In Vietnam, the Spring Festival is called Tết Nguyên Đán, or Tết for short. It almost always starts the same day as Lunar New Year in other parts of Asia, but every so often it will actually start a day earlier, due to the time difference between Vietnam and China. The biggest holiday of the year is also the longest work holiday, as folks leave the big cities and go home to their families over the 10 day festival.
One of the most beloved holiday treats is banh chung, a sticky rice cake filled with red beans, onions, and pork, and wrapped in leaves (usually dong leaves) to cook in a steamer. Legend has it that a Vietnamese king could not decide which of his many, many sons would become his successor, and decided to give them all a test: he asked all of his sons to create a brand new dish for him to eat. All of them created complex, delicious dishes for their father, but one son created something very simple, which beat them all. Each part of the dish was steeped in symbolism, and their combination was so delicious, that the king decided immediately that his poorest son (the one who created the banh chung) would be the one to succeed him. It has been a Tết tradition, given by children to their parents as a sign of respect and filial piety.
As in many other traditions, Tết in Vietnam marks when the gods all return to the heavens. At the start of Tết, it is customary to make offerings to the household gods, in the hopes they'll put in a good word for the family when they make their annual reports to the Jade Emperor. Another tradition that is unique to Vietnamese Tết is the cay neu, or bamboo tree. Similar to the kumquat or peach blossoms used in other countries, Vietnamese families put these in their yards or in front of their homes, and hang flowers, origami, fish decorations, and good luck charms in order to protect their home and family from evil spirits. The traditional charms vary from region to region, such as cactus branches instead of fish in some areas.
We wish everyone a happy and safe Tết this year, Chúc mừng năm mới!
by S. Sifton
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