The Charms of Asian New Year Celebrations

New Year's traditions in Vietnam and China and what they mean.

Posted Jan 09, 2020

At a recent New Year’s Day party, we gathered together with friends and neighbors to celebrate. This annual event is a well-loved tradition in our neighborhood and includes the much-anticipated firing of small cannons (containing blanks) over the nearby river cove. Even as we covered our ears, we couldn’t help being thrilled by the noise and smoke. And while we Americans generally enjoy fireworks for the gorgeous colors and the thrill of being slightly scared by the noise, in many Asian countries, fireworks and firecrackers are said to scare off evil spirits.                

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Cynthia Kim Beglin
A mythical "lon" dancing in Ho Chi Minh City.
Source: Cynthia Kim Beglin

We arrived in Ho Chi Minh City the night before Tét Nguyên Dán, the first day of the new year, the first day of spring, and the most important holiday in Vietnam. The next morning we woke to banging gongs, clashing cymbals, and popping firecrackers. Outside, a group of exuberant dancers dressed as a mythical lon—a fierce creature said to be a cross between a lion and a dragon—cavorted in front of our hotel. The brash music and firecrackers continued throughout the day in a city-wide attempt to drive away evil spirits.

Our concierge told us that it was also their local custom to thoroughly clean their houses, pay off their debts, and cook traditional foods before the start of Tét. On the first day of the multi-day celebration, families greet one another, bow before home altars to their ancestors, make offerings and pray for good luck at the temples, as well as eat special foods, including bamboo soup and sticky rice. Children respectfully offer New Year’s greetings to adults, who in turn give them red envelopes filled with cash. The second day is generally reserved for visiting friends and celebrating the new year with them.

Intent on seeing more Vietnamese Tét traditions, we taxied to a nearby temple, where we were immediately engulfed in a haze of incense smoke when we entered the crowded courtyard. The Jade Emperor Pagoda, a small, pink, ornate-roofed temple was built in 1909 to honor Ngoc Huang, principal among the many Taoist deities. Threading our way through the controlled chaos, we passed frail, white-haired seniors and taller, younger adults with shiny black hair carrying babies and trailing young children—local families who had come to pay their respects to the “King of All Heavens.”

We passed tattooed tourists, in tank tops and Vietnamese in aó dài, the flowing traditional silk dress, some of them carrying knock-off purses with misspelled logos. We walked beneath rows and rows of festive red lanterns, crossing small stone bridges over serene turtle ponds before entering the small, interconnected rooms of the temple. We watched respectfully as people lit their incense sticks and clapped three times to attract the gods’ attention before bowing earnestly to offer their prayers to the gaily-painted deities. Quiet joy and hope for the new year seemed to hang in the air, mingling with incense and the distant clanging of gongs and cymbals, punctuated by the sporadic pops of firecrackers.

The last night of Tét, we were in Hoi-an, where we bought white paper lanterns with candles inside to launch on the gently flowing waters of the canal. Each of us made a solemn wish, as the lantern seller had instructed, watching in silent awe as they floated down toward a stone bridge, festively lit with lanterns, beside the cobbled walk. Even though we soon discovered a man in a boat under the bridge retrieving the lanterns and reselling them to people a little farther down the canal, it was still a beautiful sight to see them floating off into the dark night. Besides, the lantern salesman was so kind and welcoming, it was hard to begrudge him his frugality.

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Cynthia Kim Beglin
Fireworks outside our 19th floor apartment in Beijing.
Source: Cynthia Kim Beglin

Although we had spent Chinese New Year—also determined by the lunar calendar—in Beijing two years before, it was a different experience altogether. While the Confucian traditions of bowing to one’s elders and ancestral altars were similar, the Chinese celebrations were much louder, longer (14-15 days) and more exuberant. By the end of the two weeks of nearly round-the-clock gigantic displays of pyrotechnics throughout the city, we were exhausted. We hadn’t had a decent night’s sleep for weeks, and we were tired of staying inside, away from the constant smoke of fireworks that made the already polluted Beijing air even more acrid than usual. Even though the intensity of the fireworks died down a bit by the second week of Xin Nian, they were still louder and more frequent than on even the first day of Tét.

For the Chinese, the New Year’s holiday was even more tiring, since many of them had to travel great distances using over-burdened modes of transport to visit their families. Even those who were from Beijing had to make the traditional visits to family and friends and then host the same family and friends at their home for good luck. And then there was the constant eating. Chinese love symbols and one is expected to eat seven foods for good luck during Xin Nian, new year. They are fish, for prosperity; dumplings and spring rolls, for wealth; good fortune fruit or wontons (depending on what area of China you are from) for wealth; glutinous rice cakes, to get promoted and gain more wealth; sweet rice balls for promoting close familial relations; and special new year’s longevity noodles, for happiness and long life.

Just when we thought the fireworks were quieting down, the last day of Xin Nian arrived and the Lantern Festival ushered in a renewed frenzy of smoky M-80 blasts and other large displays of firepower, culminating in the release of candle-powered red lanterns into the dark night sky. Even though we were bleary-eyed by then, we couldn’t resist the charms of this last Chinese tradition meant to bring yet more good luck for the New Year.

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Wherever and however you rang in 2020, whether quietly with family and friends, or raucously with crowds of celebrants in New York’s Times Square, whether you prayed for good health, happiness, and/or wealth, whether you have already celebrated, or you have yet to celebrate, Happy New Year, Chuc Mung Nam Moi, and Xin Nian Kuai Le!