Revised and Updated January 2023.
Tet holiday, or the Vietnamese Lunar New Year, is the most important festival in Vietnam. It is also known as the ‘Spring Festival’ and is the longest public holiday in Vietnam. Some Americans have likened Tet holiday in Vietnam to ‘Christmas and Thanksgiving rolled into one’.
It’s certainly a joyous time of celebration, especially for the ten days or so leading up to Tet itself, culminating with fireworks on Tet Eve. After that family – including ancestors – worship, and close friends are all-important.
Thus, Tet is a good time for tourists to visit, not only to experience a key slice of Vietnamese culture first-hand, but also to soak up the pervasive fun and positivity.
What is Tet Festival?
Tet is short for Tet Nguyen Dan, or in translation, the ‘First Day of the Year’. In Vietnamese culture, this festival marks the start of the new year with a focus on renewal. Tet holiday is an occasion for people to reconnect with their families, reflect on the past year, and make resolutions for the coming one.
During these lunar new year celebrations, people often exchange gifts or give money to children as a gesture of good luck for the upcoming year. Many also decorate their homes with vibrant flowers such as peach and apricot blossoms, and chrysanthemums in honor of Tet festivities. Kumquat trees are often displayed in very prominent positions. It’s not uncommon to see streets lined with ornamental banners wishing family members health and prosperity.
If you are in Hoi An for Tet, you are in for a treat. There are more colorful decorations lighting up the Old Town than at any other time and the streets will be buzzing with parties; even fireworks are set off at midnight at Tet Eve.
About two weeks before Tet the streets are abruptly transformed into ‘plant nurseries’ with vivid red and yellow massed flowerpots – especially chrysanthemums – and deep orange, fruiting kumquat trees lining them 6-deep; waiting to be bought as emissaries of good luck for households.
What is the History of Tet in Vietnam?
Tet has a long history in Vietnam, with the earliest traces dating back to the Dong Son period (around 300 BC – 200 AD). Originally Tet was celebrated as an agricultural festival that marked the end of the harvest season. It also was one of the few extended breaks between harvest and the next crop cycle—the ideal time for a celebration.
Today Tet holiday remains as important a part of Vietnamese culture as it ever has been, bringing people together from all walks of life in celebration of the New Year. And despite modernization and Westernization, Tet holiday continues to be the pre-eminent festival in Vietnam, and the most cherished time to be with family and close friends.
As Buddhism spread throughout Vietnam, Tet evolved into a cultural event that also venerated Buddha, other religious figures and Confucian traditions. Ritual acts include making offerings to ancestors, praying for good luck, visiting temples and then there’s the core practice of joining friends and family in feasting and merrymaking.
From second birthdays to children’s gambling games, fortune tellers, Vietnamese zodiacs, and the mysterious Kitchen God – who acts as an emissary to heaven, literally as a go-between to the Gods and we mere mortals – there are many traditions and superstitions at play.
While it’s true that Tet holiday customs take different forms from region to region, spending time with family – both the living and deceased – and ushering in the lunar new year with good luck are at the forefront of the Vietnamese New Year across the country.
When is Tet Holiday?
Tet usually falls between January 20th and February 20th, marking the beginning of the new year according to the traditional Vietnamese lunar calendar.
Tet holiday officially lasts five days in total – but celebrations often begin before Tet itself, with parties breaking out all over – so when Tet begins officially, the entire country is already well and truly in a festive mood!
The first day of the lunar new year falls precisely in the middle of the official 5-day holiday sequence and extra public holidays are added to compensate for weekend days that are involved.
How do People Celebrate Tet Holiday?
Leading up to Tet preparing special food and cleaning and decorating the house and spending time with family and friends are the core activities. Generally, the first day of Tet is specifically for immediate family. Customs include visiting an important person’s house on the first day of the new year, ancestral worship, giving money to children or the elderly and even opening a shop.
Decorations for Tet
In the weeks leading up to Tet the stores become stuffed with traditional Tet decorations. Flowers and Trees play an important part too at Tet holiday (see below).
Decorations include red banners with the relevant zodiac animal featured. In fact red is everywhere and so is gold. Whether it be red lanterns, ‘Chuc Mung Nam Moi’ (Happy New Year) posters and cards or li xi envelopes for lucky money, red with gold text is the default. Gold statues of ancients gods promise wealth, prosperity and longevity to complete the rich display.
Another important tradition is the five-fruit tray which is prepared as an offering to ancestors and a symbol of good fortune and prosperity for the year ahead. The fruit chosen changes from region to region. In the north banana, pomelo, peach, persimmon and mandarin are common. In the center dragon fruit, banana, watermelon, pineapple, oranges/mandarins are likely, but in the south bananas, pears and oranges are avoided as unlucky.
Flowers and Kumquats
There are many flowers and potted trees that commonly decorate houses throughout the Tet holiday season and regional differences come into play.
Yellow Blossoms (Hoa Mai)
It’s hard to find a restaurant, public building or shop in southern Vietnam that doesn’t feature at least a jar of the Yellow Mai Flower (Hoa Mai), the blossom in the south considered the quintessential symbol of spring.
As Hoa Mai are one of the first plants to flower in the south they are seen as emblematic of Tet and Spring. You’ll find many artificial ones as well, especially in Ho Chi Minh City.
Individual Hoa Mai petals represent one of the five blessings: longevity, wealth, peace, health and love of virtue. And the yellow color points to happiness, prosperity and good luck.
Peach Blossoms (Hoa Dao)
The peach blossom (Hoa Dao) takes center stage in northern Vietnam. These pink Tet flowers are considered harbingers of good fortune in Hanoi. The more intense the color, the better the portent for the new year.
Vietnamese people say the peach flowers have ‘brave heart’ since they bloom early while other plants are still dormant. Hoa Dao keep the family peaceful and healthy according to Vietnamese tradition, especially in the north.
Kumquat Tree (Cay Quat)
Kumquat trees play a central role in Vietnamese Tet traditions too. During the Lunar New Year, it is a popular decoration for the living room, where its deep orange fruit symbolize prosperity, good health and good luck.
The most auspicious kumquat trees display a profusion of fruit of similar size and big, shiny green leaves. In accordance with Tet tradition, trees are carefully selected and prominently displayed in businesses and homes during the holiday.
Most businesses, in fact, place the shrubs at their entrance so they are visible from the street.
As with the Tet flowers, all parts of the kumquat tree are significant. Kumquat trees represent successive generations. Generally, fruit are the grandparents, flowers the parents, buds the children and new green leaves the grandchildren. Thus, choosing the right tree is very important.
In Hoi An and throughout Vietnam you’ll see hundreds of Kumquat trees lining the streets throughout the city for sale during the Tet holiday.
Chrysanthemums and Other Vietnamese Tet Flowers
Many other flowers loom large during Tet holiday, each with its own special meaning. Among them are marigolds (symbols of longevity), and cockscombs, orchids and chrysanthemums, the latter of which are broadly referred to as yellow daisies.
During the Tet holiday, bright yellow Tet flowers in particular can be found in homes, businesses, temples and pagodas all over the city.
In Hoi An, pairs of potted chrysanthemums can be seen ‘guarding’ the main entrance to thousands of houses across the town. A symbol of life, it is thought chrysanthemums bring equilibrium to households ushering in good fortune and keeping bad spirits at bay.
One of the most important aspects of Tet is the food preparation. Traditional Tet foods are a way to honor ancestors and bring luck and happiness for the upcoming year.
Rice cakes, or Banh Chung, are an essential Tet dish in Vietnam – it’s even said that if you don’t prepare these cakes, Tet isn’t really complete! Other popular dishes include sticky rice balls with different fillings (Banh Tet), pork pies (Banh Pía) and savory pancakes (Banh Xeo).
Fruits are another staple Tet treat – particularly pomelos as they symbolize prosperity and wealth. Also commonly served at Tet are sweet treats such as candied lotus seeds, coconut jams, sesame “soufflés” and iced jelly.
For more on food see below.
In the days leading up to Tet, many people organize special Tet parties where they invite their friends to enjoy food and drinks together. The ensemble cry of ‘mot, hai, ba yo’ that invites all assembled to toast each other and drink, rings through the air at regular intervals. There is always more food than can be consumed – see ‘Food at Tet Festival below’ – and Karaoke that oscillates between booming and shrill commonly thumps the neighborhood at volume 11, but not late at night.
Before Tet, Vietnamese families will normally spend a lot of time sweeping and cleaning their homes. This action represents the cleansing of bad luck from the previous year and making room for the coming of the New Year.
Vietnamese people believe that the spirits of deceased family members will visit the living ones during Tet, so they venerate the ancestors by cleaning their family shrines, creating a display of pictures of ancestors with burning incense, and presenting offerings of flowers and fruit. Before Tet, the shrines are well-cleaned and new offerings and decorations are placed there.
New Year’s Eve
Tet Eve or Lunar New Year’s Eve is the culmination of often 2 weeks of public partying before the focus shifts to family and close friends. On Tet Eve the celebration is in the streets all over Vietnam coming to a climax with impressive fireworks displays.
On top of all the decorations and offerings, Tet is also a time for fireworks – as loud noises are thought to ward off any evil spirits.
A couple of decades back firecrackers and other fireworks exploded all over long into the night, everywhere in Vietnam. The act of making lots of noise after the clock strikes midnight on New Year’s Eve is actually a tradition that crosses the globe whether it be to scare away bad luck, or just to help provide a boisterous end to the year.
In Vietnam the public use of fireworks and firecrackers was banned in 1995 and local governments took the responsibility for putting on large-scale fireworks shows. At midnight on Tet Eve in Vietnam, there are massive fireworks displays for everyone to enjoy, usually in the center of town, and Hoi An is no exception.
The Vietnamese Lunar New Year
The first day of Tet is dedicated to visiting families. The second day of Tet to visiting relatives and friends and the third day of Tet Holiday is for visiting teachers and temples.
Li Xi (Lucky Money)
Instead of stockings stuffed with sweets, kids are given red envelopes containing cash which is always offered as an even number of notes. Odd numbers and denominations are bad luck. This is known as ‘li xi‘ in the south and center and ‘tien muong tuoi‘ in the north.
Adults give lucky money to younger family members in exchange for the promise to study hard and behave well. At the same time, the oldest members of the family also receive lucky money hoping it will contribute to continued long life and good health.
Red, the usual color of the envelopes, is found all over the country during the Tet holiday. The color represents fire, and fire symbolizes light, warmth, the sun, and of course, good luck.
The Vietnamese believe that the first person to visit on New Year’s Day (or Tet) determines their fortune for the rest of the year. Some, to play it safe leave their dwelling just before midnight, only to return just after midnight to prevent a malign personality entering ‘first of the year’.
Make sure you remember these greetings if you find yourself in Vietnam during Lunar New Year: ‘chúc mừng năm mới’ and ‘cung chúc tân xuân’ – both of which loosely translate as ‘happy new year!’
Food at Tet Festival
The cuisine and food that is shared over Tet plays an important role for the Lunar New Year in Vietnam. The traditional dishes include:
Banh Chung (Sticky square cake)
Banh chung is a traditional food of Vietnam that is served during Tet, the lunar New Year celebration. It is comprised of two layers of glutinous rice filled with pork, mung bean and other ingredients such as garlic and shallots. Banh chung’s square shape symbolizes the Earth while the wrapping symbolizes Heaven – together they represent Vietnam’s union between sky and land.
Eating banh chung at Tet is considered a way to gain luck in the coming year and remind oneself of Vietnam’s culture and heritage. Banh chung can be found all over Vietnam.
Gio Cha (Vietnamese sausage)
Gio cha is a type of Vietnamese sausage made from pork and other ingredients. It’s often served at Tet holiday or other special occasions as it is believed to bring good luck. Together with banh chung, gio cha is put on Vietnam’s altar as offerings for ancestors in order to show respect and appreciation. Gio cha can be found in markets every day but its flavor is especially delightful during Tet when it is prepared slightly differently.
Thit kho hot vit (Braised Pork Belly with Duck Egg)
Thit Kho Hot Vit is a traditional Vietnamese dish made from boiled duck eggs, pork belly, coconut juice and special herbs. This dish is as old as Tet itself. The hot vit part of the name refers to Vietnam’s preserved eggs, which are cooked in the same pot with thit kho (pork) to give it its unique flavor.
Xoi (Sticky rice)
Xoi is a traditional Vietnamese sticky rice dish made from glutinous rice, beans and different savory ingredients. Xoi is served at Tet holiday and other special occasions as it is believed to bring luck in the coming year. It has long been part of Vietnam’s culinary tradition and is enjoyed by people of all ages. During Tet, xoi is usually found on Vietnam’s altars as an offering for ancestors to show respect and appreciation.
Mut (Sugar-coated fruit)
Mut Tet (Tet jam) is not a food to serve in a meal during Tet holiday, but more like a snack to welcome guests in this special period. Mut is always kept in beautiful boxes or trays and placed at the table in the living room. It is the main food for the owners and guests to taste when they’re chatting over drinks between meals. Unlike Western jam, Mut is mainly in dry form, usually dried fruits and some kind of seeds (pumpkin seeds, sunflower seeds, watermelon seeds).
Mut is made from all sorts of fruit, including mandarin oranges, apples, banana, coconuts, persimmons and breadfruit.
2023 – Year of the Cat
2023 is the Year of the Cat and Tet was 22 January. For those interested in the Vietnamese Zodiac predictions for 2023 read on:
Cats – It’s better for you to avoid big changes, like getting married or starting a new company. Believe that ‘a rainbow will come after the wind and rain’.
Dragon – Dragons with partners will find it difficult to understand them and find themselves facing an interpersonal ‘cold war’. Try harder.
Snake – Single Snakes will be able to attract the attentions of fine romantic partners, but those married will have many disputes. Otherwise, better than last year.
Horse – Happy in love, hopeless with finance. Be careful and circumspect.
Goat – Just so, so in love, fortune and health. Business prospects good. Remember to leave your desk and go for a run.
Monkey – Fortune is a roller-coaster, relationships improving, health stable. Welcome tough times and rise above them.
Rooster – You will struggle, especially with your career. Relationships are in a holding pattern but those who are dating will be drawn towards marriage.
Dog – Single Dogs will thrive in relationships, luck is OK, but health and wealth are declining so take care.
Pig – A better year is in store. Good cooperation at work is a feature, and single pigs will charm those around them. But no matter how busy your work is, you must find a balance.
Rat – There’ll be problems on every front except work. But even here ostracization by colleagues or rumors behind your back is on the cards.
Water Buffalo – Your fortune is on the rise if you work hard. And romance is peromising too. Get any minor health issues seen to before they escalate.
Tiger – Luck is with you and career signs are great. But even if it’s a close friend opening a new business, do not invest!
Following 2023 the Vietnamese zodiac signs and dates are:
- 2024: February 10 – Year of the Dragon
- 2025: January 29 – Year of the Snake
- 2026: February 17 – Year of the Horse
For more on the Vietnamese zodiac see Vietnamese Zodiac – The Dark Side
What’s the Weather Like at Tet?
Tet falls between 20 January and 20 February each year.
In the north around Hanoi the weather is cool with maximum temperatures around 19-21 degrees. In the center near Da Nang and Hoi An the days are usually dry – although there may be a final dribble of the wet season here and there – and warm with maximum temperatures rising to the mid-20s. Meanwhile, in Ho Chi Minh City expect hot days of around 32 degrees.