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Type of Holiday: Calendar/Seasonal
Date of Observation: Usually late January or early February; first to seventh day of first lunar month
Where Celebrated: Vietnam
Symbols and Customs: Cay Neu, Peach Tree
Colors: It is customary at Tet to give children red envelopes with money in them. The color red is symbolic of happiness.
Related Holidays: Chinese New Year, Sol


The Tet festival is a Vietnamese celebration of the new year. The new year is celebrated at about the same time by several countries in Asia-Vietnam as well as China, Japan, and Korea-and with many of the same customs, such as offerings to household god(s), housecleaning and new clothes, banquets, ancestor worship, and fireworks. The date of the new year in these countries is based on a lunisolar calendar, similar to or the same as the one used in China. The exception for this timing is Japan, which has employed the Gregorian calendar since 1873 and thus observes New Year's Day on January 1, though many older traditions remain.

The Chinese lunisolar calendar is based on the oldest system of time measurement still in use. It is widely employed in Asian countries to set the dates of seasonal festivals. The CHINESE NEW YEAR takes place on the new moon nearest to the point which is defined in the West as the fifteenth degree on the zodiacal sign of Aquarius. Each of twelve months in the Chinese year is twenty-nine or thirty days long and is divided into two parts, each of which is two weeks long. The Chinese calendar, like all lunisolar systems, requires periodic adjustment to keep the lunar and solar cycles integrated; therefore, an intercalary month is added when necessary.

"Tet" is an abbreviation for Tet Nguyen Dan, which means "first day" in Vietnamese. It is the most important festival of the year in Vietnam, signifying both the beginning of the year and the arrival of spring. People wear new clothes, settle their old debts and quarrels, clean and repaint their houses, and visit their friends and relatives. Tet is also a time for making sacrifices and setting out special foods for the family's deceased ancestors, who are invited to come back for a few days and share in the festivities with the living members of the family.

The seven days of Tet officially begin with a ceremony bidding farewell to the kitchen god or spirit of the household, who leaves at midnight on the last day of the old year to travel to the celestial court of the Jade Emperor and report on the family's affairs. After he has left, firecrackers are set off to usher in the new year. Because the first visitor to arrive at the house after midnight is believed to influence the family's happiness and well-being for the entire year, many families invite certain guests to drop by early and encourage others, who might be unlucky, to come later. If a rich man should be the first caller, for example, it means that the family's fortunes will increase during the coming year. Whatever happens on the first day of Tet is believed to set the "tone" for the rest of the year, so everyone tries to be as polite, cheerful, and optimistic as possible.

On the first day of the new year, the adults of the household get up early and set up an altar to honor the departed ancestors. Twice a day, special foods are prepared and placed on the family altar for the ancestors who come back to visit. The second day is spent visiting friends and relatives, and the third day is spent visiting one's teachers. The ancestors are believed to depart on the fourth day of Tet, after which most people return to work, and life resumes a more normal pace. This is also a popular day to visit graveyards, where family members escort their departing relatives back to the land of the dead.

Tet became known all over the world in 1968 for the "Tet Offensive" of the Vietnam War. The lunar New Year truce was shattered on January 31 by attacks from North Vietnam and the National Liberation Front against more than 100 South Vietnamese cities. The attacks were repulsed, and the United States and South Vietnam claimed victory. But television viewers who had seen the ferocity of the attack knew otherwise, and the Tet Offensive led to increased pressure from Americans to end the war.


Cay Neu

The Cay Neu is a high bamboo pole set up in front of the house on the last day of the old lunar year. Various items are placed on top, including red paper with special inscriptions and a small basket containing various gifts for the good spirits of the household-including betel and areca nuts, wind chimes, a small square of woven bamboo (a symbolic barrier to stop evil spirits), and cock feathers for decoration. The Vietnamese believe that since the good spirits of the household must report to heaven during Tet, special precautionary measures must be taken to scare off the evil spirits, who might otherwise take advantage of the situation. But even the Cay Neu cannot stop a bad spirit, so many families take the added precaution of scattering lime powder around the house and using it to draw a bow and arrow in front of the threshold-a symbolic weapon to drive away evil.

Peach Tree

It is very common to place a flowering branch of the peach tree in a vase for the duration of the Tet holiday. A symbol of longevity and immortality, the peach boughs placed in and around the house at the new year are believed to drive away evil spirits.

Certain Vietnamese villages specialize in cultivating peach trees particularly for this purpose. But factories in Hanoi also make artificial peach tree branches that resemble the real thing and last much longer.


Cohen, Hennig, and Tristram Potter Coffin. The Folklore of American Holidays. 3rd ed. Detroit: Gale Research, 1999. Eberhard, Wolfram. A Dictionary of Chinese Symbols: Hidden Symbols in Chinese Life and Thought. New York: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1986. Henderson, Helene, ed. Holidays, Festivals, and Celebrations of the World Dictionary. 3rd ed. Detroit: Omnigraphics, 2005. Ickis, Marguerite. The Book of Festivals and Holidays the World Over. New York: Dodd, Mead, 1970. MacDonald, Margaret R., ed. The Folklore of World Holidays. Detroit: Gale Research, 1992. Santino, Jack. All Around the Year: Holidays and Celebrations in American Life. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1994.


University of Kansas Medical Center www3.kumc.edu/diversity/ethnic_relig/tet.html
Holiday Symbols and Customs, 4th ed. © Omnigraphics, Inc. 2009


January-February; first to seventh days of first lunar month
The Vietnamese New Year, Tet, is an abbreviation for Tet Nguyen Dan, meaning "first day." This is the most important festival of the year, signifying both the beginning of the year and of spring. It's also seen as a precursor of everything that will happen in the coming year, and for that reason, efforts are made to start the year properly with family reunions, paying homage to ancestors, and wiping out debts.
At the start of the festival, the Spirit of the Hearth goes to the abode of the Emperor of Jade to report on family members. The spirit should be in a good frame of mind, so a tree is built of bamboo and red paper to ward off evil spirits. At midnight the New Year and the return of the Spirit of the Hearth are welcomed with firecrackers, gongs, and drums. The festival then continues for a week, with special events on each day. A favorite food of the festival is banh chung, which is made of sticky rice, yellow beans, pig fat, and spices wrapped in leaves and boiled for half a day.
Tet became known worldwide in 1968 for the Tet Offensive of the Vietnam War. The Lunar New Year truce was shattered on Jan. 31 with attacks by North Vietnam and the National Liberation Front against more than 100 South Vietnamese cities. The United States embassy in Saigon was attacked and parts of it held by the Viet Cong for six hours; the headquarters of U.S. Gen. William Westmoreland at Tan Son Nhut Airport outside Saigon was also attacked. The city of Hue was captured. The attacks were repulsed, and the U.S. and South Vietnam claimed victory. But television viewers had seen the ferocity of the attack and the flight of Saigon residents, and the offensive led to increased movements in the United States to end the war.
Vietnam National Administration of Tourism
80 Quan Su Rd.
Hanoi, Vietnam
84-4-942-1061; fax: 84-4-826-3956
AnnivHol-2000, p. 239
FolkAmerHol-1999, p. 61
FolkWrldHol-1999, p. 76
HolSymbols-2009, p. 948
RelHolCal-2004, p. 230
Holidays, Festivals, and Celebrations of the World Dictionary, Fourth Edition. © 2010 by Omnigraphics, Inc.