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In the 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 order are:

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

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 following manner.

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 tiger.

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 dragon.

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.


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 the sidewalk.

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.

Home Activities

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 the family.

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 spirits.

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 about Tet.
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.

Doan Ngu

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 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 earth.

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 time.

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 each other.

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.


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