The sights, sounds and weird smells of Tet in small town Vietnam

The sights, sounds and weird smells of Tet in small town Vietnam

Kumquat trees, fresh flowers, sticky rice cake and children hungry for cash and candy mark the Vietnamese Lunar New Year
Candied fruit for Tet Nguyen Dan
I want candy: It wouldn't be Lunar New Year without a wide array of candied fruits.

The Vietnamese Lunar New Year is known as Tet Nguyen Dan (Festival of the First Morning) or simply Tet. New Year’s Eve and the first three days of the New Year are the most important festival days, but the holiday extends ceremonially until the 15th day of the first month.

The Phan Thiet tower The Phan Thiet tower on the Ca Ty River in southern Vietnam, lit for Tet.Tet needs a new PR Manager

Tet hasn’t been well marketed internationally by Vietnam's tourism industry. Visitors, shipped into the country for the first week of the New Year, are unaware that like in China, this time of year is devoted to family with many Vietnamese traveling home to celebrate. Once the New Year begins there is actually very little for foreign visitors to do or see, and travel is anything but convenient. 

That said, the essence of Tet can be experienced at the festive night markets. Tet markets are in full swing for the 5-7 days before the New Year, hawking an abundance of traditional delectables, gifts and decorations.

Flowers for the Spring Festival

Since Tet is a Spring Festival, flowers and fruit trees are popularly imported from the highlands city of Dalat. These include red roses, yellow sunflowers, chrysanthemums and marigolds, and calamansi and kumquat trees loaded with orange fruit. The symbol of Tet in the South is the yellow cay mai (Ochna integerrima), a tree that blooms precisely over Tet. In the North, the pink cay dao (peach tree) is favored. Families bring sprigs and bonsai versions into the home and decorate them with red and gold ornaments, much like Christmas trees.

A good way to get your fruit

Our favorite items in Tet markets are the natural fruit candies. There are orange chunks of candied sweet potato, snow-white sugared squash, gooey brown tamarind pods (don’t forget to de-vein them), powdered-sugared coconut laces in pastel colors, golden slices of candied ginger, sticky strawberry, pineapple and soursop chews, black banana-sesame-ginger caramels, candied lotus seeds, and dried persimmons. 

Lucky money

Fireworks mark the stroke of midnight on New Year’s Eve. Lion and dragon dancers parade through the streets, performed by troupes of boys from local Chinese temples. As in China, children are the center of attention and they become obsessed with little red envelopes full of cash. While traditionally intended for small children, "Li Xi," as they are called in Vietnam, are given to bestow luck as much as they are to endow with money. The envelopes are now anticipated by all younger family members, workplace subordinates, junior friends, and children in any home visited over the holiday.

Mai TreeThe flower of the Mai Tree is the symbol of Tet in southern Vietnam.Sticky rice and pork fat 

The customary food of the holiday is banh tet, a log-shaped sticky-rice cake filled with mung bean paste or pork fat and rolled in banana leaf. Hanoians belligerently lay claim to its origins, though it’s more likely a gift from the Cham of central Vietnam. Gummy, greenish-yellow and bland, the home-made cakes are best served with a sweet and sour ginger fish-sauce. 

Irreconcilable differences

The Vietnamese and Chinese festivals normally coincide; but there are a few deviations due to differences in local standard time in relation to the winter solstice. Thus in 2007 and again in 2030, the holiday occurs a day apart in the two countries. There are also differences in the zodiacs -- the Chinese rabbit, sheep and ox are replaced by the Vietnamese cat, goat and buffalo, respectively.

Adam Bray has contributed to more than 15 guidebooks to Vietnam, Cambodia and Thailand, and has written (and in many cases provided photography) for publishers such as DK Eyewitness, Insight Guides, Thomas Cook, ThingsAsian, Berlitz and Time Out. He is fluent in Vietnamese and speaks a smattering of other local languages, including Cham and Khmer.

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