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Vietnamese Lunar New Year – What You Need to Know About Tết [2022]

The Lunar New Year (Tết) is the biggest holiday in Vietnam. It has the same cultural and psychological gravity as Christmas plus New Years — kids look forward to it, employees get bonuses, families get together, and many rituals and superstitions are observed to ensure a prosperous new year.

The exact day of the Lunar New Year changes year-to-year due to the misalignment between the lunar calendar and the Gregorian calendar. Tết usually occurs during the end of January or in February. In 2022, the Lunar New Year takes place on February 1st, with festivities beginning on January 25th. 2022 will be the Year of the Tiger.

In this post, we provide a primer on Tết — everything you need to know about the Vietnamese New Year, from superstitions to rituals to gifts and fun facts.

1) Everything Shuts-Down Around the Vietnamese New Year

Around Tết, the normally-crowded cities become empty, as urban families flee to their familial origins in the country-side. Downtown Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City are like ghost-towns.

Government functions are especially slowed-down around the New Year. Politicians and government workers, who are stereotypically very devote to Tết rituals, spend a lot of time traveling around to the pagodas and praying for good luck and prosperity.

As a tourist in Vietnam, Tết is a terrible time to travel — the week leading up to Tết will be overbooked and crowded (everything thing takes x2 or x3 as long to do), and then everything will be shut-down during the 3-4 days following the Tết. You’ll have a difficult time finding hotels and amenities that are open. It is not like the now-secular West, where only Christmas day is closed.

If you are planning a trip to Vietnam around Tết, be sure to stock-up on essentials and food and have multiple contingencies available in case you have problems. Consider doing something low-key and unexciting, like lounging on a warm beach or reading a book — there won’t be anything else exciting happening.

2) Vietnamese Children Love “Lucky Money” for the New Year

Vietnamese Children love Tết. They get to walk around their family and neighbourhood and collect luck money — little red packets with 20,000 to 500,000 VND. In the past, they could use it to buy “fun” things like books and candy.

A little game that parents will play on their children is to try and trick them into giving them their money. A parent may say something like “oh, let me take care of it for you, and when you need something, I will give it back to you”, or “I need your money because I gave all my money to the other children!” — the duped-children quickly learn to not trust them, and instead secure their lucky money somewhere safe.

Kids love getting lucky money for the Lunar New Year. The new trend is to show it off on social media. Source: thanhnien.vn

No Presents – Just Money for Tết

The Lunar New Year is all about money and good luck. It is not like Christmas where parents buy toys for children, nor is there is fun mythological figure like a Santa — Instead, there are ghosts, but they don’t bring presents, only good luck for the new year.

3) Hoa Đào – The Vietnamese Peach-Tree Version of the Christmas Tree

Hoa Dao tree for decorating the Lunar New Year in Vietnam
Hoa Đào tree for decorating the Lunar New Year in Vietnam. Photo credit: Lynn @ VIetnamDaily

Instead of a spruce tree for Christmas, the Vietnamese will use a blossom-laden branch from a peach trees to celebrate Tết. They decorate the branch will little golden trinkets and charms that are meant to attract prosperity, health, happiness and good luck.

The idea behind the Hoa Đào branch is renewal: the blossoms represent fertility and renewal and the welcoming of new life into the house for the New Year. The branches are kept in the house for approximately 2-3 weeks, for as long as they last. Unlike Christmas, there is no ritual of placing gifts under the tree.

If you are in Hanoi before Tết, a fun activity is to visit the peach-tree farms (like Phú Gia) and the Hoa Dào street markets — you’ll see many Hoa Đào side-hustlers proudly displaying their shapely branches to random passersby.

4) Traditional Meals for the Lunar New Year

Food! — food is the big thing about Tết, where you eat and drank all day long with family.

In the recent past, before capitalism and mass-consumerism buoyed the lives of the average Vietnamese, people looked forward all year to Tết in which they could eat meat and have a full bowl of rice. “My wish for the whole year was to have a full bowl of rice on Tết “ remarked a sixty-year Vietnamese old woman, thinking of her childhood.

The traditional Tết meals include things like sticky-rice cakes (bánh chưng), boiled chicken, pork/beef sausage, special soups and spring rolls.

Does that sound appetizing? Most urban Vietnamese no longer think so — with the economic liberalization of Vietnam and the influx of decadent food like KFC and Dominos Pizza, people now think that traditional Tết food is kind of boring, similar to the way that Christmas turnips and cranberry sauce aren’t so exciting to Canadians anymore. Nonetheless, traditional Tết food is eaten for the sake of tradition.

Bánh chưng – The Iconic Food for Vietnamese Lunar New Years

Bánh chưng are the iconic cakes of the Vietnamese New Year
Bánh chưng are the iconic cakes of Tết. Source: Ben Nguyen

Bánh chưng is strongly associated with Tết. It is sticky-rice boiled in large green fronds. The green leaves turn the rice green. Together with some soy-sauce and pickled vegies (raddish, cucumber), it is a hearty meal.

It also has a reputation for making everyone fat! Watch for Vietnamese calling each other fat after Tết (which isn’t insulting according to Vietnamese culture — read more here).

FYI: Vietnam’s famous Moon Cakes are not eaten during Tết — they are a Mid-Autumn festival food.

5) The Kitchen Gods Kick-off the Lunar New Year

The Kitchen God Day is the de facto start of the holiday season, occurring one week before Tết — people start procuring food, buy Hoa Dào branches, and do household decorations.

Technically, the Kitchen Gods myth and rituals are independent from Tết. According to the myth, the Kitchen Gods ascended to heaven on giant fish to report on all the peoples’ good deeds during the year to the Jade Emperor (the Vietnamese head-god).

As a symbolic celebration of the gods’ ascension, people purchase gold-fish and release them into rivers and lakes. Kids love freeing the fish: “Swim to God and tell him all the good things I’ve done!” Some modern families who don’t want to harm fish will just buy paper-fish and burn them instead.

Unfortunately, many people throw-away the fish together with plastic bag, polluting the rivers and harming the wildlife. It is such as serious problem that there have arisen dedicated NGOs, like Keep Hanoi Clean, with huge campaigns to try and educate people about plastic-litter around the Kitchen God day.

Read more about the myth of the Kitchen Gods in the following slide-show:

6) Family Alters and Ancestor Worship

Most Vietnamese, especially in the North, have a (non)religion that involves ancestor worship: this includes praying to, and solicitation of good luck from, the spirits of deceased family members.

An important ritual during the Vietnamese Lunar New Year is to care for and make offerings to the ancestors at the family alter. There will be offerings of fruit, whole meals, paper simulacra of luxury-items (like iphones), fake money, and burning of incense.

The family matriarch or patriarch will also relay to their ancestors all the news of the year and ask for their blessings. For example, if a daughter is studying-abroad in the upcoming year, the family will pray to the ancestors to bless her and bring her good luck on her journey.

7) Trips to Pagodas for Good Luck

A New Year’s tradition is to go to the local pagoda and do some praying, donate some money, and collect some totipotent branches from the monks.

This isn’t a formally scheduled Mass, like on Christmas. Instead, the affair is much more casual. If you are traveling in Vietnam, feel free to casually enter, light some incense, say a small prayer and donate some money — it isn’t considered rude or sacrilegious for outsiders to participate (in fact, the Vietnamese don’t even consider it a religion)

Vietnamese people believe that the more pagodas you visit and ask for good luck, the luckier you will be. If you have some superstitious friends in Vietnam, they may spend a lot of time traveling around and visiting multiple pagodas around Tết.

8) Traditional Clothes for Tết – Áo Dài Tunic

Vietnamese women will wear the traditional colourful dress on Tết called the Áo Dài. It literally means “long dress”, but it is actually a tunic that is worn with pants. It accentuates the slim feminine body, but most women consider it uncomfortable to wear.

Vietnamese men have a similar traditional tunic, but they no longer like to wear it (many Vietnames people think it looks too effeminate and uncomfortable to wear). Instead, most Vietnamese men like to dress-up in typical Western-style semi-formal wear (like a suit, or dress paints and shirt with a vest), much like the majority of the world’s male population.

Traditional clothing to wear on Tet -  Áo Dài.
Áo Dài – traditional clothing to wear on the Lunar New Year. Credit: Nam Dang

9) New Years Gifts for Bosses & Clients

In the lead-up to Tết, employees are expected to bring gifts for their bosses, and businesses should send gifts to their clients.

These will typically be things like treats, fruit-baskets, French wine, and perhaps some handmade luxury items (for high-end clients). It is diplomatic way of making people remember you and maintain good relationships.

Some Gift Ideas for Tết

If you are a Westerner coming to Vietnam around Tết, here are some great gift ideas:

  • Authentic Scotch whiskey – there is a lot of forgery of high-end whiskeys in Vietnam, so an authentic foreign-sourced whiskey will be very well received.
  • Luxury sweets (especially chocolates)- a great gift could be a local luxury sweet, such as authentic Maple syrup or Belgian chocolates. Vietnamese chocolates are notoriously bad, so people love high-end foreign chocolate.
  • Luxury salt – like truffle salt (which has a double-meaning, see below).
  • Exotic spices – tyme, rosemary, oregano — these are expensive and exotic in Vietnam.
  • Cheese (Bad idea!) – the Vietnamese are generally not fond of cheese. It tastes weird to them. However, if you know that a Vietnamese has lived abroad, then it could be very well-received gift.

10) Vietnamese Employees All Get a Big Bonus for the Lunar New Years

It is customary (and near-ubiquitous) for workers of all social-class to receive one month’s salary as a Lunar New Year’s bonus. For high-end jobs in competitive industries, the bonus could be as high as 2-3 months salary. This is why job-descriptions will be advertised with “13-15 months salary”.

The bonuses are delivered before Tết, so that people can spend the money on their families.

This is unlike the West, which is so secular now that very few businesses dispense Christmas bonuses anymore. The few that do, instead opt for “performance based incentives” at the end of the fiscal year in March or April — even This is usually only for upper-middle-class jobs.

11) Buy Salt for the Lunar New Year

There are three reasons why Vietnamese celebrate the New Year by loading-up on salt:

  • to bring good luck;
  • to ward off evil spirits;
  • for the kitchen, to ensure good meals and good health throughout the year.

12) Sino-Viet Calligraphy – The Super-Tết Thing To Do

A common family activity is to buy an ancient-style written charm by a Master Calligrapher to decorate one’s house. The Calligraphers usually ply their craft in popular street markets during Tết, or at a dedicated “cultural village” like the Hồ Văn Village outside the Temple of Literature in Hanoi. The latter has fun activities for kids like painting lanterns and much more.

Vietnamese love the visual beauty and skillfulness of ancient Sino-Viet calligraphy. The words say things like “happiness” or “prosperity”.

The tradition has its origins in bygone-eras when most Vietnamese were illiterate: rural people wanted to show-off an air of sophistication and refinement by displaying written words that they themselves could not skillful calligraphy in their homes.

Hồ Văn Village and calligraphers in Hanoi, Vietnam.
Master Calligraphers during Tết at the Hồ Văn Village in Hanoi. Hà Nguyễn

13) The Vietnamese Zodiac – 2022 is the “Year of the Tiger”

Each year is symbolized by one of the animals of the Vietnamese Zodiac. The 2022 Lunar New Year will usher in the Year of the Tiger.

For good luck, tigers, goats and dogs are all good combos (according to Vietnamese fortune tellers), so they should all have an especially good year in 2022.

In order to earn more good luck for the year, families and businesses need their first guest or customer of the year to be a Tiger-born person (and, to a lesser extent, people born in the years of the dog, horse, pig, buffalo, goat, rooster, cat or rat). People will plan ahead to ensure that the right Zodiac-person will be their first guest — so don’t be insulted if you, having the wrong birth year, aren’t invited to someone’s house on the Lunar New Year.

List of Years According to the Vietnamese Zodiac

The Vietnamese Zodiac repeats every 12 years according to a consistent pattern:

  • 1996 – Rat
  • 1997 – Buffalo
  • 1998 – Tiger
  • 1999 – Cat
  • 2000 – Dragon
  • 2001 – Snake
  • 2002 – Horse
  • 2003 – Goat
  • 2004 – Monkey
  • 2005 – Rooster
  • 2006 – Dog
  • 2007 – Pig
  • 2008 – Rat
  • 2009 – Buffalo
  • 2010 – Tiger
  • 2011 – Cat
  • 2012 – Dragon
  • 2013 – Snake
  • 2014 – Horse
  • 2015 – Goat
  • 2016 – Monkey
  • 2017 – Rooster
  • 2018 – Dog
  • 2019 – Pig
  • 2020 – Rat
  • 2021 – Buffalo
  • 2022 – Tiger
  • 2023 – Cat
  • 2024 – Dragon
  • 2025 – Snake

14) A Stressful Time Prior to the Holidays

There is a big productivity-push prior to the New Year. Much like Christmas-time in the West, the lead-up to Tết can be very stressful for workers as projects need to be wrapped-up, reports need to be finalized, and loose-ends resolved before Tết.

If your Vietnamese colleagues seem a little extra-touchy around this time of year, you’ll know why.

15) Don’t say “Happy Chinese New Year!”

Unless you want to insult your Vietnamese colleagues, don’t make the mistake of wishing them a “Happy Chinese New Year!” around Tết. Instead, you should say “Happy Lunar New Year!”, or Chúc mừng năm mới.

AUDIO: Learn how to pronounce Chúc mừng năm mới in Vietnamese

The Chinese are Vietnam’s perennial arch-nemesis, occasional colonial-occupiers, and millennia-long security threat. Worse, the Chinese like to claim that all aspects of their shared cultural heritage are theirs (as if one’s culture could be “owned” or monopolized).

Saying “Happy Chinese New Year” will only reinforce the Chinese claim of both cultural-supremacy and hegemonic-masterhood over the historical lands they once occupied.

Is the Vietnamese New Year the same as the Chinese New Year?

The Vietnamese Lunar New Year (Tết) and the Chinese Lunar New Year both occur on Feb 1st 2022. They are based on the same ancient calendar and have the same cultural origins. They share certain elements like giving lucky money to chrildren, the colour red, and the 12-animal Zodiac. For example, in both calendars, 2022 is the year of the Tiger (although the Vietnamese and Chinese Zodiacs have some different animals).

Otherwise, the celebrations of Tết and the Chinese Lunar New Year are diverging and distinct in modern times, especially after the Chinese Cultural Revolutions which excised and demonized a lot of traditional Chinese culture (and today still live on in Taiwan).

Given that the Lunar New Year is celebrated in places like Vietnam, Korea, Taiwan and other countries, it is incorrect (and borderline insulting) to refer to it as the Chinese New Year. Instead, the Chinese New Year should be called either Tết in Vietnam, or simply the Lunar New Year.

16) Vietnamese Superstitions Around the Lunar New Year

The Vietnamese New Year is a very auspicious day, and good things that happen to them on the first day of the year will set the stage for the remainder of the year. People are careful not to do things that will invite bad luck for the year, and try to do things that will encourage good luck and fortune. Check out our list of 13+ common superstitions in Vietnam, and watch-out for their manifestations on Tết.

When is the Lunar New Year in 2022?

In 2022, the Lunar New Year takes place on February 1st, with festivities beginning on January 25th. 2022 is the Year of the Tiger.

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