Vietnam Art Books -- Symbols of Tet, the traditional Vietnamese New Year (January 23, 2004)

Symbols of Tet, the traditional Vietnamese New Year (January 23, 2004)

The Lunar New Year (Tet Nguyen Dan) starts on the first day of the first lunar month and is the first season of a year, Spring. The New Year is a fete of the family, and the time for family members to gather at home to enjoy warm atmosphere. This custom has become sacred and secular and, therefore, no matter where they are or whatever the circumstances, family members find ways to come back to meet their loved ones.

Every Vietnamese has their own way celebrating the New Year, but they share the same symbol of Tet in their mind, which distinct Vietnamese cultural characteristics. The symbol is an indispensable part of Vietnamese traditional Tet, and brings the Tet flavour to every family when the day is coming. They include Banh Chung (Chung cake), Hoa Dao (Peach Blossoms), Hoa Mai (Apricot), Cay Quat (Kumquat Tree), Mam Ngu Qua (Five-fruit-tray), Cay Neu (Neu Tree), Phao (Fire Crackers), Cau Doi (Cau Doi (Parallels), and Rut Que (Praying)

Chung Cake

Symbols of Tet
As the legend goes, the Chung cake came into being under King Hung, the national founder, 3,000 4,000 years ago. Prince Lang Lieu, one of the sons of King Hung, made round and square cakes: the round Banh Day symbolizing the sky, and the square Banh Chung symbolic of the earth (under the ancient Viet's perception) and offered them to his Father on the occasion of Spring to show his respect. Ever since the Banh Chung has been a "must" during the Tet holidays. The Banh Chung is a square cake, wrapped in banana leaves and tied with laces of flexible bamboo slivers. It is a very rich food for the interior contains a filling of bean paste to which may be added small bits of pork meat, both fat and lean. This filling, which is amply seasoned, is pressed between layers of glutinous rice. Its square shape is considered a symbol of the thankfulness of the Vietnamese people for the great abundance of the Earth, which has supplied them with nutritious food throughout the four seasons of the year.

Peach Blossoms

Symbols of Tet
According to Vietnamese legend, once upon a time, in the East of the Soc Son Mountain, North Vietnam, existed a gigantic peach tree. The tree was so huge that its shadow extended through out a large area of land. Up on the tree, lived two powerful deities, Tra and Uat Luy. They protected the people of the land in the surrounding areas from the devils. The devils were so afraid of these two deities that even the sight of the peach tree haunted them.

However, at the end of every lunar year, these two deities had to fly back to heaven for an annual meeting with the Jade Emperor. During this time, the devils took advantage of this opportunity to harass the peaceful inhabitants. To fight the battle against these devils, people came up with the ideas of display a branch of the
Symbols of Tet
Peach tree in the house to scare away the devils. Since then it becomes a custom of the North Vietnamese to have a branch of a Peach tree during Tet season to protect themselves against the Satan soldiers. Those who don't have Peach tree can draw the figures of the two deities, Tra and Uat Luy, on red paper, and display them in front of the house.


While Peach tree is preferred in the North, Hoa Mai is more commonly used for this ceremony in the South because of the warm weather. Apricot is a small, yellow flowering plant that is used for decoration during Tet with the meanings of prosperity and well-being for the family. The value of these flowers is determined by the number of petals - the more petals, the more expensive the flower.

Kumquat Trees

Symbols of Tet
Kumquat trees about two or three feet tall are carefully selected and prominently displayed during Tet. To carefully choose a kumquat bush, the buyer must pay attention to the symmetrical shape, to the leaves and to the color and shape of the fruit. The bushes have been precisely pruned to display ripe deep orange fruits with smooth clear thin skin shining like little suns or gold coins on the first day of the lunar new year. Other fruits must still be green to ripen later. This represents the wish that wealth will come to you now and in the future. The leaves must be thick and dark green with some light green sprouts. The fruits represent the grandparents, the flowers represent parents, the buds represent children and the light green leaves represent grandchildren. The tree thus symbolizes many generations. Guests will caress the light green leaves about to sprout and compliment the discerning host who chose so carefully.

The plate of five fruits

Symbols of Tet
The five-fruit tray on the ancestral altar during the Tet holiday symbolizes the admiration and gratitude of the Vietnamese to Heaven and Earth and their ancestors, and demonstrates their aspiration for a life of plenty. As one theory goes, the five fruits are symbolic of the five basic elements of oriental philosophy: metal, wood, water, fire, and earth. Some people believe that the five fruits are symbols of the five fingers of a man's hand that is used to produce physical wealth for his own use and to make offerings to his ancestors. However, in a simpler way, the five fruits represent the quintessence that Heaven and Earth bless humans. This is one of the general perceptions of life of the Vietnamese, which is "When taking fruit, you should think of the grower". Today, the tray may contain five or more fruits, in the form of a pyramid like before or in an different shape.

Neu Tree

On the days before Tet, people plant an extremely tall bamboo tree in front of their homes. Bows, arrows, bells and gongs are hung on the treetop with the hope that all the bad luck of the past year will be chased away and everyone will have a happy New Year. The Neu tree has Taoist origins and holds talismanic objects that clang in the breeze to attract good spirits and repel evil ones. On the very top, they frequently place a paper symbol of yin and yang, the two principal forces of the universe. Sometimes a colorful paper carp flag will fly from the top. The carp, or a horse, is the vehicle on which the Kitchen God travels to make his report. This tree is more common in the countryside rather than in the city. It is ceremonially removed after the seventh day of Tet.

Fire Crackers>

The most exciting element in the celebration of Tet is the lighting of fire crackers. These explosions are believed to drive off ghosts and evil spirits and leave good luck in their place. As thousands of households simultaneously partake in this fantastic part of Tet, the level of volume and excitement rises to a fury. This level of emotion is the most memorable part of Tet and also the part, which makes it such a marvellous experience. However, firecrackers are no longer used as the government banned them in 1995.


Composing, challenging and displaying parallels represents an elegant cultural activity of the Vietnamese people. On the occasion of Tet, parallels are written on red paper and hung on both sides of the gate, the pillars or the ancestral altar. Each pair of parallels has an equal number of words with contrasting or corresponding meanings and lines of verses. They show a keen intelligence, perception of nature and social life, uphold morality and a yearning for the well-being of all people. The red is symbolic of auspicious and powerful vitality, according to popular belief. Mingling with the green of the Chung cake, the pink of the peach blooms, the yellow of the apricot, and the red of the parallels is sure to make the Spring warmer and cosier.


Symbols of Tet
After Giao Thua, the last day of the lunar calendar year, many Buddhists go to their favorite pagoda to pray for a good year and to get a fortune reading for the whole year. Each person will get a chance to shake the tube that contains reading sticks, until one stick falls out of the tube. In the case that many sticks drop out of the tube, that person will have to repeat the process. Afterwards, usually the monks will translate the meanings of the reading.

Reprinted from VOV News


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