In Vietnam, Tết is deeply rooted in tradition and superstitions. It is taken very seriously, much like Christmas is in the west. After a busy period of preparation in which businesses close their doors, homes are spring cleaned, and debts are repaid, a serious celebration — the heart of the festivities — begins. It’s tradition to dress your best and parade every red item you own, to garnish the house with blossoms and furnish every table with lucky fruits.
Families will display beautiful pictures of their ancestors on an alter next to burning incense sticks, an array of fruit, sticky rice dumplings, and treats like coffee or a piece of their favorite cake. These are all gifts for the ancestors in their next life, with hope and prayers that they do not go hungry and all their paths are paved with luck. The more you give to your ancestors, the more luck and prosperity they are able to bring to you. They are your guardian angels.
My family and I let these well-embedded traditions live on with us every year. Big or small, we celebrate. After all, nobody wants to year of bad luck ahead! It is no harm to invite good spirits by having a good time.
"The more you give to your ancestors, the more luck and prosperity they are able to bring to you. They are your guardian angels."
I fill my freshly-cleaned home with flowers, blossoms, satsumas, and dragon fruit, speckles of gold, splashes of red, and shimmers of orange. The table is covered with our favorite New Year foods: roast duck, crispy pork, Hainan chicken and rice — foods we may only eat on celebratory occasions. Some years, I cook from scratch, other years I order takeout from my favorite restaurant. I invite my mum and brother’s family, their friends and my friends, and we prepare to celebrate this huge feast together around the table.
While the incense burns, we pray and give thanks to our ancestors, expressing our full name, our address, and what we wish to be bestowed upon us for the coming year. We give the children lucky red envelopes with sheets of cash inside. Once the incense fades, we fill our bellies, laughing and talking the whole while.
As for dessert, there is no stopping another spread! Someone usually brings a few cakes, varieties of pudding, and plenty of fruit. The Vietnamese love a good dessert and eating chè — a sweet cold or warm dessert soup — is a favorite evening past time. Eating chè isn’t really considered indulgent because it is usually served with nutritionally beneficial ingredients like seaweed, beans, herbal jelly, fruit and vegetables, which are cooling for the body. It’s believed that the main meal makes your body warm; therefore, these cool, sweet treats balance out the yin and the yang.
During Tết, there are many refreshing traditional sweet soups. One of my favorites is the mellow, sweet combination of seaweed, red dates, Chinese barley, lotus seeds, rehydrated logan, and grass jelly. But we don’t stop there; a few hours later, we finish with rice pudding.
"It’s believed that the main meal makes your body warm; therefore, these cool, sweet treats balance out the yin and the yang."
This celebration is a time to reflect on the past year: Did we reap rewards with our efforts from last year’s meals? Did we meet bad luck, and if so, what symbols warned us in advance? How do we learn from our mistakes?
Food, circumstance, and life symbols on the day of the Lunar New Year hold hope or warnings for the year coming, perhaps a better destiny and path in love, health, and prosperity. But most importantly it’s a once-in-a year opportunity to share our love and affection with those who are dear and close to us.
Uyen Luu's 3 Recipes for Tết
- Sticky Rice with Lạp Xưởng, Dried Shrimp, and Shiitake Mushrooms
- Lotus, Purple Sweet Potato, and Coconut Rice Pudding
- Thịt Kho Trứng (Braised Pork Belly and Eggs)