There are many festivals celebrated in Vietnam, celebrated by the whole country, orin particular regions or villages.
Tet Nguyen Dan
Tet Nguyen Dan, usually just called Tet, is the most important celebration of all, celebrated throughout Vietnam. It is the lunar New Year and marks the beginning of spring in Vietnam. The lunar new year occurs some time in the last ten days of January and the first twenty days of February. In most parts of Vietnam, Tet celebrations last for about a week. Family members who live elsewhere travel to the ancestral home for this holiday time. People celebrate with special feasts, dances, family gatherings and parades.
In the weeks leading up to the festival, streets are lined with stalls selling Tet ornaments, food, candles and clothing. New clothes and shoes are usually bought for children, to be worn for the first few days of the new year.
The whole family helps clean and decorate the house with red and yellow decorations, sometimes a potted cumquat tree or peach and other blossoms before New Year’s Eve. This gets rid ofbad luck that happened during the old year. Mosthomes have a family altar, to show respect to their ancestors. During Tet, the altar iscleaned and new offerings placed on it. All throughNew Year, a plate of five special fruits remains on thealtar.
People pay their debts and settle arguments before the new year begins. Because shops will be closed during Tet celebrations, they stock up , and spend time cooking special foods.
Seven days before new year, each family has a ceremony to farewell the kitchen god, Ong Tao, so he can make the journey to heaven to report about the family’s activities through the year to the Jade Emperor, ruler of the gods. The Jade Emperor blesses deserving households with good luck for the coming year. Gifts of fruit, honey and paper money are left for the kitchen spirit, and paper gifts are burned in his honour.
A decorated bamboo pole is erected in front of the house to keep bad spirits out of the kitchen while the family kitchen god is away. On New Year’s Eve, each family has a ceremony to welcome Ong Tao back to the kitchen.
There are 12 animals that in turn rule a year. Midnight on New Year’s Eve is the beginning of the new year and the time when the animal of one year hands over power to the animal who will rule the next year.
In the temples, bells ring and prayers are chanted. In people’s homes, fragrant incense sticks are lit and prayers said as the family welcomes the family ancestors.
At midnight, fireworks explode around the country to welcome in the New Year, to scare away evil spirits, and to welcome back the spirits of the ancestors. For these reasons, firecrackers are a feature of the first days of the new year.
The first visitor to enter a house on Tet is very important, because that person can set the atmosphere for good fortune to follow all year.
People smile and avoid being rude or argumentative - how one behaves in the first three days of the new year helps bring luck and happiness for the year. Papier maché masked dragons are carried by dancers, to the sounds of drums and cymbals, in Tet parades.
Well-behaved children receive money inside in red paper envelopes that symbolise luck and wealth. The first three days of the new year are devoted to visiting: the father’s side of the family on day 1, the mother’s side on day 2, teachers on day 3. In the days after, friends and neighbours visit each other, and many visit a temple to pray for a safe and happy year. Houses are not swept during Tet , because luck that has been bestowed on the family will be swept away.
One of the special New Year foods is banh chung, made of ‘sticky’ rice, pork and green beans, wrapped in a special leaf wrapper, tied with bamboo strings. Each ingredient is prepared in a precise way, and the final parcel must be tied into a perfect square.
A few other festivals
This is held in honour of the moon in late September or early October, when the full moon is the brightest. The moon is reddish then and appears to be larger. The festival also celebrates the harvest.
To honour the light of the moon, children carry lighted rice paper lanterns in fun shapes, such as the moon, a star, rabbit, dragon or fish, hung on bamboo poles.
People wear masks, generally a circle of woven palm leaves decorated with a face. Lion dancers and drummers entertain the crowds. This festival is a time when younger people express their respect and gratitude to the older generation.
At this festival, sweet cakes called banh trung-thu, or moon cakes, are eaten. They symbolise luck, happiness, health and wealth. People honour the ancestors by burning incense and fake money, the smoke risingup to the ancestors.
Vietnam’s National Day is held on 2nd September and celebrates the day in 1945 when the country achieved independence from the French. People honour the memory of the leader of that war, Ho Chi Minh, by carrying pictures of him. Many people dress in national costumes, and children parade carrying balloons. Dragon boat races are held.
Reunification Day, on 30th April celebrates the end of the Vietnam War in 1975, which joined together the Republic of Vietnam in the south and the Democratic Republic of Vietnam in the north to become one nation, the Socialist Republic of Vietnam.
There are special competitions and decorations in the streets, and different local celebrations such as parades or public entertainment. Special programs are aired on television such as music shows or history.
Ngoc Son Festival is held at the Ngoc Son Temple on Jade Island in the middle of the Hoan Kiem Lake, the Lake of the Restored Sword in the Old Quarter of Hanoi. The festival is held to honour three saints and a national hero called Le Loi.
Special meals are cooked as offerings to the saints and the hero, and are carried across a bridge called the Huc, or Sunbeam Bridge, which joins the island to the mainland. After this solemn ceremony there is a great feast.
Doan Ngu festival marks the longest day of the year, the summer solstice. Paper effigies, or images, of hated people are burned as offerings to the god of death so that he will prevent the spread of disease.
Trung Nguyen celebration lasts for a month, from the 15th day of the 7th lunar month. People make offerings of food to the souls of their dead ancestors. They burn paper clothes for their ancestors to use. People also pray and offer food to the wandering souls of the dead. These souls have been released from hell or have been forgotten by their relatives, and are wandering at this time hoping to find their family altars.
The Whale festival held in fishing villages each year honours whales and asks for continued protection at sea. Legend says that Emperor Gia Long was saved by a whale when his ship sank. From then on, the whale was regarded as a god by fishermen. For two days in the middle of the third lunar month, fishing villages decorate their whale temple, their houses and fishing boats.
On the first evening, village elders make a peace offering of food other than seafood as they pray. On the second day at dawn there is a procession of boats, and at midnight there is a ceremony with music and incense lit by children.
Traditional Arts of Vietnam
There are many art forms in which the Vietnamese have excelled for centuries, and that are still practiced and developed today. There are performance arts such as music, dance or drama performed to an audience or visual arts such as paintings, carvings, ceramics, sculpture made to be looked at.
Literature, the art of writing, has been valued in Vietnam for centuries, so much so that temples were built in honour of literature. Thanks to that, ancient masterpieces of fiction, songs, poetry and morality tales have survived to modern times. Today, there are many Vietnamese authors whose work is known and praised internationally.
The most popular performing arts in Vietnam have always been musical, including the ancient water puppetry.
Two forms of traditional music have been identified as unique and worthy of preservation. Ca Tru singing dates from the 15th century, and is an art form of singing poems. The words of the poems are thoughtful, and deeply emotional. Ca Tru is known by different names, according to the region or era, and performance involves at least three people:
- A female singer who also plays a bamboo musical instrument called phach, which ishit with two hard wooden beaters, each giving a slightly different pitch.
- A male musician who plays the dan, which is a three-stringed lute.
- A musician who beats the ‘praise drum’, or trong chau. The rhythms played mark the beginning and end of sections of the song.
Unique Vietnamese music tradition also includes ancient folk songs, in particular the Quan Ho Bac Ninh folk songs of the Red River Delta. These are alternating responses between groups of male and female singers. Each village has its own version of similar songs, so that a female group from one village sings with a male group from another village: the melodies are similar but the words vary. The tradition rose from the friendship between villages. Like most folk songs, these have been taught by one generation to the next for hundreds of years.
Visual arts too have been part of Vietnamese culture for centuries, including wood and marble carving, lacquerware, wood block prints and ceramics, all of which developed unique Vietnamese themes and styles.
Wood block prints are an ancient art form in many Asian cultures. Carved wooden blocks serve as printing plates. Paint is brushed on and paper pressed onto the block, then carefully peeled off and left to dry. In Vietnam, the wood block prints from the village of Dong Ho are famous, produced in the traditional way. The skills, including the paper making and brush making, have been handed down from one generation to the next for hundreds of years.
Painting is a popular art form among Vietnamese artists. Today’s artists have varied traditional materials and methods to explore and develop new styles. Painting on silk remains very popular, and the style and use of colour is different from those of China and Japan, where painting on silk is similarly an art form. The making of silk itself is an ancient art tradition in Vietnam and other Asian countries.
Read about some other festivals in Vietnam:
Read about traditional Vietnamese musical instruments:
Watch a video of traditional Vietnamese instruments, listen to traditional music:
Painting styles of modern Vietnamese painters:
Watch a modern artist create a silk painting: