FESTIVALS, HOLIDAYS, AND
countryside, away from the influence of the larger cities, there
is no such thing as a five or six day work week. The peasants
toil day in and day out, from dawn to dark, until the work is
completed. Relief only comes with the advent of a national
holiday or a special festival.
The holidays and festivals are generally based on the lunar
calendar. For this reason, their festivals may come on a
different date each year by our Gregorian calendar.
The Lunar Calendar
As with the Chinese, the Vietnamese lunar calendar begins with
the year 2,637 B.C. It has 12 months of 29 or 30 days each, and
the year totals 355 days. At approximately every third year, an
extra month is included between the third and fourth months.
This is to reconcile the lunar calendar with the solar one.
The Vietnamese like the lunar calendar because they can be sure
of a full moon on the 15th day of each month. In their everyday
life, however, they use the Gregorian calendar.
Unlike your centuries of 100 years, the Vietnamese calendar is
divided into 60-year periods called "Hoi" This "Hoi"
or 60-year period is divided into two shorter cycles; one of a
ten-year cycle and the other of a 12-year cycle.
The ten-cycle, called "Can" is composed of ten heavenly stems.
Their names and approximate translation follow:
1. Giap (water in nature)
2. At (water in the home)
3. Binh (lighted fire)
4. Dinh (latent fire)
5. Mau (wood of all types)
6. Ky (wood set to burn)
7. Canh (metal of all kinds)
8. Tan (wrought metal)
9. Nham (virgin land)
10. Quy (cultivated land)
The 12-year cycle, "Ky," has 12 earthy stems represented by the
names os 12 names in the zodiac. Their names and translations in
1. Ty (the rat)
2. Suu (the buffalo)
3. Dan (the tiger)
4. Meo (the cat)
5. Thin (the dragon)
6. Ty (the snake)
7. Ngo (the horse)
8. Mui (the goat)
9. Than (the monkey)
10. Dau (the cock, the chicken)
11. Tuat (the dog)
12. Hoi (the pig)
A Vietnamese year is named after the combination of one of the
names of the ten heavenly stems and one of the names of the 12
earthly stems. For instance, 1964 was the Year of the Dragon, "Giap
Thin." Giap is the first of the ten-year cycles and Thin is the
fifth of the 12-year cycle. The year 1965 was "At Ty." This
follows down the line each year. The ten-year stem is not
usually mentioned when discussing the year. Thus, we hear, "The
Year of the Dragon" or the "Year of the Snake," etc., etc., Giap-Thin,
the Year of the Dragon, will not return for a 60-year period.
This is true of all combinations.
The Dragon is often spoken of or seen in replica in celebrations
and festivals in Vietnam. The Vietnamese think he is a fabulous
animal and represent him in Sino-Vietnamese mythology in the
He has the head of a camel, horns of a buck, eyes of a demon
(bulging from their sockets), ears of a buffalo, neck and body
of a snake, scales of a carp, claws of an eagle and paws of a
A long barbel hangs down at each side of the dragon’s mouth, and
a precious stone can be seen under his bright tongue. He will
have a bony knot sticking out on the top of his head. In
Vietnam, this is considered to be a mark of superior
intelligence. The final characteristic of the dragon is that he
will have 81 scaly points running along his backbone.
The dragon breathes out a vapor which he can change to fire or
water at any time. He is considered to be immortal and does not
reproduce himself. his habitat can be the air, in the water or
under the ground.
The way the number of dragons multiplies is with the physical
transformation of a half-lizard, half-snake reptile called the "Giao
Long." When the "Giao Long" becomes, 1,000 years old, a sack
under his throat disappears, and he is transformed into a
Even though the dragon is a frightening looking animal, he is
not considered an evil spirit in Vietnam. In fact, both in China
and in Vietnam, the dragon is an emblem of power and nobility.
HOLIDAYS AND FESTIVALS BY THE LUNAR CALENDAR
Tet (Nguyen Dan), Lunar New Year
Tet is the big event of the year in Vietnam, corresponding with
the American’s Christmas, New Year, Easter, and Fourth of July
combined. It marks the beginning of the lunar New Year and
Spring simultaneously. The holiday usually falls in late January
or early February.
Tet is a time when everyone wants to be at his own home, which
should be sparkling clean and full of flowers. New clothing is
desired for everyone and presents are given.
For months before the new year, businessmen are getting ready
for the big selling season. It is very difficult for foreigners
to get tailoring work done in Vietnam right before Tet, as the
tailors are very busy working for the local population. The
items which are the greatest in demand are clothing, food,
candles, and flowers. Practically every family forgets thrift
and buys a large quantity of food for the Tet holidays, not only
to eat but to place on the altar for the altar for the
ancestors. Downtown streets are a riot of color with flowers and
decorations at each store, including temporary ones, set up on
All Vietnamese want to pay off their debts, as it is bad luck to
owe money during Tet. Employers give their employees bonuses at
this time of year and it is also a time that petty thefts
increase. The items stolen are sold in order to have enough
money for the holidays.
In addition, Tet is a time for correcting all faults, forgetting
past mistakes, pardoning others for their offenses and no longer
having enemies. One should behave in a friendly manner to all
and should not have any grudges, envy or malice at this time.
Even the Viet-Cong call an annual truce during Tet.
All of the busy activities of preparing for Tet come to an
abrupt end at noon preceding the beginning of the holiday.
Merchants reduce their prices, sell everything they can, and
shut their doors. Servants are let off work and everyone heads
for home. If a person can possibly get home, no matter how far,
he goes. The sidewalks are practically "rolled-up" and hardly
any business is transacted during the holidays.
On the afternoon before Tet of "Tat Nien" (New Year ceremony) a
special ceremony takes place at which a sacrifice is offered to
the deceased relatives and they are invited to come back for a
few days and share the festivities with the living members of
At midnight on New Year’s Eve, a ceremony called "Giao Thua" is
held in which a sacrifice for the spirits and the ancestors is
made on a lovely candle-lit altar in the open air near the home.
Fire-crackers which heralded in the new year may still be heard.
After this, the family may break off some new buds from the
special new plants and trees recently purchased for Tet and go
to the Pagoda. There, they place incense before the altar and
pray for the prosperity of the new year. When they leave the
pagoda, another new bud is picked from a plant or tree and
placed on the top of a column at their home on returning. This
symbolizes good luck.
The next morning, the family arises early and dress in their new
clothes. Dishes of special foods are prepared to be placed on
the family altar for the ancestors who are back in the home
during Tet. This will be repeated twice daily until Tet is over.
Everyone offers each other New Year wishes, and the children are
given lucky red envelopes containing money. Tradition attaches
great importance to the first visitor from outside the home on
the New Year. He is believed to influence the happiness or
well-being of the family during the rest of the year. If a rich
man visits first, the family’s fortune will increase. A man with
a good name such as Phuoc which means "happiness" is preferable
to one named Cho, "dog." Some families do not trust anything to
luck. They invite their first guests and discourage those they
consider unlucky not to come early. Generally, the visitors
receive some form of refreshment at each home they visit.
On the fourth day of Tet, the Vietnamese believe that their
ancestors return to their heavenly abode. The stores begin to
re-open and life regains its normalcy. People visit graves on
this day acting as an escort for their departing ancestors.
On the seventh day of Tet, the "Cay Neu" is removed from in
front of the home. It is a high bamboo pole that is set up on
the last day of the old lunar year. Various items are placed on
the top, including red paper with an inscription written on it;
a small basket containing betel and areca nuts; wind chimes; and
a small square of woven bamboo representing a barrier to stop
the evil spirits. A few colorful cock feathers may also decorate
the pole. The offerings in the basket are intended for the good
The Vietnamese believe that the good spirits of the house-hold
must report to heaven during Tet, so they take many
precautionary measures to scare off the bad spirits who know the
good ones are away. They do not rely completely on the Cay Neu
because legend tells them that it cannot stop a certain bad
spirit. It is necessary for lime powder to be scattered around
the house and to draw, with lime also, a bow and an arrow in
front of the threshold.
Things not to do at Tet
Some things are considered to be very bad luck if done at Tet. A
few of them to do at Tet are as follows. Never clean house
during Tet. Do not insult others or misbehave. Do not use
profanity. Do not look fretful or show any anger or grief. Do
not break any dishes. Make sure that you do not go in the wrong
direction according to the lunar calendar.
The are also many other negative commandments and superstitions
Thanh Minh, Holiday of the Dead
Thanh Minh Day might be compared with the American Memorial Day.
Families of deceased persons prepare offerings consisting of
food, flowers, incense sticks, votive papers, etc., and pay a
visit to the grave. A few days before the visit, family members
clean the area surrounding the grave, paint the tombs and make
preparation for the solemn visit on the special holiday.
This is a ceremony opening the summer solstice. Vietnam is a
tropical country and during the summer solstice, it seems that
the worst fate awaits its inhabitants. Epidemics of plague,
cholera, flu, etc. Often occur during this season. Most
Vietnamese people believe that these illnesses are brought on by
harmful spirits. They think that the God of Death is especially
severe during this time of year because he needs souls for his
army in hell. Because of this, he causes epidemics in order to
get more soldiers.
During this celebration, people also pray for coolness. Altars
are erected in pagodas, temples or at public places for the
celebration throughout the country. People make offerings to
spirits, ghosts, and the god of death. They burn votive paper,
and effigies of human beings are burned in an effort to satisfy
the god of death with the soldiers he needs. The ceremonies are
led by Buddhist monks. In addition, many families place an
amulet at their door as an added protection against epidemics.
The Whale Festival
This festival is not typical of the whole country since it is
held in only one locality. However, it is typical of the many
different festivals held in villages in Vietnam. Different group
often have their own festivals.
Vam Lang, a village south of Saigon, is the scene of the
interesting Whale Festival. A three day festival, the highlight
is at midnight on the first day.
A motorboat, illuminated with pretty colored lamps, carrying an
altar which symbolizes the whale, and full of musicians playing
traditional Vietnamese music, heads out to sea. After a short
time, the boat returns to the village and the altar is carried
to the temple with cymbals and tomtoms playing wildly. The
symbolic altar is placed on another altar "of the whale" in the
incense-filled temple. Beside the altar, there are several small
coffins which hold the remains of whales that died at sea and
were brought back by fishermen. The whale, which is considered
to be the benefactor of all fishermen, is thought to remain, in
spirit, with all of those present at the celebration.
The Lim Festival, organized in Lim village located 18 km from
Hanoi, where Quan Ho, the special folk songs performed. It
takes place every year on 13th day of the 1st lunar month. Tens
of thousands of visitors come here to enjoy the dialogues
performances between "lien anh" (male singers) and "lien chi"
(female singers), the country's most skilled Quan Ho singers.
These are male and female farmers who sing different types of
songs in the pagodas, on the hills, and in the boats. Besides
this, visitors can come to the Lim Festival to enjoy the weaving
competition of the Noi Due girls. They weave and sing Quan Ho
songs at the same time. Like other religious festivals, the Lim
Festival goes through all the ritual stages, from the procession
to the worshipping ceremony, and includes other activities.
The Lim Festival is a special cultural activity in the North.
The festival celebrates the "Quan Ho" folk song which has become
a part of the national culture and a typical folk song that is
well loved in the Red River Delta region.
The Lim Festival is also celebrated with traditional temple
games. In one game, teenage girls must mind a stranger's baby,
chew pieces of sugar cane in order to create fuel with which to
start and maintain a fire, cook rice, and prevent a frog from
jumping out of a circle marked on the ground. If the baby cries,
the fire goes out or the frog escapes, the girl is disqualified.
HUNG TEMPLE FESTIVAL
Hung temple is located on Nghia Linh Mountain, Hy Lang Commune,
Phong Chau District, Phu Tho Province. Every year, this national
festival is held to worship the Hung Kings, who were
instrumental in founding the nation.
The festival lasts for 3 days from the 9th to the 11th of the
3rd lunar month. The worship service is held on the 10th day and
commences with a flower ceremony with the participation of state
representatives. Held in Thuong Temple, where the Hung Kings
used to worship deities with full rituals, the ceremony consists
of a lavish five-fruit feast. Cakes and glutinous rice dumpling
are also served to remind people of the Lang Lieu Legend (the
18th Hung King who invented these cakes), and the merit of the
Hung Kings who taught people to grow rice.
Next to the stage procession for deities, there are several
marches in the procession, such as the elephant march followed
by the procession chair. These procession marches are conducted
in Tien Cuong, Hy Cuong, Phuong Giao, and Co Tich Villages. The
procession marches are followed by a Xoan song performance (a
classical type of song) in the Thuong Temple, "Ca Tru" (a kind
of classical opera) in Ha temple, and other activities.
The Hung Temple Festival not only attracts visitors from all
over and allows visitors to participate in special traditional
cultural activities, but it is also a sacred trip back in time
to the origins of the Vietnamese culture. People usually show
their love and pride of their homeland and ancestral land. This
religious belief is deeply imbedded in the minds of every
Vietnamese citizen, regardless of where they originate.
Hai Ba Trung Day
This has been a special day for women in South Vietnam and
celebrates the anniversary of the death of the Trung Sisters.
The two sisters led a revolt against the ruling Chines and won
freedom for Vietnam in A.D. 41.
The driving force for their leadership was provided when one of
the sister’s husband was killed by the Chinese and in
retaliation the successfully formed the revolutionary army which
defeated the Chinese.
The sisters made Me Linh in North Vietnam the capital of the
freed country. Their reign was short-lived, however, only three
years. The Chinese recaptured Vietnam and the sisters, in deep
sorrow, drowned themselves in the Hat Ciang River.
An interesting monument stood at the foot of Hai Ba Trung Street
in Saigon on the waterfront commemorating the two sister. Many
people said the face of one the sisters was that of Madame Nhu,
the disliked sister-in-law of President Ngo Dinh Diem. According
to a Vietnamese writer, on this holiday Madame Nhu once rode in
a parde atop an elephant, as one of the Trung sisters. On the
successful coup d’etat of November 1, 1963, jubilant mob tore
the statue apart. They did this because of their dislike for
Madam Nhu, not because of the Trung sister’s history.
Trung Nguyen (Wandering Souls' Day)
This is the second largest festival of the year (Tet is first).
Though it falls on the 15th day of the seventh month,
its celebration may be held at any convenient time during the
latter half of the month. The festival is celebrated throughout
the country, in Buddhist Pagodas, homes, businesses, factories,
government offices, and Armed Forces units. It is not just a
Buddhist holiday, but one celebrated by all Vietnamese who
believed in the existence of God, good and evil.
Many Vietnamese believe that every person has two souls; one is
spiritual (Hon), and the other is material (Via). When a person
dies, his soul is taken to a tribunal in hell and judged by ten
justices. When judgement is rendered, the soul is sent to heaven
or hell, as a reward or punishment for the person’s conduct on
They believe that sinful souls can be absolved of their
punishment and delivered from hell through prayers said by the
living on the first and 15 of every month. Wandering Souls’ Day
however, is believed to be the best time for priest and
relatives to secure general amnesty for all the souls. On this
day, the gates of hell are said to be opened at sunset and the
souls there fly out, unclothed and hungry. Those who have
relatives fly back to their homes and villages and find plenty
of food on their family altars.
Those who have no relatives or have been forsaken by the living,
are doomed to wander helplessly through the air on black clouds,
over the rivers and from tree to tree. They are the sad
"wandering souls" who are in need of food and prayer. This is
why additional altars full of offerings are placed in pagodas
and many public places.
This is a day that the oldsters have said, "the living and the
dead meet in thought," and traditional rites should be respected
by all. Weather permitting, the services should be in the open
air. Otherwise, the largest room in the house should be used so
that there is room for many wandering souls.
During the ceremony, huge tables are covered with offerings
which basically consist of three kinds of meat: boiled chicken,
roast pork, and crabs; and five fruits. Other foods may be
included such as sticky rice cakes, vermicelli soup, and meat
rolls to satisfy the appetite of the wandering souls who are
supposed to be hungry the year round.
Money and clothes made of votive papers are also burned at this
Butcher shops are especially careful to observe this holiday,
because many people believe in reincarnation and butchers are
afraid that they might have killed some poor person.
Also, Vietnamese believe it is extremely bad luck to die away
from home, so transportation carriers who have had fatalities
among its passengers strictly observe the ceremonies.
Trung Thu, Mid-Autumn Festival
This is a delightful festival for children and most pleasant for
the adults to watch. Many weeks before the festival, bakers are
busy making hundreds of thousands of moon cakes of sticky rice
and filled with all kinds of unusual filling such as peanuts,
sugar, lotus seed, duck-egg yolks, raising, watermelon seed,
etc. They are baked and sold in colorful boxes. Expensive ones
in ornate boxes are presented as gifts.
Also made in advance are colorful lanterns made in the form of
boats, dragons, hares, toads, lobsters, unicorns, carp, etc.
These are sold for weeks on the streets of every village and
city. The children begin playing with them long before the
holiday. They light little candles and place them inside the
lanterns made of cellophane paper and swing them around on
sticks, all in the darkness of the evening. It is one of the
most beautiful sights to see in Vietnam during the year.
On the night of the festival, children form a procession and go
through the streets holding their lighted lanterns and
performing the dances of the unicorn to the accompaniment of
drums and cymbals.
There are many legendary origins of the festival, but the one
most accepted in Vietnam is that it began during the reign of
Emperor Minh Hoang of the Duong Dynasty. Legend says that he
took his empress, Duong Quy Pho, to a lake called Thai Dick on
the 15th day of the 8th lunar month where
they admired the moon. When the moon was at its brightest, the
emperor composed a poem and explained it to his wife. He loved
to read the verses in the moonlight.
Moon cakes were supposedly used at other times in Chinese
history. Secret messages were placed inside the cakes to inform
the people of a revolt to be held against a hated ruler during
one of the many internal wars in China.
Gambling has played an important role in the social and
recreational habits of the Vietnamese. Children may be seen
tossing coins, stones, or sticks along the streets playing
different games. Gambling is included in many of them.
The national lottery is well-liked in South Vietnam and provides
beneficial side results. Money derived from the sale of lottery
tickets goes into reconstruction and industrial development
funds in the national treasury. In addition, thousands of people
are given some means of making a living by selling tickets. They
receive a commission and often tips. Every Vietnamese seems to
have a dream of winning a million piastres some day in the
weekly drawings. There have been a few cases of corruption in
the history of the national lottery.
Card playing and mahjong are especially popular with adults.
Another favorite pastime with children and adults alike is
betting on cricket fights during the rainy season. Children
catch crickets and sell them for this purpose.
Horse racing held on Saturday and Sunday in a Saigon suburb
draws large crowds as thousands of Vietnamese, young and old,
turn out to cheer the pint-sized Asiatic horses and jockeys on
to victory. Betting is heavy, with profits going into the
national treasury of South Vietnam. It is not uncommon to see a
horse run the wrong way around the track.
Other popular sporting events include soccer, basketball,
volleyball, swimming, hiking, ping pong, and tennis. Vietnam
teams often compete with other countries in soccer, tennis,
bicycling, basketball, and other sports.
There are few golf courses in South Vietnam. The one in Saigon
is located near Tan Son Nhut Airport. It may well be the only
golf course in the world fortified by pillbox installations on
its perimeter, with soldiers and machine guns inside. There is
an excellent golf course in Dalat. Caddies are usually women.
There is hardly any television in Vietnam, and the people are
avid movie and theater-goers. Films from all over the world are
shown in theaters throughout the country.
Another favorite teen-age and adult pastime is "bird
watching"—meaning people watching. They love to sit in cafes
facing the street with doors wide open allowing a good view of
the street and watch the world go by.
For those who can afford it, restaurant and night clubs are
popular. They especially like to go to those places offering
rotating vocalists who go from one entertainment establishment
to another on a schedule. A person may stay in one place all
evening and hear a dozen or so different entertainers.
Country people often think up their own amusements. They are
very resourceful and use whatever is available. Those along the
sea-shore may have boat races with the small round bamboo boats
that look as if they could tip over at any moment. In the areas
where elephants are found, they may be raced in competition with
Children amuse themselves very well in Vietnam. Even though they
seldom have fancy toys, they always seem to be able to find
something to interest them. Due to the large number of children
living in small areas, this is not hard to do.