Truong Quy

 “The first month of Lunar Tet rolls by,
The springtime will be complete and full of joy.”

These couplets from the “plain-and-simple” mind of the poet Nguyen Binh capture an idea that’s so significant yet matter-of-fact: the beautiful days of the Lunar New Year form the essence of spring.

The Tich Dien Festival (Ha Nam)

Tet only feels authentic to Vietnamese people when they start the year with time-honored commemorations to connect themselves to their roots and ancestors. In each community, the spaces for Tet rituals serve as a bridge between people and past traditions. The country’s cultural imprints are boldly engraved in local customs preserved through many generations and linked to communal houses, temples, pagodas, and shrines, and prevalent across most villages and even cities.  

Every ancient Vietnamese village is like a miniature world, a kingdom of rich culture. Therein lie all the structures its residents need for communal and religious activities – the communal houses, pagodas, shrines, mausoleums, and temples. The spiritual lives of traditional Vietnamese people seem to be connected by invisible threads stretching across these sacred spaces – mysterious and solemn, yet simple and familiar.

Where solemn tributes are heard

Normally, few people frequent these places of worship or religious meditation. However, when Tet arrives, the untended doors of village centers and abbeys receive waves of people offering incense and congregating with their kin. Communal houses are the first place people visit. Although they are meant to be a community hub, the communal house’s key function is to facilitate spring rituals where people offer incense to the village’s founders to pray for prosperity and peace for the whole village.

Besides communal houses, temples and shrines are also spaces for observing important ceremonies. Each community has buildings dedicated to worshipping local deities or honorable historical figures. In Vietnam, the most commonly-found temples were built to honor legendary fallen heroes who made patriotic sacrifices or long-ago individuals who devoted themselves to the locality. Tet is the time for the locals to pay tribute to these sacred symbols, strengthening their religious faith and praying for heavenly protection.

Raising a New Year Tree in the Hue Citadel

Where people pray for prosperity

Vietnamese people also come to offer incense or request a piece of calligraphy as a ritual to pass an exam at van mieu, van tu, and van chi – a system of temples of literature associated with the Confucian ideology and imperial exam practices exercised through many feudal dynasties – along with other places that worship ancient scholars. These places often honor Confucius, who was hailed by believers as “Van the su bieu” (Teacher for the Myriad Ages). Vietnamese people also worship Chu Van An, a great teacher from the Tran Dynasty, whose statue rests in the Temple of Literature – Quoc Tu Giam in Thang Long Citadel (Hanoi today), as well as other notable masters.

Besides the Temple of Literatures in Hanoi and Hue – the capitals of past dynasties, other prominent towns and regions have their own temples of literature. Temples of literature in rural districts and villages that used to uplift the spirit of feudal intellectuals and Confucian students now carry within them the desire of today’s youths to learn and find their own path in life. At these venues, you can find calligraphy masters who write elegant words and ornate spring couplets next to vendors showcasing Dong Ho and Hang Trong folk paintings that bear  images of good fortune for the New Year.

Some eminent temples are also Tet pilgrimage sites thanks to their strong cultural connections, such as Ngoc Son Temple on Hoan Kiem Lake (Hanoi city), which worships Van Xuong De Quan, the Taoist deity of Literature, with the Pen Obelisk and Ink Slab Tower representing the scholarly process of study. Quan Thanh Temple, one of the four key temples of ancient Thang Long Citadel, is another popular pilgrimage spot. 

Some temples or shrines dedicated to worshipping the Mother Goddesses or the Tran Dynasty and associated with the mediumship ritual called hau dong attract devotees during the Tet holidays, as well as visitors from across the globe who seek and pray for fortune and prosperity in line with traditional beliefs. Landmarks such as Tay Ho Temple (Hanoi), Day Temple (Nam Dinh), or Hon Chen Palace (Hue) entice New Year’s visitors thanks to interwoven elements of local beliefs and customs.

Ancient rites are performed in the Hue Citadel at Tet

Many national ceremonies also took place in the Lunar New Year holidays during feudal dynasties. Apart from performing offering rites at the shrines of ancient rulers, on behalf of his people, the standing emperor would also visit national temples or shrines that worship deities associated with the community’s faith. A mandatory ritual for ancient emperors was to host the New Year’s ceremony at the Nam Giao and Xa Tac sites outside the citadel, praying for a peaceful nation and flourishing people, as well as favorable weather for the coming year. At the start of a new year, the emperor would personally plow several furrows of a designated field as a form of prayer for bountiful crops.

Mixing the sacred with the fun and familiar

“The first month of the Lunar New Year is for celebration.” The smell of burning incense offered at Tet would always be followed by the sound of drum beats on an early spring night. The mix of festivities and ceremony forms a cocktail of the sacred and the familiar. In some places, the offering rites for local deities or gods are made through processions or choreographed mock battles. The actors are villagers selected based on a set of standards such as appearance and moral conduct.

In front of the communal house there typically lies a large yard that hosts various spring celebrations. Here, local villagers may take part in folk games, rice cooking contests with the rice to be offered to the village deity, cua dinh singing (now known as ca tru) and love duet competitions (which may include quan ho, trong quan, xoan, or dum singing), beauty contests, as well as other sporting contests such as wrestling, tug of wars, capture the phet, and smashing ceramic pots.

Traditional music performance in the Hue Citadel during the Lunar New Year Festival

On the first days of the year, local van mieu, van tu, and van chi become the places where people with excellent academic achievements convene to recite poems, gamble in to tom card games, perform ca tru, or simply discuss world affairs. Some villages even set up a Tet flea market amidst the festivities in the spirit of “trading foolishness for intellect” or “making money, striking it rich”.

Temples and shrines throughout the country that worship Mother Goddesses also attract tourists since their New Year’s rituals, such as hau dong, are closely tied to folk performances. Meanwhile, temples dedicated to patriotic heroes host staged battles to replicate wartime victories against foreign invaders. The satirical idiom “For the cheerful, theater shows; for the bored, some water sports; and make merry, oh the weary” perfectly captures the Vietnamese spirit when describing the colorful world of spring revelry.

Due to the school of thought called tam giao dong nguyen, meaning “three religions with the same origin”, the three major religions of Confucianism, Buddhism, and Taoism have been muddled for generations. For this reason, the customs practiced in rural Vietnamese villages are often entwined with rituals based on a mix of different ideologies. A building might have its front function as a Buddhist pagoda and its rear used to worship a Taoist sage.

Each local village or urban area contains a complex system of spaces linked to our heritage that interlock and mesh together to preserve the soul of the community’s culture. Here, Tet ceremonies take place in all their glory at the moment Earth and Sky enter a new birth cycle.