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Culture Vulture (22-01-2014)

Update: January, 22/2014 - 08:38

The nation as a whole is caught up in preparations for celebrating the Lunar New Year festival, known popularly as Tet, which falls on January 31 this year. According to the Oriental zodiac, the coming year is the Year of the Horse. Culture Vulture spoke to culture researcher and fine arts critic Phan Cam Thuong to get some insights into the most important Vietnamese festival.

Can you explain the significance of Tet for Vietnamese people?

Each nation has its own rituals to see off the old year and welcome the New Year, in accordance with the official calendar and often related to harvests. On Vietnamese land, there are many different nationalities who celebrate their own New Year on different days.

For the Vietnamese, Tet is a time for reuniting all family members, worshipping ancestors, renewing and strengthening one's friendship, go sightseeing, and partake in many festive activities. As an agricultural nation, it is also the time to a new crop. People think the future of the whole year, good or bad, depends on Tet.

What are the most typical characteristics of the Tet celebration?

The cultural characteristics of the traditional Tet are described by Vietnamese scholar Phan Ke Binh in his book Viet Nam Phong Tuc (Vietnamese Customs). Generally speaking, at the end of the 12th lunar month, people complete business transactions and farm work, clean houses, clean graves, and clear up all debts, then carry out a ritual to worship and see off the Kitchen Gods to heaven. Days ahead of Tet, people usually set up the Neu (New Year's pole to ward off evil spirits), make banh chung (square sticky rice cake), decorate homes with folk paintings, clean ancestors' altar, buy gifts for parents, help the poor, and engage in other charitable activities.

On New Year's Eve, all households assemble a tray full of dishes and fruits to worship the house deities, Heaven and Earth, and the family's ancestors. They invite an appropriate person to be the first visitor to their house.

The next day or even the first moments of the New Year is a popular time for family gatherings. Vietnamese often choose good days after the third day of the first lunar month to begin their business, visit pagodas and churches.

How has international integration influenced traditional Tet celebrations?

The industrialisation and globalisation process does not deprive a country of its traditional rituals but tends to simplify things, removing what is non-essential to maintain the significance of long-standing cultural values.

However, the developments in Viet Nam have not all been positive. Some practices have become more simple, but others are being overdone, like the one of giving gifts to bosses and the custom of burning joss paper, vacations, feasts, and so on are likely to increase waste, corruption and superstition.

What will you advise a foreigner who wants to learn about Tet?

Foreigners will find it a bit hard to stay here because most of services stop for a while, especially on the last and first day of Tet.

Nevertheless, Vietnamese people often show their great hospitality on this occasion. Foreigners can visit Vietnamese families in their neighbourhood and they will be warmly welcomed with drink and food.

Normally all regions across the country enjoy a fine Spring atmosphere. Trees start to blossom, people clear away the bad things and show off their joy and happiness, so foreigners can go anywhere they want, just minding traffic.

Vietnamese culture is also manifested in family practices and customs, through rituals and religious rituals that take place throughout the day. They are welcome to visit and see these at any suitable time. — VNS

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