Posts Tagged ‘vietnam customs’

Ong Cong, Ong Tao – Vietnam’s Day of the Kitchen Gods

January 19, 2011 Leave a comment


‘Tao Quan’, ‘Ong Cong’ and ‘Ong Tao’, in Vietnamese belief, originated from the 3 Gods of the land (Tho Cong, Tho Dia and Tho Ky). from Taoism in China. When coming to Vietnam, the legend became the story of “2 Husbands and 1 wife” – the God of Land, God of House and God of Kitchen. However, people still call them “Tao Quan” or “Ong Tao”, because of a TRILOGY theory which is very popular in Eastern Belief and religion. The kitchen of a house where there is fire and both are based on earth or soil for building of the house.

Kitchen god rides carp fish

In Vietnam, the story of Ong Cong, Ong Tao has been told through the generations, and then later it was written down so there are many different variations. But the main story for Vietnam is as follows:


Mr. Trong Cao had been married to Mrs Thi Nhan for a long time but they didn’t have any children. Then used to get upset and quarrels were often seen in their family.

In one of their arguments, Trong Cao, got really angry and beat his wife, Thi Nhan who left the home and later married another man named Pham Lang.

When Trong Cao realised he was wrong, he went out to look for his wife. He then spent all his money looking but couldn’t find her. Trong Cao became a beggar because he had spent all of his money.

One day, Trong Cao arrived at Thi Nhan’s house to beg, and they recognized each other. Thi Nhan felt sorry and regretted she had remarried to Pham Lang. Suddenly, Pham Lang came home and Thi Nhan found it hard to explain the situation., Thi Nhan asked Trong Cao to hide in the haystack out in the garden.

Back home, Pham Lang went in to the garden and burned the haystack to make fertilizer without noticing that Trong Cao was hiding there. Trong Cao didn’t dare to come out and was burned to death. Thi Nhan realised that Trong Cao was burning alive and jumped into the fire to die with him.

Pham Lang didn’t know what had happened, but he saw his wife had died and he followed her into the fire.

Their souls went to heaven and met the Jade Emperor. Jade Emperor understood their situation. Then entitled them to be known as, “Tao Quan”, which meant, ‘taking care of 3 different matters in the lives of people’s homes.’

–         Pham Lang: was titled “Tho Cong”, taking care of Kitchens workings

–         Trong Cao: was titled “Tho Dia”, Taking care of house workings

–         Thi Nhan: was titled “Tho Ky”, taking care of food supply and shopping.



Vietnamese people consider the 3 Gods watch and evaluate the good and bad things people have done, and they decide the prosperity of a family. Therefore, an altar to worship them is a must.

Paper offerings

An altar for them is set near kitchen. Every year, on 23rd day of 12th month in Lunar Year calendar (in 2011, it is the January 26 on the western calendar); these Gods go for a meeting in heaven and report what people had done in the past year. Vietnamese people celebrate on this day. In the ceremony, the offering include a carp ship which is their transport, and 3 sets of traditional official paper dress hats, long dresses and shoes but no pants. This is because in the fire, their pants were burnt off.

Many Vietnamese families will buy 3 live fish, 1 female and 2 male, and release them into a river or pond and also burn paper clothes and money on the day.



Vietnamese Mother’s day

January 19, 2011 Leave a comment

Vu Lan – Ullambana or Mother’s day

Vu Lan in Vietnamese is one of the main Buddhism festivals to show your gratitude to your mother. It is on 15th day of 7th month in Lunar Calendar.


The Buddhist origins of the festival can be traced back to a story that originally came from India, but later took on culturally Chinese overtones. In the Ullambana Sutra, there is a descriptive account of a Buddhist monk named Maudgalyāyana, originally a brahmin youth who later ordained, and later becoming one of the Buddha’s chief disciples. Mahāmaudgalyāyana was also known for having clairvoyant powers, an uncommon trait amongst monks.

After he attained archonship, he began to think deeply of his parents, and wondered what happened to them. He used his clairvoyance abilities to see where they were reborn and found his father in the heavenly realms i.e. the realm of the gods. However, his mother had been reborn in a lower realm, known as the Realm of Hungry Ghosts. His mother took on the form of a hungry ghost (preta) – so called because it could not eat due to its highly thin & fragile throat in which no food could pass through, yet it was always hungry and it had a fat belly. His mother had been greedy with the money he’d left to her. He had instructed her to kindly host any Buddhist monks that ever came her way, but instead she withheld her kindness and her money. It was for this reason she was reborn in the realm of hungry ghosts.

Maudgalyāyana eased his mother’s suffering by receiving the instructions from feeding pretas and from the Buddha. The Buddha instructed Maudgalyāyana to place pieces of food on a clean plate, reciting a mantra seven times to bless the food, snap his fingers to call out to the deceased and finally tip the food onto clean ground. By doing so, the preta’s hunger would be relieved. Through these merits, his mother was able to be reborn. Buddha also tells people that they can perform the same kindness to show gratitude to their mothers.

Main activities:

For Buddhism followers, they will have a shower (so they will be clean for the ceremony) then go to a Pagoda to perform a spiritual ceremony. They worship their mother (if she has passed away) or ask the gods to give good health and happiness to their mother if she is still living. People, whose mothers have already died, will hang a white rose on their shirt and have a meal in pagoda (vegetarian) or at home honoring their deceased mother.



Death Ceremony

January 19, 2011 Leave a comment

Death anniversary

The death anniversary is a ceremony to commemorate a dead person in Vietnamese culture. It is held on the date of death according to the Lunar Calendar every year. It also reminds youngsters of their ancestors and to strengthen relationships between members of a family or of an occupational group.


The celebration of the death anniversary is an important day for Vietnamese people. It expresses faithfulness and compassion of living people towards dead people and to show filial respect to their ancestors. If you are wealthy, you can prepare a big party and invite your relatives and friends. If you are poor, a bowl of rice with salt, a boiled egg, incense and some simple foods are good enough. Your sincerity is not measured by how big a ceremony is. If you are a friend or relative of a dead person, you just go to death anniversary celebration without being invited.

Main activities:

Preparation will depend on a family’s financial status. Big parties will take longer while simple ones are easier to prepare. Nowadays, they will make, at least, a table of six. They will put all the food on a big tray and lay it down in front of an altar which has a picture of the dead person on it. Included on that tray, they put paper money (fake money that Vietnamese burn to send to dead people to help them buy things in the other life, a kind of quick Western Union money transfer) and rice wine. The dead persons name is written on the fake money and, when it is burnt, goes to a special depository for the deceased to pick up to use in the next life. The family also burns other paper and cardboard images of things they can use in the next life like cars, houses, horses and once a family member burnt a Boeing jet while his neighbor, not to be outdone, burnt a spaceship.  The head of family will dress respectably; burn 3 incense sticks and make a prayer which shows his respect to the ancestor. (I use his as the head of family as it is always a man. If they don’t have a son then the eldest son in law will be in charge). They wait until the incense sticks burn up then they will burn the paper money and other paper or cardboard items. The paper money will be sent directly to the dead person so he or she can use it to make their way home.

After the ceremony, family members will eat the food that they offered in the ceremony. They eat and drink and talk to each other happily. After eating, the family will divide fruit and candy into small bags and give one to everybody who came to the ceremony.

Extra information:

– If for some reason they can’t hold the death anniversary on the date that their ancestor passed away, they have to pray on that day and explain why they cannot and ask for permission to move it to another date.

– The cost of the ceremony will be divided between all male members of the family, female members; including the son-in-law, can also put in money if they want to.

– The 1st anniversary will be as big as the funeral ceremony and they will invite a lot of relatives and friends to attend. Friends of the dead person will bring incense, paper money and some times an envelope with real money inside to help the family to cover the costs.

– In big cities, sometimes they don’t know all their in-laws but, in the country, as they live nearby each other, ceremonies like this are a chance to get to know new members of the family and catch up with people not seen for a while.

– In some cases, the death ceremony may be held on the date of the normal calendar, not the lunar calendar, if the family is of the Catholic religion.



TET HOLIDAY – Lunar calendar New Year

December 28, 2010 Leave a comment

Tết or Tết Nguyên Đán (in Vietnamese) is the most important holiday of Vietnamese culture and for other countries that were affected by Chinese culture. In English, it means “the time that starts a new day” or more commonly called “Chinese New Year”. Countries like Vietnam and China are still using the Lunar Calendar and Tet holidays are between the 21st January and the 19th February (ac

cording to the Western Calendar). Traditionally, Tet holiday is celebrated for the last 7 or 8 days of an old year and the first 7 days of a new year.

Origin of the name:

Tet has same sound with Tiet (seasonal segment – 15 days period). In Agricultural countries, a year is divided into 24 segments of weather and the most important is the first segment which, later on is called Tet.

During the history, different dynasties have different times of the year for Tet. Until 140 years BC, Tet was set on the first month in Lunar Calendar and remains until nowadays.

Before 1967, Vietnam used Beijing time but on 8th August, 1967, The

Democratic Republic of Vietnam

(North Vietnam during Vietnam War), changed to GMT + 7. Therefore, in 1968, the North and South Vietnam had different date for Tet (29th January in the North and 30th January in the South).

Tet concept:

Vietnamese believe that everything must be new or renewed during Tet. From objects to people’s thinking and that’s why they repaint or clean up their house several days before Tet so everything inside will be new and clean. They also make new cloth for Tet. I can remember vividly how happy I was before Tet when I was a kid. At that time (subsidise time (rationing) –

before 1986) everybody was allowed to have 4 square meters of cloth and we always saved it for Tet. Kids loved new clothes for Tet. During Tet, Vietnamese try not to be angry or argue (we, kids, could be naughty without being punished). It’s also the time be tolerant of people’s mistakes with each other. They visit relative’s and friend’s homes and give each other meaningful wishes. Children were given “Red pocket money” for them to spend during Tet.

Shopping for Tet:


Tet Markets are usually from 25th to 30th of December (Lunar Calendar).

Nowadays in the big cities, it is usually from 18th or 20th. They mostly sell things for Tet preparation like phrynium leaves (a tropical plant) and sticky rice for “chưng“cake, rooster and fruits for worshiping ancestors. Most of the sellers will be off during Tet so people need to stock up food for several days before. Tet Holiday is full of parties, eating and drinking for 4 or 5 days so we need a lot of food. My mom usually buys 5 chickens, a few kilos of beef and pork as well as a lot of fruits for Tet. Especially as everything is more expen

sive during Tet like, vegetables which are around 4 or 5 times more expensive than normal day

s. Tet Markets are also good for entertaining, browsing around thousands of things for sale especially flowers and pottery markets.

Cleaning up and decorations:

5-fruits plate:

5-fruits plate consists of 5 different kinds of fruits with different colors that Vietnamese put on the altar for worshiping ancestors and Gods. In the North, they are: a bunch of bananas, red chili (not the spicy ones), pommello, Cumquat and pear. They can be replaced with oranges (green ones) or sapodilla. A bunch of bananas with pommello inside means protection. Traditionally, 5 kinds of fruit are symbols for 5 elements (metal, water, wood, fire and earth) and an odd number means developing and growing.

In the South, they are coconut, papaya, custard-apple, fig and mango which homonym to comfortable and enough money to spend.

Tet pole:

Tet pole is made from bamboo and about 5 – 6 meters high. They hang on top of it many things (regional): votive paper, against evil talisman, paper fish (for the Kitchen God to ride to Heaven), red paper and musical stones. When the wind blows, they bump against each other which make really good sounds. They believe that all decorations on the Tet pole, together with the sound of musical stones, will let evil and ghosts know that it is private property and not to disturb. At night, they hang lanterns on Tet poles so their ancestors know the way home for Tet, on New Years Eve, they burn fire crackers and welcome the new year and to scare evil and ghosts away. Tet pole is set up on the 23rd of December and taken away on 7th of January (Lunar Calendar).Due to lack of space, Tet poles can only be seen in countryside not in cities.

Tet paintings

Behind the altar and 5-fruit plate, traditionally was Tet paintings. It’s a picture of 5-fruits plate or a Chinese character. “Tâm” means good heart, “Phúc” means happiness, “Đức” means virtue and It’s a long tradition that everybody, despite being rich or poor, can have a Tet painting. It’s very colorful which gives people the feeling of happiness and warmth inside Vietnamese home.

Flower for Tet

Apart from 2 main kinds, peach blossom and apricot blossom, Vietnamese use some other types for worshipping and decoration. Worship flowers can be marigolds, daisies, gladioli’s, tuber rose and they use colorful flowers for decoration. Roses, carnations and madonna lilies which altogether symbolize family members getting together. Bright colors also carry their wish for a year of prosperity and happiness. Weather in Vietnam is different from North to South (cold in the North and hot in the South) so they use peach blossom in the North and apricot blossom in the South and people in both parts of the country can also use the cumquat tree for Tet.

Last days of the year

Kitchen Gods’ day

Kitchen Gods’ day is on 23rd December (Lunar Calendar). According to Vietnamese, kitchen Gods take note of what people do during the year, good and bad and make report to the Jade Emperor. The ritual offerings will have incense, candle, paper money, 2 men’s hats and 1 woman’s hat and 3 fish (they will ride the fish to haven). Funnily, they wear long dress with short pants.

Making “chưng” cake

“Chưng” cake is a traditional food in a square shape made from sticky rice, pork and bean wrapped with phrynium leaves. It takes 12 hours to cook it. After being cooked, when you open the leaves, it is a square green cake. It symbols for Earth. Pork inside symbols for animals, green beans symbols for plants and they believed that the earth was flat. During subsidized (rationing) time (before 1986) Tet is the most respected time of the year and maybe it’s the only time for some families to have meat. They save all year for Tet (my family have 4 members, we only had 1 kilo of pork in a month and we had double for Tet).

New Year’s Eve

Vietnamese will prepare 2 altars, one indoors, the other is out doors. They will start the outdoors at 12 o’clock midnight at the entrance door. They offer votive paper, fruits, “chưng” cake and incense. They send their appreciation to the Gods for a good year and ask for a better one. They also ask their ancestors to come back home to have Tet with family members. After that, all members will get together and give wishes to each other. Nowadays, there are fire works in all capital cities of a province.

First days of a year

The 1st: They will carefully choose the 1st caller of a year. That person must have a compatible age with the owner. They rarely go out and stay at home to prepare for New Year worship. Children will visit their parents if they don’t stay with them and later on, they will visit their relatives (usually after lunch). The following days will be for visiting family and friends, giving them wishes for a new year.

Traditionally, 1st day is visiting Father, 2nd is for Mother (also include the Out-laws – for men only) and 3rd day is for your teacher.

They will choose a good day to start their business. They usually look for, in their neighborhood, some one who always smiles is active or successful in their own business to be the 1st caller. The caller will be happy as he or she already does a good thing and the owner will have more belief of a better year. They also go to a Pagoda, even if you never go there during the year, to burn incense or to give donations.


  • A strange dog goes to your house it will bring good luck.
  • They don’t like any body that comes and asks for fire on the 1st day. Fire is red which means luck. Giving fire or any thing in red color means giving your luck away, except for giving “red pocket money” to kids as it is like giving luck to them.
  • They don’t like to give water away as water means good fortune.
  • They don’t sweep the floor as they will get bad luck in business. When you throw rubbish away, the god of fortune will follow.
  • Whatever you do in New Year days, it will repeat for the whole year. They let others borrow money.
  • They will have bad luck if they eat dog meat, duck or squid.
  • They try to be happy and not to say bad luck things during Tet.
  • They don’t visit their friends on the 1st just in case they are the 1st caller.
  • They explode fire crackers to scare away evil and ghosts. From 1994, the Government prohibited exploding fire crackers. In my personal opinion, Tet is not the same without fire crackers.