Tet is coming and Vietnam is set to go into lockdown as the national Lunar New Year will temporarily turn the nation’s capital into a ghost town – or so I’m told. It’s a time for family, a time for giving, sharing and over-indulging in all the finer things of life as a reward for another year of toil. That’s for the locals of course, for the expat community living in Vietnam – it’s a good reason to escape and grab a cocktail or three on a Thai beach. But for those intent on sticking around during Tet this year, here’s a look at some of the culinary traditions you can expect to see.
8th February 2018 – All Hail the Kitchen Gods or the Ông Công Ông Táo
I should’ve started praying to the kitchen gods years ago given my distinct lack of culinary ability, but these guys care about what’s happening in every room of the house – so that’s me cast into the lake of fire. So why all the old ladies selling fish from the backs of motorbikes? Well, the Ông Công Ông Táo has to get back up the eternal palace in the sky somehow and what betters means of celestial travel than atop a fish? A long-standing tradition is to release three fish – most often goldfish, one for each kitchen god – into any large body of water, although recent developments have seen merchants hovering around lakes and rivers to collect and resell the thrown fish. Once the fish are freed, the whole family returns home and cleans every last inch of the kitchen to ensure it’s ready for the return of the kitchen gods.
12th February 2018 – Wrapping Edible Presents; Gói Bánh Chưng
After a few days of house-cleaning, tree-acquiring and adapting to a military-precision state of readiness, it’s time to wrap up that Bánh Chưng. Never a more Asian festive food has graced the face of the planet – except maybe Moon Cakes, but stay with me here. If you receive some of these little rice-based packages of meat or egg, it’s like making it to the Christmas card list – but way better because you can eat it.
15th February 2018 – NYE, Fireworks and Frantic Preparations
Don’t be offended if your Vietnamese friends don’t answer their phones or don’t want to see your ugly face. New Years Eve requires meticulous planning and organisation – at this point all the women of the family will be scampering about the kitchen while the men get happily shitfaced under the glower of the fireworks. Given that fireworks are illegal in Vietnam, it’s kind of a big deal that things are exploding in the sky and well worth a gander if you’ve got the time. Also don’t touch the boiled chickens with roses in their mouths, they’re not for you.
16th February 2018 – A Feast for the Fallen and the Living Alike
Inviting your deceased relatives, friends and ancestors to dinner is the sort of thing that’ll get you sectioned in the UK, but in this wondrous, bountiful land it’s par for the course. Anything short of a respectful meal for the spirits of those who’ve wandered before you is an affront to Vietnamese custom and likely to get you stricken from the Bánh Chưng list. Often these meals will be laid out at the altar in the home, but this is only for blood relatives. Any and all other deceased loved ones can find their meals outdoors, but back in the land of the living it’s feeding time at the family zoo. This is the day that strains both the waistbands of the men and the sanity of the women as the feeding frenzy lasts all day. It’s the gorging session of the year and all the traditional Vietnamese cuisines are in attendance – courtesy of the women of the family in most cases. All that food needs washing down somehow and beer being cheaper than water, it’s an endurance test for the men who’ll likely be drinking heavily over the course of the entire holiday.
17th – 18th February 2018 – More Food, More Friends
At this point of the holiday Vietnamese families will start to move about again with the 16th February (this year) leading them all, like the pied piper, to various family member’s homes where the feasting continues. The 17th February will likely be spent with friends, but not without food. Perish the thought – no-one goes hungry over Tet.
19th February 2018 – Money to Burn
All of Hanoi will be ablaze on the 19th February as people commence their annual money-burning ceremonies. Fear not – it’s bank notes made specially for the occasion and has no monetary value – but it’s worth so much more in sentimental and traditional value. This is also the biggest blowout of the Tet holiday and so all the stops are pulled out to ensure the entire family is fed to bursting point. It’s a non-stop feast-fest for the living and the ancestral spirits. Everyone’s home will be filled with family, food and fun as the Tet holiday draws to a close.
Whether you’re in Vietnam for Tet this year or off gallivanting, it’s worth remembering just how sacred this holiday is in Vietnamese culture and while this is not an exhaustive list of the traditions – it’s a rough guide to the values of our gracious hosts.