Despite their differences, the various ways in which Tet is celebrated by the different ethnic groups in Vietnam share a common cultural origin in the Dong Son civilization...
The time for sharing.
Tet is generic term referring to any special occasion in which an ethnic group in Vietnam holds seasonal festivities. During Tet, perfect strangers exchange greetings and best wishes. People get together, ask each other about their lives, enjoy a drink and wish each other the best of luck.
Grandchildren wish grandparents longevity, grandparents give grandchildren small gifts, students express their gratitude to their teachers and business partners return each other’s help. During Tet, people try to forget the hardships and the conflicts of the past year.
For thousands of years, ethnic groups in Vietnam have lived in different physical environments, received different cultural influences, experienced different levels of development, and so today each one celebrates their Tet a little differently from the others: different groups celebrate Tet a different times and with different rituals. Yet despite the differences, the Tet celebrations of the different ethnic groups share the same origin, the harvest festival. Tet is the time in which peasants celebrate the success of a farming cycle and prepare for a new one. In terms of geography, a dividing line can be drawn across the central part of Vietnam at the Ngang Pass in Quang Binh province, on either of which two major types or Tet festivals can be distinguished.
South of the Ngang Pass
Along the mountainous stretch of land south of the Ngang Pass, from the Truong Son in the Central Highlands to the Southeastern part of Southern Vietnam, there live twenty different ethnic minority groups. These groups were influenced less by Chinese culture, and more by Indian culture through interaction with Cham and Khmer traders and Malayo-Plolynesian which formed the basis of the development of Vietnam’s early culture. Among these ethnic groups are the Ba-na, Xo-dang, Bru-VanKieu, Co-Tu, Ta-oi, Mnong, Ma, Co-ho, Xtieng, Cho-Ro- Gia-Rai, E-de, Cham Hroi, Ra-glai and Chu-ru. These groups still maintain some of their original cultural traditions such as matriarchy, primitive patriarchy, the use of legendary epics and common graves. They hold festivals after rice harvests to mark a good crop. But unlike the Viet, whose culture emerged our of the river deltas, these groups do not celebrate Tet festivities in the first month of the lunar year.
The major harvest festival of the ethnic minority groups in the South does not fall on a fixed day like those of the ethnic groups that live north of the Ngang Pass. When the festival is held depends on the crop season. It can take place between December and February, when these is little farm work to be one. By then, the rice has been stored away, but the people in the various ethnic groups have not yet begun to burn down sections of forest for farm land or begun planting crops as the rainy season is still far ahead. During this period, each village holds its own harvest festival at the time it finds appropriate.
South of the Ngang Pass, there are only two distinct seasons in the year. The dry seasons lasts from November to April and the rest of the year is the rainy season. The ethnic groups in the region burn forests for farm land towards the end of the dry season and wait until the beginning of the rainy season to pierce holes in the soil for sowing seeds. In low, muddy land, they let buffalo stamp the field before sowing. When the price ripens at the end of the rainy season, in September or October, people welcome the new rice by eating it. This also marks the beginning of the harvest. Only after the harvest is over can people relax and celebrate. At this time, tall poles, called neu, used for worship are planted in the village. The poles are usually made from cay bong gon, a kind of bamboo tree. This particular tree is chosen because it grows quickly and its soft wood is good for carving decorative sculptures. The height of pole varies from 3 to 10 meters and the images carved into it can be simple or complex, depending on the particular ethnic group and the size of the festival. Near the top of the pole are colorful bamboo carvings of branches blossoming with flowers. Carved wooden images of birds, fish, reptiles, flowers and fruit are hung on the branches. At the top of the pole is an object used to symbolize the sun.
People gather at the neu pole, which is the centre of the festivities, to call upon the spirits of Rice, Water, Fire, Land, Forest, River and Thunder to come and accept their prayers. They thank the spirits for having given them health, a bumper harvest and a good herd of cattle.
The buffalo-spearing ritual takes place in front of the pole. A buffalo is tied by the nose to the foot of the pole in such a way that the buffalo can still run round the pole. Then about thirty men and women, led by the village witch and armed with spears and long knives, sound the gongs and chant as they chase the buffalo around the pole, spearing the buffalo until it falls dead. The blood of the buffalo is then smeared on the pole and the weapons. The head of the buffalo is removed and hung on the pole. The rest of the buffalo is used for meat.
The neu pole functions as a kind of religious alter, used commonly in major ceremonies, throughout Vietnam. Not only is it used in the buffalo-spearing ritual of the ethnic minorities in the mountainous regions south of the Ngang Pass, but in the Tet celebrations of the Viet and other groups such as the Tay, the Nung, the Thai, the Giay and the San Chay who live north east and north west of the Red River Delta.
There are also some ethnic groups that live in the lowland areas south of Ngang Pass that do not hold their main festival on the first lunar month. The Khmer, who are Buddhists, hold their Chol Chnam Thmay festival in April. The Cham who inhabit the coastal areas of Central Vietnam, and who still maintain their traditional institution of matriarchy, hold their Bon Ka Te festival and towers in the tenth lunar month.
North of the Ngang Pass.
Most the ethnic groups that live north of the Ngang Pass have been influenced to some degree by Chinese culture. These are the Viet in the plains of the river basins, the Tay who live north-east of the Red River Delta and the Thai who live north-west of Thanh Hoa and Nghe An provinces. In addition, some ethnic groups that speak Hmong-Dao, and that migrated from China to Vietnam some centuries ago, have also influenced the indigenous culture. The ethnic groups living north of the Ngang Pass hold festival to welcome spring in the first lunar month, to pay respect to the dead in the third lunar month, to protect against epidemics in the fifth lunar month and to pray for a good harvest in the tenth lunar month.
There are four season spring, summer, autumn and winter- in this region. In summer, people prepare rice seedlings. In autumn, they transplant the seedlings. In winter they harvest the rice. And in spring they have Tet festivals when there is less work to do. In the first and second lunar months, each village of the Viet ethnic majority group has its own festival to worship the village tutelary genie and pray to him to protect the community. These are contributions from Chinese culture which have enriched that of the Viet and some other ethnic groups who inhabit the northern mountainous areas of the North.
Some other ethnic groups north of the Ngang Pass, however, still preserve their own original festival. The Tay and Nung in the north east of the Red River Delta hold a festival to celebrate the new farming season in early spring. The Laotians in the north-west of the Red River Delta holds the Bun-bi-may festival to mark the beginning of the crop in the fourth lunar month The Hmong in the north-east and north-west of the Red River Delta hold their festival to welcome spring in the early twelfth lunar month. The Ha Nhi in Lai Chau and Son La provinces welcome the new year in the tenth lunar month. The Thai and The La Ha who live in the north west of the Red River Delta have their Xen ban- Xen muong festival to start a new farming season.
As Vietnam is a predominantly agricultural country, the months in which the Vietnamese are not busy working in the fields are devoted to taking care of their spiritual life. They hold harvest festivals, the most important of which is Tet in spring, to enjoy the fruit of their toil and to pray for good weather for their crops. This desire is embodied in their seasonal festival and symbolized by the neu pole. In spite of their differences, Tet festival of different ethnic groups in Vietnam represent the same distant source of culture, the Dong Son civilization with its communal spirit.
Source: Chu Thai Dong - Vietnam Cultural Window
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