yêu, tiền đầy túi, khỏe trên giường, không bao giờ biết buồn, luôn cười hí hí... mua vũ khí, cướp ngân hàng, bắt chuyến bay, tới bên tôi và... cho tôi tiền — I wish you to be busy in work, happy in life, lucky in gambling, crazy and mad in love, strong in bed, have money in your pocket, never be sad, always have fun… buy a gun, rob the bank, take a plane, fly to me and… give me money
Một năm đong đầy hạnh phúc, 12 tháng dài vui vẻ, 52 tuần an vui, 365 ngày thành công, 8,760 giờ sức khỏe, 52,600 phút may mắn, 3,153,600 giây thú vị — May you have one year of happiness, 12 months of fun, 52 weeks of peace, 365 days of success, 8,760 hours of good health, 52,600 minutes of luck and 3,153,600 seconds of joy
Khoẻ hơn Lý Đức, mạnh hơn George W. Bush, giàu hơn Bill Gates, quyến rũ hơn Don Juan, bí mật hơn Bin Laden và may mắn hơn Xuân tóc đỏ — May you be healthier than Ly Duc, stronger than George W. Bush, richer than Bill Gates, more seductive than Don Juan, more mysterious than Bin Laden and luckier than Red Hair Xuan
Your First Guest
Some families, especially when they have a business at home, specify the first person to enter their house on the first day. This person’s zodiac animal works with the animal sign of the forthcoming year. People believe some signs will bring wealth and prosperity to the family and business, while some will give bad luck.
Because 2015 is the Year of the Goat, people who were born in 1953, 1954, 1955, 1962, 1963, 1966, 1967, 1970, 1975 and 1983 are believed to be luck givers if they’re the first people to enter your house on the first day of Tet.
Understanding Lucky Money
Defined in the Vietnamese dictionary, li xi (lucky money) is money given to children to celebrate the year to come. This money is placed in red envelopes and mostly given during the first three days of Tet, although some families give it out on the last day. It is seen as a wish for the recipients to have a year filled with luck and prosperity.
Chinese-Vietnamese families still maintain a tradition in which younger generations give li xi to their parents or grandparents. In other families, anyone who is over 18 and has a job won’t accept money from their elders. It all comes down to the family’s tradition.
In my family, my parents give li xi to every family member, no matter how well off they are. We give li xi to our friends’ children when they visit during Tet, and vice versa. The significance is not in how much we give, but in how much we care. It’s a wish for great health and success in study in the next year.
There is no limit to the amount of li xi — it can range from VND10,000 to more than VND500,000, depending on how close you are to the family. It’s influenced by your financial ability, as well as the scale of your business. If you are in business with the recipients’ parents, the li xi you give should be quite generous.
Some prefer to give (and receive) US$2 notes. Many Vietnamese save the note, as they believe that the US$2 notes are more rare than other notes. When one receives a US$2 note with a nice serial number, it’s taken as very lucky.