Origin and Meaning Of Tet Holiday

Tết Nguyên Đán or Tết Holiday is undoubtedly the most important and biggest festival of Vietnam. It would be a good luck if you are living in Vietnam on these days when Tết Holiday has been approaching to every corner of the streets. 

1/What is Tết Nguyên Đán?

Tết Nguyên Đán has a very special position in the hearts of every Vietnamese no matter where they are, in their homelands or overseas. As the most important holiday in Vietnamese culture, it is held on the first days of the year in Lunar calendar, usually falling into February in solar calendar. Although Tết is traditionally a 3-day celebration, it actually involves preparations in the week(s) prior. Houses are cleaned, decorated, or even repainted; new clothes are bought; debts are paid off; and disputes are sorted out. Starting from Tết Táo Quân/Tết Ông Công – Ông Táo or Kitchen God Worship Day (December 23rd of the Lunar Calendar,) the atmosphere becomes festive and jolly when everyone rushes to prepare for the ritual and Tết.

Typical offerings to the Kitchen God. Photo source: baocungcau.net
2/The Origin of The Name Tết Nguyên Đán:

Vietnam culture is a part of rice agriculture civilisation which divides a year into 24 different parts called ‘Tiết’ (Jie in Chinese). There is a transition time between them, in which the most important part is the start of a new cultivation cycle which is chosen to mark the starting point for a new year or so-called Lunar New Year.

The name Tết Nguyên Đán is a Sino-Vietnamese, derived from the Hán nôm characters 節元旦, which literally means the First Morning of the Year.

  • 節(jié) means festival or season.
  • 元(yuán) means the beginning, initial, marking the arrival of spring.
  • 旦(dàn) means daybreak, dawn, morning (the character itself indicates that the sun (日) has just peeked out from the horizon (__).

Tết is also an occasion for pilgrims and family reunions, which is why many people prefer to call it Tết Đoàn Viên (Reunion Festival). Everyone looks forward to coming back home before Tết to reunite and celebrate Tết together with their beloved families.

3/The Meaning of Tết Nguyên Đán in a Vietnamese’ life:

Vietnamese people celebrate the New Year with a sacred trust: Lunar New Year is the days of reunion, hope, and luck. After a busy year of working or studying, Tết Nguyên Đán is the time for people to visit their relatives and friends. Besides, Tết is also a time for the lost souls back to their families to celebrate Tết Holiday. On the last day of the year, all the families hold the ceremony to invite ancestors to come back home and enjoy the holiday. It reflects the tradition of Vietnamese people “When you eat a fruit, think of the man who planted the tree.” (Uống nước nhớ nguồn)

Moreover, Tết Nguyên Đán is the day of hope, because on that day, all people pray and wish for a year of good weather and bumper harvests. Tết Holiday is also the day of luck because all people think that what happening in Tết Holiday has a special connection to the remaining time of the year. Therefore, on Tết Holiday, people always do good things, give good utterances especially such utterances as wishes of good health, good luck and wealthy. And really be careful in their behaviours and acts.

Tien Vo

Van Mieu Quoc Tu Giam – The Temple of Literature

Renowned as the first national university of Vietnam, the Temple of Literature ( commonly called ‘Văn Miếu – Quốc Tử Giám’ in Vietnamese) is not only the typical historical sites in Hanoi capital, but the cultural quintessence of the bygone feudal regime also. For first-time visitors, therefore, it could be a pity if it is missed out in their must-see list.

Let’s Look At Its History

Actually, ‘Văn Miếu’ is the Temple of Literature but ‘Quốc Tử Giám’ is the Imperial Academy. Originally built in 1070 under the reign of king Lý Thánh Tông, the temple was primarily dedicated to ‘Khổng Tử’ (孔子 Kǒngzǐ – Confucius) as well as other scholars and sages. Six years later, ‘Quốc Tử Giám’ was constructed next to the temple by order of king Lý Nhân Tông in order to provide education for the imperial bureaucracy, but then opening its door to brighter commoners. Successful graduates had their names engraved on a stone steel on the top of the stone turtles.

Khổng tử (Photo: Tiếng Vọng Thời gian)

The academy was in operation from 1076 until the Nguyễn dynasty moved its capital from ‘Thăng Long’ (Hanoi) to Hue in 1802. It was renamed as ‘Thái Học’ house in 1785 and then ‘Khải Thành’ since 1802. Through time, some considerable restorations and renovations took place, noticeably during the Trần dynasty (1225 – 1400) and the Lê dynasty (1428 – 1788). After that, the academy was fiercely destroyed by French cannons during the First Indochina War in 1947, resulting in the destructive basement with some stones survived.  

It has taken Hanoi many years to complete the renovation of ‘Thái Học’ house since 1999. Now, its area of 1530m² is included in the total complex of 6150m² consisting of  ‘Tiền đường’, ‘Hậu đường’, ‘Tả vu’, ‘Hữu vu’, ‘Nhà trống’, ‘Nhà chuông’.

How’s About Its Architecture

Generally speaking, most of architectural features of the temple complex are heavily influenced by Chinese style. To be more specific, the proximity of the temple to the Imperial academy is similar to the Beijing Confucius temple and Imperial Academy. Furthermore, the construction of  temple also emulates the one in Confucian’s hometown in Shandong, China.

Overall, the architectural complex is divided into three main areas: ‘Hồ Văn’ , ‘Vườn Giám’,  and the inner.

1.’Hồ Văn’ and ‘Vườn Giám’:

The temple in fact follows a standard Confucian layout and the most eye-catching at the front is Minh Duong Lake or Văn Lake (Hồ Văn.) The total area of the lake is about 12297 m² and in the middle stands Kim Chau mound, where the poetry commentaries took place in the ancient time. Moreover, a clear pond, surrounded by shady trees, gives visitors a sense of tranquility and freshness.

‘Hồ Văn’ -Photo: vietnamesefood.com


‘Vườn Giám’ -Photo: panoramio.com

2.The Inner:

The inner of Van Mieu – Quoc Tu Giam is separated from the Giam Garden and the outer space by brick walls. Its inside is divided into 5 different layers of space; each layer is isolated by brick walls and connected by gates: one central gate and two on the side paths. The main architecture includes ‘Văn Miếu Môn’, ‘Đại Trung Môn’, ‘Khuê Văn Các’, ‘Đại Thanh Môn’, Sanctuary, ‘Thái Học Môn’ and ‘Thái Học’ space

The first and main gate of the precinct is ‘Văn Miếu Môn’ (the Great Portico in English.) Built in a typical Vietnamese style, it is similar to entrance gates of Buddhist and folk religion temples. Passing through the main gate, the first courtyard and three paths lying before you from which tourists will be guided to the ‘Đại Trung Môn‘ (Grate Middle Gate), ‘Thành Đức Môn‘ (Accomplished Virtue Gate) and ‘Đạt Tài Môn‘ (Attained Talent Gate)

The Great Portico- Photo: thetempletrail.com

Going further , the second courtyard comes across to you, running from ‘Đại Trung Môn‘ to the ‘Khuê Văn Các‘. The three paths continue and the next two side gates are the ‘Cửa Bi Văn‘ (Magnificence of Letters Gate) and ‘Cửa Súc Văn’ (Crystallization of Letters Gate), which lead to two graveyards of early doctors. The structure consists of four squares, whitewash brick pillars, supporting a red wooden pavilion with an elaborate terracotta tiled roof.

‘Đại Trung Môn’- Photo: thetempletrail.com


‘Khuê Văn Các’- Photo: Tuan Nguyen Huy

The third courtyard is centred around the ‘Thiên Quang Tỉnh’ (Well of Heavenly Clarity). On the sides of the lake are the ancient doctor’s graveyards, or Stelae Pavilions. Each headstone of them displays the name of the person that passed a high-level examination. There are 82 of them created from 1442 to 1779.

Thiên Quang Tỉnh (Photo: flicker/chrisgj6)


Stelae Pavilions (Photo: Sophie Pham’s Blog)

The fourth area: the central area and the main architecture of the Temple of Literature, consists of two larger works in parallel layout. The outside building is ‘Bái Đường‘ (House of Ceremonies), while the other is ‘Thượng Cung‘.

House of Ceremonies – Photo: thetempletrail.com

The fifth area is the Khai Thanh temple where worshiping the Confucius parents takes place. Originally, it was a study place where erudite scholars were designated as official teachers to instill knowledge into the kings. In fact, many respected Vietnamese teachers such as Bui Quoc Khai, Nguyen Tru, Chu Van An had worked there for a long period of time.

In the Temple of Confucius, there is a variety of statues of Confucius and Tu phoi (Nhan Tu, Tang Tu, Tu Tu and Manh Tu). At the Confucian shrine, there are two pairs of cranes riding on the backs of turtles, which are the typical objects of Vietnamese temples and pagodas. According to an old story, turtles and cranes are very close friends. Turtles live in the water while cranes on land. When it rains, the turtle can help the crane to get to a dry place. Conversely, when it is drought, the crane can bring the turtle to a wet area. This shows faithfulness and mutual assistance among good friends. The image of cranes on the back of turtles expresses harmony between the Heaven and the Earth. Cranes also symbolize virtue and truth.

Confucius-Photo: commons.wikimedia.org

The Role in the Modern Time

Van Mieu – Quoc Tu Giam has long been recognized as one of the most iconic historical-cultural heritages of Vietnam. Besides being a popular sightseeing destination, it is the place where several poetry communities are organized, the celebration of the Tet Holiday and some academy-related ceremonies takes place in order to express people’s wishes and hopes for their education paths.  

Incense Offering Ceremony at Quoc Tu Giam (Photo: Truong TH Yen Hoa)

More importantly, Van Mieu – Quoc Tu Giam represents the fondness of learning and the tradition of exploring knowledge of Vietnamese people. Traditionally, many students suppose that going to the temple to worship before several virtuous saints helps them pass exams easily. In the past, they usually touched the stone turtles’ heads as it was believed that the students can absorb the intelligence from ancient teachers through the touch. However, these actions are now forbidden because it may destroy the statues.

In conclusion, despite the fact that Ha Noi has been developed day in day out to keep pace with the rest of fast-changing world, a myriad of ancient relics and Vietnamese time-honored traditions has still lingered on some corners of the capital. The coexistence of these two facts, furthermore highlights the harmonious combination of modernization and antiquity. Therefore, it is well-worth considering the building complex as the soul of Vietnamese cultural life and even the gratification of human beings until now.

If you have any problem travelling in Vietnam, whether it’s food problem or anything else, please don’t hesitate to contact us for more assistance. We will be thrilled to help.

Tien Vo