Customs and traditions
There are so many customs and traditions that it is impossible to mention them all and you will find only some here to get an impression.
Every region and religion has its own festivals and there are also various festivals celebrated nation-wide. These two most important national festivals.
The festival of Tết Nguyên đán
This feast is more commonly known by its shortened name of Tết (or Tết Cả) means the feast of the first morning of the year. It is similar to the occidental New Year, but with the lag of a “lunar-solar” calendar. It takes place from the end of January to the third week of February of the solar calendar and signals the beginning of the new lunar year and the arrival of spring. Every year is named after one of the twelve animals in the Vietnamese zodiac. Tết rituals start a few days before New Year’s day. This is the most celebrated traditional feast in Viêt Nam. Besides firecrackers and gifts, food, especially sticky rice cakes filled with pork and beans (bánh chung) and candied fruit or vegetables, is prepared for this occasion. This will be offered to relatives. The decoration of the house is important: it is adorned with red and gold, symbols of good luck, and a branch of a plum tree, a peach tree or an apricot tree which will prevent bad genii from entering. On Tết’s eve and the day itself, you can hear the deafening sound of the firecrackers exploding in order to scare off demons, which cannot bear noise or light. New Year’s day is drenched with symbols, as all actions and events occurring that day will have consequences in the new year. The first person to set foot in the house is supposed to bring happiness. Children have new clothes. They are given new bills (the eldery too are given new bills, to bring luck). Streets are lively, people pay their family and friends a visit, everybody is happy.
The festival of Tết Trung thu
This is the mid-autumn festival and the festival for the Vietnamese children. This festival is celebrated on the15th day of the 8th lunar month. Originally this was agricultural and astrological festival. It is celebrated for a long time, in various rice-growing Asian countries. The evening of this day is always full moon and the moon is the roundest and brightest of the year, which symbolizes the unity of the family and gathering. It is the birthday of the God of the Ground, the “official divinity” and the farmers take the opportunity to ask for his blessing for the coming year. Nowadays, the mid-autumn festival has become mainly a festival for the children, but the adults participate too in the festivities. When the festival nears, the whole family prepares cakes and toys. The women show their skills making banh deo (cakes of glutinous rice in the form of a lunar disk) and banh nuong (cakes of sweet pastry, baked in the oven filled in various ways with beans and dates). The girls sculpture animals from various fruits like star fruit, pomelos, kakis and bananas. The men construct ingenious toys like den keo quan (lanterns with Chinese shadows), den ong sao (lanterns in the form of a star) and masks in the form of animals. That evening, masked children carrying latners and toys, go around the du mam co trung thu (table of food), placed in the center of the court of the house. They sing and make a lantern parade and participate in the unicorn dances on the sound of tambourins. In the big Vietnamese cities the trung thu is the possibility to organize toy fairs, artistic performances for children and charity events in favour of the children of needy families.
Men and women wear western cloths or modern clothes most of the time. In the old days men and women used to wear ao dai (long dress). Nowadays, the traditional dress of the Vietnamese is not the same as in the past. The ao dai, dating from the period of lord Nguyen Phuc Khoat, has been adapted and improved. It is the preferred dress of the Vietnamese women for important events. The traditional dress now consists of an adjusted tunic whose two parts split at the waist and fall till mid-calf. It is worn with silk trousers, while the ao dai itself can be made of various materials. The ao dai covers the whole body while subtly revealing the graceful silhouette of the Vietnamese women.
Conical hat (nón lá)
Among conical hats the Vietnamese hat has the most original geometric image as it forms a perfect right circular cone. Nón lá are notable for their romantic and timelessly crafted adornments. Special conical hats in Vietnam contain colourful hand-stitch depictions or words while the Hue varieties are famous for their nón bài thơ (literally: poem conical hats). These contain random poetic verses and Chinese characters that can be revealed when the hat is directed above one’s head in the sunlight.
The main ingredient of the Vietnamese cuisine is nước mắm, a sauce of in salt fermented anchovies or different kind of fish. Rice is of course also an essential component of the Vietnamese cuisine. There are different types of rice, normal and sticky. Normal cooked rice is used to accompany the meals. Crushed, it is transformed in flat cakes used in chả giò (fried spring rolls). As rice powder it is used as flower to make pancakes, pastries or pasta. Rice can be even transformed in alcohol. Vietnamese culinary art also uses a large variety of aromatic herbs like coriander, basil, mint or lemongrass. Vietnamese dishes contain in general many vegetables, preferably crunchy and tasty rather than boiled in water and softened. Vegetables are in general fried, seasoned with garlic or ginger. You find less meat than fish or crustaceans. There are two kinds of pasta: those made of rice (called according to their size: bún, hủ tiếu) and those made of wheat (mi). The use of either one depends on the dish. Under the influence of Indian and France, meat and fish are often cooked by vapour or the kho technique (slow cooking with salt, nước mắm, carmalised sugar). Vietnamese cuisine reflects the cultural and ethnic diversity of the country. Therefore you should say several Vietnamese cuisines. There are more than 500 national dishes in Vietnam. There are numerous exotic fruits to enhance the meal, either for dessert or in the dishes themselves: khaki, jojoba, dragon fruit, star fruit, longans, pineapples, mangosteens, sapodilles, custard apples, rambutans, rose apples, jackfruits, passion fruits. Finally you will find bread, baguette, as a souvenir of the French time.
The northern cuisine is the oldest, it consists of soups, stews and grilled meats and is very refined. The central cuisine is on one side inspired by the Cham and the imperial court, it is almost a separate cuisine and distinguishes itself by an important use of chillies, making it sometimes difficult to eat, even for the other Vietnamese. Southern cuisine is inspired by the northern, but with southern ingredients. It is sweeter and uses more coconut milk. Curry dishes are very popular in this region. The western order does not exist as there are no entries, main dishes or deserts; a number of dishes is put on the table at the same time. However, Vietnamese like sweet. They can eat chè (sweet dessert soup or pudding) or sinh tố (fruitshake or smoothie) at any time of the day. The chè can be served either hot or cold and are often prepared with one or a number of varieties of beans and/or glutinous rice, cooked in water and sweetened with sugar. Other ingredients may include tapioca starch, salt, lotus seeds, bananas and pandan leaf extract. The sinh tố is made of different kind of fruits or even what we would call vegetables, like carrots, tomatoes, avocados blended together with sweetened milk, normal milk and ice.
The art of eating
During a Vietnamese meal, all dishes are put in the middle of the table, everyone takes to his or her linking. A large number of condiments are also present: spicey sauce, soja sauce, perhaps a small bowl with fresh chillies and of course the famous nuoc mam. The bowl and the chopsticks are obviously the essential elements of a typical meal. Pay attention when you eat with chopsticks, there are things you do not do. The most important is this one: do not put your chopsticks vertically in your bowl. By doing so your remind people of incense sticks which are connected with the dead.
The most wide-spread religion in Vietnam is Mahayana Buddhism. The Catholic minority (4.5 million believers) remains important. Besides Buddhism, there are other cults, such as Caodaism (from Cao Dai meaning “high palace” in Vietnamese). Founded in 1920 by Ngô Van Chieu, it was very powerful in the fifties. It draws its inspiration from Taoism, Buddhism, Confucianism and Christianism. Confucianism, Taoism and other Chinese religions are regressing. Descendants from the Chams (around 40,000 people) are Hindu or Moslim, whereas ethnic minorities practice animist cults. In Vietnam, the ancestors’ cult, which is the ritual expression of filial piety, is sometimes considered as a religion in itself. It is based on the thought that the soul of a dead person survives after his or her death and protects his or her descendants. A soul without any descendant is therefore doomed to eternal wandering.
Be careful! Vietnam has the power of seduction that will make you want to visit it. If so, be welcome.