April 2024
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Saigon: Viet-namese New Year – TET 2009 – (Part 1)

Do you remember your first New Year (TET) in Saigon?

TET is the most important of all holidays in Viet-nam. TET epitomizes the identity of Viet-namese culture. Although the Lunar New Year is observed in all of East Asia influenced by Chinese civilisation, each country celebrates it in a way peculiar to that country by making it conform to its psyche and historico-geographical conditions. Many rites, festivities and practices of Viet-namese TET are quite distant variants of the Chinese model, and are even original creations which hark back to myths and legends of the pre-Chinese period which prevailed in an authentically Viet culture of the Bronze Age (first millennium B.C.) called the Red River Culture.

If we were in Saigon now we would be doing what everyone is doing. Spending all week preparing for TET on January 26th.

During the week before Tet, some families visit the graves of parents and grandparents. Fresh earth is placed on top, weeds removed from around it and incense is burnt to invoke the souls of the dead from the other world to return to visit the family home.

The Kitchen God (Ong Tao or Mandarin Tao) is also called the Hearth God, the Stove God or the Household God. This god who was privy to the family’s most private business and intimate secrets for the ending year, returns to Heaven to make his report to the Jade Emperor. This report includes the year’s activities of the household in which he has lived. On the 23rd day of the 12th month, a farewell and thank you dinner is given to the Kitchen God by the household. The Kitchen God will need a week for his mission to Heaven.

Folklore has made the spirit of the hearth into a picturesque character, a buffoon who is the butt of crude jokes. Although he is a messenger of the Jade Emperor in Heaven, he is depicted as so poor as to be unable to afford much clothing. He wears an important mandarin hat but goes about with bare legs because he has scorched his pants in the hearth fire. Another version tells that he was in such a rush to get back to Heaven that he forgot his pants and ascended in only his underwear. Efforts must be made to put him in a proper mood to secure a favorable report to the Jade Emperor of the family’s activities. Offerings are made to him. These gifts certainly aim at influencing the outcome of the report. But no one considers such gifts to be crass bribery. Such pleasantries merely sweeten the god’s way, as perhaps cookies placed by the fireplace will please Santa Claus, who might be tired from delivering so many gifts on Christmas night.

The paper carps, horses and clothing (hats, robes and boots) will be burned by the family and thus transformed into a spiritual essence usable by Ong Tao in the world beyond. Like Santa Claus, the Kitchen God is loved and respected. Both have the capacity to bring fortune and happiness into the home depending on the previous year’s behavior. Although beliefs about the Kitchen God have changed over the years, he remains an important figure in the rich texture of Viet-namese New Year. The Kitchen God travels on the back of a brightly colored and powerful paper horse or sometimes a grand bird with great wings, such as a crane. Or he might ride on a carp with golden scales. Paper images of these vehicles are purchased at Tet or a living specimen of fish is bought and later set free. The day of his departure is marked by the calls of fishmongers from the countryside carrying baskets of fish hanging from their shoulder poles and calling “Fish for sale, fine mounts for the Household Gods to make their ride!” Live fish held in tanks of water and plastic bags are released into ponds, lakes, rivers and streams to impress the god with the kindness of the household. In Hanoi, the Sword Lake is a favorite spot for releasing Ong Tao’s fish-vehicle. In some cases, three fish are released to account for the possibility that one must please all three Hearth Gods.

Most frequently we hear of only the Kitchen God, but many legends support the trinity of Kitchen Gods. Ong Tao represents the blending of all three.

In the old days, and still in some countryside homes, cooking occurs over clay tripods. Three stones were all that was needed to hold up the pot over the fire. Few people spend time thinking about the nature of the Kitchen Gods or the specific meaning of the items that are associated with them. The three Hearth Gods are represented at Tet by three hats and shops sell sets of three miniature paper hats: two men’s hats and one woman’s. These are burned as offerings to Ong Tao. The God will also need a new pair of boots to wear as he travels to Heaven. Two favorite gifts for the triad of household deities are gold and wine.

In the central part of Viet-nam, cooking tripods or blocks that make up the family hearth, even if they are still usable, are ritually discarded when the God leaves. One week later, new blocks will greet his return or the arrival of his replacement assigned by the Jade Emperor.

After the Kitchen God has left, preparations for the New Year festivities begin in earnest. The week before New Year’s Eve is a period of Tat Nien. Tat Nien (literally meaning the end or ‘to extinguish the year’) is the celebration of the last session of a period, such as the last class of school, the last bus home, the last day in the office, even the last bath, all with parties and great ceremony. There is a festive holiday atmosphere before New Year’s Eve with dragon dances.

Some families set up a Tet tree in the week before New Year’s Eve. The Tet tree called cay neu, is a bamboo pole stripped of most of its leaves except for a bunch at the very top. The Tet tree has Taoist origins and holds talismanic objects that clang in the breeze to attract good spirits and repel evil ones. On the very top, they frequently place a paper symbol of yin and yang, the two principal forces of the universe. Sometimes a colorful paper carp flag will fly from the top. The carp (or sometimes a horse) is the vehicle on which the Hearth God travels to make his report. This tree is more common in the countryside now than in the city. It is ceremonially removed after the seventh day of Tet.

Sweeping and scrubbing is done in advance as tradition discourages cleaning during the holiday itself. During this time, shops and restaurants close while the cleaning spree proceeds in earnest. On hands and knees, the floors will be scrubbed; bronze will be polished to a brand new finish. Closets will be ransacked for old clothes to be tossed out. Shoppers swarm the streets at temporary Tet stalls that have sprung up, lit with tiny gaily-flashing lights. Everything needed for the celebration from food to decorations is at hand and in abundance at these Tet markets.

Two items required for the proper enjoyment of Tet are flowering branches and the kumquat bush. For the sale of these and other flowers and plants, a lively flower market is held in the center of the ancient quarter of Hanoi on Hang Luoc Street. A massive flower market was organized on Nguyen Hue Street in Saigon and attracts crowds who walk up and down the street admiring the flowers, meeting old friends and making new ones. However, this was moved out of the center in 1996. Throughout the country on bicycles of roving vendors, flowers create great splashes of color. In the south, the bright golden yellow branches of the mai apricot are seen everywhere. In the north, the soft rose-colored dao peach flowers decorate homes and offices. A truck driver will adorn his truck with a dao branch to cheer him on a long-distance run.

Miniature kumquat bushes about two or three feet tall are carefully selected and prominently displayed. To carefully choose a kumquat bush, the buyer must pay attention to the symmetrical shape, to the leaves and to the color and shape of the fruit. The bushes have been precisely pruned to display ripe deep orange fruits with smooth clear thin skin shining like little suns or gold coins on the first day. Other fruits must still be green to ripen later. This represents the wish that wealth will come to you now and in the future. The leaves must be thick and dark green with some light green sprouts. The fruits represent the grandparents, the flowers represent parents, the buds represent children and the light green leaves represent grandchildren. The tree thus symbolizes many generations. Guests will caress the light green leaves about to sprout and compliment the discerning host who chose so carefully. The Sino-Viet pronunciation of the word for orange sounds like the word for wealth and the tangerines signify good luck.

Crowds of shoppers at the markets become thicker and more frantic each night, holding up traffic as they jostle each other to reach the counters with the best buys. Prices are a bit higher, but then thriftiness is not considered a virtue at Tet. Everyone is wishing each other Chuc Mung Nam Moi!

One must purchase the sugared fruits, banh chung and the colorful decorations before the afternoon of Tet.

While shoppers roam the streets, banh chung patties wrapped in leaves are steaming in giant vats. The outside has taken on a lovely light green tinge after being boiled inside a wrapper of leaves. Banh chung in the north is a square patty measuring seven inches and two inches thick, filled with shreds of fatty pork surrounded by a dense mixture of sticky rice and mashed ground green beans. In the south, a similar dish is cylindrical. It is given as a gift at this time of year and has a similar long life and social significance as the western Christmas fruitcake. These are frequently called sticky rice cakes, but are unlike sweet cakes in the western sense. There is however, a sweet version made without meat but with sugar added called banh ngot (sweet rice patty).

Suddenly, as if by command of some magic wand, the spree of activity, the light, the noise, all vanishes. By early evening, markets and shops are abandoned. Shops, stalls and restaurants are locked leaving a notice hung on the door announcing the date of reopening. Special dishes must be completed that are expected to serve the family and its guests for the first three days of the new year. People desert the outer world and disappear on the requisite trip to their home villages and inside their homes for intimate family celebrations.

Here is a video of what is going on in Saigon as everyone is preparing for TET 2009.

Brings back memories, doesn’t it?! 🙂

What do you remember most about TET when you were living in Saigon?

Do you remember all the excitement of preparations during the 15 days before TET?

Did you and your family get into all the excitement and preparations? What sticks out the most in your mind about preparing for TET?

Did your family follow Viet-namese customs and traditions during TET?

Do you remember all the vendors with all their beautiful flowers and trees? Did your family buy the blossoms and kumquat trees?

Did you put a bamboo pole in your yard?

Did you buy banh chung and give it as a gift to friends?

Do you remember the little hats?

Did you follow custom and get rid of your old clothes and buy new cloths for the New Year?

What did you like most about TET?

Tomorrow we’ll continue with Giao Thua then progress through the three days of TET.

As always, you are welcome to leave your comments below.

Chuc Mung Nam Moi! 🙂


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