Riding A Goldfish For New Year

Today, the 23rd day of the 12th month of the lunar calendar, the kitchen god rides a goldfish to heaven to report on the household happenings of the past year.

Or so the Vietnamese folk tale goes.

Image from www.holiday.yeudoi.net

It takes a week for Ông Táo, the kitchen god, to travel to heaven, file his findings, then return to his kitchen.

To ensure a good report, families pile Ông Táo’s altar, which most kitchens used to have, with fruit and candy. People also release carp into the nearest river, to help the kitchen god get to heaven quickly, and in a good mood.

In Vietnam, this final week before Tet, the lunar new year, is a frenzy of cleaning, painting, renovating, repairing, cooking, shopping, partying and hamper-giving.

As Tet approaches, Vietnam seems to get noiser and more crowded. Even the quietest back street echoes with the shriek of power tools, the harsh fizz of arc welding and a louder-than-usual roar of traffic.

The roads are crammed as housewives on motorbikes fight for space with hamper delivery guys, people zooming off to year-end office parties and wobbling home again, workmen rushing materials to Tet renovation projects and families going to reunion dinners.

The supermarkets are insanely crowded as everyone tries to stock up on essentials for the week-long Tet holiday – dried food, tea, Chinese sausages, new clothes.

As you can imagine, tempers begin to fray. Which results in more honking and longer traffic jams, as cranky Vietnamese refuse to give way at jammed-up intersections.

The lead-up to Tet is also, unfortunately, the “season” of crime in Vietnam, as the poor, under intense social pressure to prepare for Tet, take advantage of any absentmindedness of the better-off, who are overwhelmed with their shopping, cleaning, renovating, hair appointments and socialising. Motorbikes vanish, purses are snatched, mobile phones go missing and homes are broken into. A moment of distraction can be costly.

At Tet, children are given lì xì, red enveolopes containing cash, known as lucky money. When employees return to work after the Tet holiday, they usually also get a small amount of lì xì. Lucky money should be crisp new notes to herald in the crisp new lunar new year.

Tet hampers, usually given by businesses to clients, can include whiskey, Danish butter cookies (don’t ask me why), crackers and what the Vietnamese translate into English as “jam”, which is actually dried fruit.

Special Tet food is prepared, including a glutinous rice and meat roll called bánh tét in the south and bánh chưng in the north. As much as Vietnamese people rave about bánh tét, I really don’t like it. But the object of the hampers and the furious pre-Tet cooking and shopping is to give everyone, even the ever-dedicated and hardworking housewives, a break, so they can start the new year feeling relaxed, carefree and, above all, lucky.

No cleaning is undertaken on the first day of Tet. (You don’t want to sweep away your good luck!) Traditionally, no one cooks either. After all that cleaning, everyone needs a rest.

On the first day of the lunar new year, Vietnamese families spend time together, visiting their local temple and receiving guests. The first visitor to cross the threshold should bring good luck. Some Vietnamese believe foreigners bring good luck, some believe they don’t. So foreigners living in Vietnam should not visit anyone on the first two or three days of Tet unless specifically invited.

Image from www.gdpttanthai.blogspot.com

Most of Vietnam’s Tet traditions, and the story of the kitchen god, come from China, which ruled Vietnam for around 1,000 years until being booted out and relegated to big-bully-neighbour status.

We are outside China’s historic sphere of influence, here in northern Thailand, but we, too, are preparing for Tet. We’re going “home” to Vietnam for the traditional Tet family gathering at Darling Man’s parents’ house.

On Friday, we’ll board an overnight train bound for Bangkok. We’ll fly from Bangkok to Ho Chi Minh City, then make our way to Darling Man’s family home.

It’s going to be a bit of an adventure, taking a toddler on an overnight train, then entertaining her during the eight hours between the arrival of the train and the departure of our flight. But we need to scrimp at the moment, and this way we save a couple of hundred dollars on our flights.

Our Tet preparations have included some shopping – gifts for the family and some new clothes. You are supposed to start the new year looking your best, in brand-spanking-new clothes. Darling Man says long sleeves and long pants are required. After ripping my favourite long pants, I don’t actually have anything suitable.

Darling Man has approved one of my outfits as “OK for the second day of Tet”. But I haven’t yet found something to wear on the super-important first day.

So, as our kitchen god gads about on his goldfish this week, I will be busy shopping for long sleeved shirts and last-minute gifts and trying to remember my craptaculous Vietnamese. Because next week is Darling Man’s “Christmas”, his family time, which means it’s also Miss M and my family time.

We had a quiet Christmas and new year here in northern Thailand, still grieving I suppose. But I’m looking forward to ushering in the lunar new year in Vietnam and joining in the Tet celebrations.

A very big, crisp and new chúc mừng năm mới (happy new year) from our little family here in Chiang Mai to yours, where ever in the world you are!

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9 years ago

By: Barbara

A career girl who dropped out, traveled, found love, and never got around to going home again. Now wrangling a cross-cultural relationship and two third culture kids.


  1. LOVE this. better get to shopping!!
    wandering educators recently posted..No-Cost Academic Travel, Part II

  2. Chúc mừng năm mới to you! Thanks for this very interesting post about Tet and all of the preparations. Sad that while being a time to enjoy and spend time with family, it is also the season of crime. Unfortunately, I think the same social pressures have that effect around our holidays, too.
    Cathy Sweeney recently posted..Beatles on the Reeperbahn

  3. Amy says:

    I can’t wait to hear about how it all goes with the visit with Darling Man’s family! Have fun!
    Amy recently posted..Managing Expectations

  4. Sandra Foyt says:

    What a beautiful account! And thanks for the reminder that the lunar new year is nearly here!
    Sandra Foyt recently posted..Planning a Fabulous Birthday Party in the Finger Lakes

  5. Sophie says:

    What an interesting post! I’ve heard of the lucky money tradition (in a red envelope there) in China
    Sophie recently posted..Urbino – a secret Italian hilltop town

    • Barbara says:

      Yes, the Chinese have the ang pao lucky money in a red envelope. I got a few dollars in a red envelope last year when I was working in Singapore. Free money is always good!

  6. I stumbled across your blog today after an absence, and loved what you wrote about Tet – my wife is my kitchen God!!!

    I remember last year you write about having a house exchange in France – are you still going to be doing this??
    John in France recently posted..Christmas 2011 – Joyeux Noel

    • Barbara says:

      Hey John, welcome back!
      Yes, we’re doing a home exchange with a family in Marseille. I’m very excited about it, deeply in the planning stages now.

      Happy lunar New Year to you and your kitchen goddess!

  7. Suzy says:

    Tet sounds fascinating. I know the mothers of the world probably like the idea of a night off for the celebration. It’s great that families come together, all because of a kitchen god. I think I need a kitchen god in my life to make me a better cook!
    Suzy recently posted..Suzy Stumbles Over Travel: Week of January 16, 2012

    • Barbara says:

      The kitchen god’s trip to heaven isn’t actually related to Tet. It’s just the sign that Tet is approaching. But it’s all part of the exotic mix of being in Vietnam – kitchen gods and tet hampers and family reunions. 🙂

      Happy New Year to you!

  8. Laurel says:

    I’ve never heard of Tet, but it sounds like a fun celebration. One of the things I loved about living in Thailand were are all the celebrations and festivals, even though i know this is a Vietnamese one.
    Laurel recently posted..Our Take on Canadian-German Wedding Traditions

    • Barbara says:

      Oh, Thailand does some great celebrations, doesn’t it? I’m really looking forward to Songkran in April. We’ll have celebrated three new years her by the end of April – the calendar new year, the lunar new year and the Thai new year. What a fabulous year we’re having!

  9. Interesting read! I enjoyed learning about this holiday. I like the energy and busyness that major celebrations seem to bring. 😀
    Audrey | That Backpacker recently posted..Snapping Photographs

    • Barbara says:

      Hi Audrey, thanks for dropping by. There is a lot of energy and busy-ness in Vietnam for most of the year. It just reaches fever pitch before Tet.

      Happy New Year to you!

  10. Dayna says:

    So interesting! I love how much you shared about the culture, it really makes me want to have a Tet hamper! Sad that criminals take advantage of busy and hurried people, but the rest sounds like something I need to see!
    Dayna recently posted..Reflections on Romania

    • Barbara says:

      Vietnam is an amazing place to visit at any time of the year. Visiting during Tet, however, can be a bit disappointing because many places shut down for a week. Ho Chi Minh City is a completely different place during Tet. It’s so quiet!

      Happy New Year to you, Dayna!

  11. My Mom used to have a Kitchen Witch but never a Kitchen God. Great story! Love traditional tales like this…
    Raymond @ Man On The Lam recently posted..Manado, Monkeys and Moonshine

  12. Laura says:

    Hm… money in a red envelope. A very interesting post. Thank you.

  13. Jura Cullen says:

    Thanks for this – I am trying to learn more about the kitchen gods but the information is pretty sketchy!

  14. Lovely write up, Barbara. I was in Ho Chi Minh City last year during Tet and you brought back a lot of great memories for me. I cannot believe a year has passed since then. Anyway, it was great to read a little bit more about the traditions of the event, especially as I got to witness many of them while I was there.

    I loved how quiet the city went during those few days!

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