A 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 boat racing, tug-of-war, and mock battles, to banquets, dancing and drinking competitions.
Most 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 tourist attractions.
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 Year
Vietnam’s major festival is Tet, the New Year, celebrated 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 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 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.
Tet 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!