New Year in Vietnam: We go tête-à-tête with Tết

Tet

Director of InsightAsia Vietnam, Lien Phuong Tran, explores how her fellow Vietnamese are gearing up for the start of the New Year and how brands are helping them celebrate...

With the dates lining up so closely with Chinese New Year, you’d be forgiven for overlooking the vibrancy and depth of Tết, the most important annual celebration in Vietnamese culture.

InsightAsia’s Vietnamese office is already in full swing getting ready to celebrate the lunar New Year, and we thought the time was right to share our take on how the Vietnamese are getting ready for the Year of the Monkey.

How are the Vietnamese preparing for Tết?

Unlike New Year as celebrated in the West, Tết brings with it a public holiday of as long as two weeks. This is due in part to the Vietnamese government’s policy of compensating its workers with a day in lieu when a festival falls on a weekend.

In reality though, preparations for Tết begin long before the official kick off. Vietnamese culture places special importance on starting the year the way you mean to carry on. Traditionally, that means the whole family pitching in with DIY to make sure the home is in top condition, with nothing left broken as we head into the New Year.

Nowadays, however, a lot of this work is contracted. Busier schedules mean the need to ensure everything is squared away becomes more pressing. This, combined with the universal last-minute rush common to celebrations around the world (Christmas shopping, anyone?) means that labour can be hard to find close to Tết and demand for contractors can push prices up as the festival approaches.

As the last week of the year approaches, focus shifts to cleaning newly-fixed up homes across Vietnam. Brands selling cleaning and home care products do well to push huge promotions over this period, as it’s expected that a lot of brand switching will take place from homeowners seeking ever faster and more convenient ways to clean up.

This is supported by a recent online survey conducted by InsightAsia. 41% of those we spoke to said they were conducting some kind of renovations on their homes.

Tucking into Tết with Vietnam’s families

Of course, what’s a festival without food? The same philosophy that drives the Vietnamese to fix up and clean their homes at this time leads to well-stocked cupboards and fridges.

With that in mind, FMCG brands make a lot of noise over Tết to attract consumers. Promotions on alcohol (Heineken is a firm favourite), soft drinks, sauces and treats for the children ensure there’s a lively marketplace with plenty of options for those stocking up to invite good luck and a prosperous year ahead.

That being said, these brands are also competing for space with enduring traditional favourites. The North Vietnamese classic, Banh Chung (steamed square cakes) and their rounded Southern brethren, Banh Tet, are the most typical representation of Tết food.

Glutinous sticky rice, mung bean and pork cakes wrapped in leaves, Banh Chung and Banh Tet are unique to Vietnam’s New Year celebrations. Ceremonially, these delicious cakes represent the element of earth and can survive the sometimes savage weather of Vietnam for nearly a month. Preparing these cakes is still a family activity, with each generation performing a different part of the job.

Other favourite dishes include braised pork, served with eggs in the South, boiled chicken and Vietnam’s ubiquitous (and delicious) sticky rice. In the North, you might also expect to be served a bamboo soup with pork legs. Some traditional dishes like these are prepared well ahead of time, some weeks before the first official day of Tết.

Making time for family

Above all else, when the food is ready and the house all spick and span, it’s time to celebrate Tết with the family. Here we see a marked difference in how North and South Vietnam keep traditions, with the North remaining far stricter than the more easy-going South.

In the North, the first day of the lunar year is for visiting grandparents in your best clothes. Who you visit after that is decided by age, with older relatives being visited first as a mark of respect.

Meanwhile, in the South we see larger gatherings based more on convenience. Those able to accommodate most of the family will do so at whatever times makes for the most enjoyable party.

The dialogue between tradition and progress is especially marked at this time, especially when it comes to the role of Vietnamese women. In the strict North especially, women are obliged to stay with their husband’s side of the family and made responsible for much of the preparation. This means they’re unlikely to ever see their own families over Tết.

Tradition vs progress in modern Vietnam

During our survey, we again saw the stats support this popular opinion. 84% of those in the North said they would attend a religious service, compared to just under 70% in the South. In the North, 76% said they’d be tuning into the Táo show on TV, a show about Gods of the Kitchen reporting to the Jade Emperor, compare to just 44% in the South.

Changing traditions in a modern world lead some brands to focus on nostalgia value in their Tết advertising. Neptune cooking oil ran the (hugely successful) below ad where a prosperous family observed all the right traditions by sending gifts to their parents, but nothing could replace the closeness of spending the holidays with family.

Showing the softer side of what can sometimes feel like a harsh contrast between tradition and progress is a priority for many brands’ messaging at this time of year. Brands like Chin-Su, Pepsi and OMO have all produced outstanding adverts which appeal to our most familiar and heart-warming instincts.

Are you preparing for Tết, either in Vietnam or elsewhere in the world? Are you a visitor to Vietnam during the festival? We’d love to hear from you so please leave a comment. In the meantime, all of us at InsightAsia wish you An Khang Thịnh Vượng for the year ahead.