Here’s Oi’s helpful guide to the customs of New Year… wise up and chances are you won’t unwittingly put your foot in it later this month….
Like many Southeast Asians, the Vietnamese would not consider making a major decision, whether it involved marriage or building a house, without considering the lunar calendar and consulting an astrologer, psychic or fortune teller. This is pragmatism to them, not superstition: Abiding by these forces of nature is how one finds harmony with one’s visitor. This person is typically someone who is renowned for their fortune, has had a great year, and is born on a compatible Zodiac sign with the host family. A well-chosen visitor ensures good fortune for the visited family.
Anyone (whether Vietnamese or a foreigner) who unknowingly disrupts this rite by visiting a Vietnamese family before the designated first employees one month’s salary as a Tet bonus?
There are no clear answers to this question. The Tet bonus is a popular topic and is covered by the local press before and after Tet every year, and countless news articles have been written on the etiquette and peculiarities of the surroundings and is in turn rewarded with good luck and a happy life.
Vietnam’s folkloric beliefs – three people, for instance, will never pose together in a photograph because the one in the middle will be struck by ill fortune – are a mixture of Buddhism, Confucian ideology, local tradition, paganism and ancestor worship. Out of this nourishment for the soul comes the belief that one’s destiny is determined by the time, day and year of birth.
Is it true that you shouldn’t be the first person to visit someone’s house on the first day of Lunar New Year?
Generally, this is true. Vietnamese people believe that the first person to visit their house on the first day of Tet will dictate the family’s fortune for the entire year. To ensure year-round good fortune, they practice a ritual called xong dat or dap dat on the first day of Tet. Instead of leaving things to chance, each family will carefully choose a designated first visitor arrives may end up with very angry hosts as a result, so be sure to call ahead before visiting anyone.
This ‘first visitor’ ritual is also practiced at offices and shops in the hope of increased profitability for the future.
Is it true you should eat all the food in the fridge before the first day of Tet?
No, not true. Before Tet, Vietnamese will clear all the old food out of their fridge. Whether the food is eaten or thrown out is up to the individuals. Similar to other beliefs and practices concerning luck and misfortune around and during Tet time, old or spoiled food is seen as impure elements that attract misfortune and need to be cleaned out before the New Year.
And since the majority of the markets and supermarkets are closed for Tet, fridges are stocked in the days leading up to it to last the entire holiday with fresh food and items that can keep for a long time.
Is it true that employers should tip?
Tet bonuses increase or decrease depending on the economy and the financial status of individual companies. It is also seen as a commentary on the employee’s performance. On average, most companies pay out a bonus of one to three months of their employee’s salary, however this is not set in stone. Struggling companies have been reported to pay their employees in overstock products or other items.
As a rule of thumb though, if you can afford it, pay your workers the average rate. And if you can’t and have to opt for a non-monetary bonus, as many struggling companies have done before, then it is important that you make sure your employees know they are appreciated.
Is it true that companies try to pay off their debts before Tet?
Yes, this is true. The Vietnamese believe that having debt at the beginning of the New Year makes for very bad luck and will jinx their financial fortune for the coming year. So as a result, most companies will try to clear off their debts and refrain from incurring new ones in the last month of the old year and the first month of the new one. This belief also extends to the reverse in that outstanding loans from last year or at the beginning of the new one will also jinx their financial fortune. This in turn has made the ending of a year the peak debt collecting season in Vietnam where most companies aggressively attempt to collect on outstanding loans and ensure no new ones occur during the first month of the New Year.
Is it true you shouldn’t sweep your house during Tet because it symbolizes sweeping away good fortune?
Yes, this is true. Vietnamese believe that if you sweep your house on the first three days of Tet you will also sweep away the family’s fortune.
House cleaning is a task reserved for the week before Tet where families hold extensive cleaning sessions similar to Western spring cleaning. The days after the first three days aren’t considered as important however, and whether the practice is still maintained after the first day depends on individual families.
What is the origin of the name ‘Tet’ and what is its meaning?
The name Tet comes from the old Nom (the language preceding the current Vietnamese) name “Tiet Nguyen Dan” or “Nguyen Dan Tiet.” ‘Tiet” means “the moment.” “Nguyen” means “primordial beginning” and “Dan” means “dawn”. Combined, the original name for “Tet” translates to “the moment of primordial beginning at dawn.” The name currently used, Tet, is the shortened version spoken in the modern Vietnamese language.
Why do northern Vietnamese keep peach trees in their houses while southern Vietnamese keep apricot trees? do they have a meaning?
Yes, the different flower varieties do have a meaning. Northern Vietnamese keep red peach trees because of Chinese influence and peach blossoms are believed to have the power to ward off evil spirits and ill fortune.
Southern and central Vietnamese families on the other hand keep the yellow apricot trees because they believe the color yellow symbolizes glory and royalty.
Yellow is also the color of the Earth element, the element of growth and prosperity in the Vietnamese Five Basic Elements system.
Is it true that when visiting someone’s house during Tet, bringing oranges is good because oranges represent good luck?
This is a tricky one. When it comes to oranges, Vietnamese are divided in opinions. To northern Vietnamese, oranges are considered lucky due to their bright color and its root name being similar to the Han Viet word for “gold”. If you are visiting a family in northern Vietnam, oranges make for a nice Tet gift as long as they are not given in bunches of four as four sounds similar to the Han Viet word for “death”.
To southerners, however, oranges can be seen as a sign of bad luck because of the proverb “Quyt lam cam chiu” (‘The oranges take the fall for the mandarin’s crime”).
Watermelons with red flesh make for better Tet gifts when visiting homes in the south.
What are some other dos and don’ts on the first day of Tet?
Dos and don’ts around and during Tet all revolve around one simple principle: protect your fortunes and ward off all misfortunes.
– Lend or borrow money.
– Lend or borrow anything period – especially if the items are red, as this is seen as taking or giving away luck.
– Decline food or drink when visiting a Vietnamese family. Even if you are full, eat or drink something, even in small amounts.
– Wear white or black. Both are colors of mourning in Vietnam.
– Eat prawns, dog, dory fish, squid or duck. Some people think ducks are stupid and the dark ink from squid is seen as dirty. Similarly, don’t offer a Vietnamese any of these food items as they are seen as unlucky during Tet.
– Argue, fight, gossip, badmouth others or create disputes of any kind.
– Wear new clothes on the first day of Tet. New things are lucky.
– Wear bold, happy colors.
– Forgive past disputes.
Tet is a very popular time for Vietnamese to make peace with each other since it is seen as the time to clean out all ‘old hurts’ and turn over a new leaf. During this time, even lifelong enemies are willing to (temporarily) set aside their grievances for the joyous occasion.