I just received a phone call from my mom, asking: “Tomorrow is “Tết Đoan Ngọ”, will you return home?” I was surprised a bit and immediately say “yes”, for sure! It took me a minute to realize why recently markets suddenly became busier and more bustling than usual, with loads of fresh chrysanthemums, lychee stalls full of people, grannies and mothers actively choosing fruits, joss sticks and hundred of ducks locked in the cages for sale. Same as me, all Vietnamese would love to go home on 5/5, as it’s a special and important occasion to “kill insects”, bathe herbal leaves and enjoy the “home” atmosphere.
So, what’s Tết Đoan Ngọ?
“Tết Đoan Ngọ” is the Vietnamese version of Chinese Duanwu festival (literally: Tết means festival, Đoan means and Ngọ stands for the time at noon (from 11 am to 1 pm), which is held on the fifth day of the fifth lunar month in the year (5/5). Đoan Ngọ is the moment that the sun is the most near the earth and this day often is “The middle day of summer” (Hạ chí) or summer solstice. In general, “Tết Đoan Ngọ” is a mutual festival of some Asian countries influenced by Chinese culture, such as Vietnam, Malaysia, Singapore, North & South Korea, ect,… however, in each country, it has its own characteristics, along with different ways of celebration, concerning legends and beliefs. In Vietnam, “Tết Đoan Ngọ” is popularly known as a simple and unique name “tết giết sâu bọ”, translating into english is “a day for killing pests or persons’ inner worms”. It derives from the fact that farmers, on this day, get rid of all pests to start growing their new crops. What’s more, it is also celebrated as the death anniversary of the national mother of Vietnam, Âu Cơ, who was an immortal mountain fairy and is considered the mother of all Vietnamese people according to ancient Vietnamese legends. Đoan Ngọfestival is considered the second most significant festival which Vietnamese usually celebrate, along with “Tết Nguyên Đán” (Lunar New Year) and “Trung Thu” (Mid-Autumn Festival).
Legend of Đoan Ngọ Festival in Vietnam
The name of “tết giết sâu bọ” came from an old story being told by farmers in many generations. On a day after the crop, while the farmers in a village were celebrated the harvest did the insects come and entirely mine the harvested products. Villagers were so pissed off but had no idea how to solve this problem, suddenly an old man from afar came and instructed them to hold a simple ceremony, with offerings were fruits and cakes made from ash and sticky rice, (aka “Bánh ú tro” nowadays) after that, he suggested people to go to the front house to exercise. They followed his words and magically after only a few seconds, the flock of insects fell down and died. He added that on this day every year, pests were very aggressive, that was why this ritual must be maintained by all means to knock the pests down.
Villagers were so grateful and about to express their gratitude to him but he were mysteriously disappeared. To commemorate this, they set this day as “the day of killing insects”, also “Tết Đoan Ngọ” because the offerings are usually offered in the mid noon (Ngọ hour).
Some typical activities in the Đoan Ngọ Festival
From early morning, family members busily prepare a worshipping tray including “rượu nếp” (sticky rice wine), sweet treats, “Bánh ú tro”, summer fruits (plum, lychee or pineapple), fresh flowers, water and joss paper for ceremonial dedication; then, each of us wash themselves with herbs in warm water to refresh our minds and bodies.
Traditionally “Rượu nếp”and “Bánh ú tro” (small pyramidal glutinous rice ashed cake) are the two irreplaceable dishes eaten on this day. Especially, children are allowed to have some “Rượu nếp” due to the light base in rice liquid, which is surely safe, healthy and tradition-oriented as adults think that it will help kill the inner body parasitic worms.In Central and Southern Vietnam, you’ll find flower and fruit festivals, and people enjoy having a feast of duck meat and lychee, finish with “Bánh ú tro” dipped in sugar or molasses.
In addition, according to Vietnamese belief, at 12 pm on 5/5, there is the best sunshines of the year, plants strongly absorb the essence of heaven and earth, so the leaves collected and dried on this day must have superb healing effects. These often are available ones in the garden, such as lime leaves, lemongrass, guava, lotus, wormwood, marjoram, etc… By bathing or drinking, we believed that these leaves heal some diseases such as a skin disease, intestinal disease, etc. In the old days, on this day, people still had the tradition of dying their toenails, fingernails, or hanging wormwood for exorcism. However, most of these practices have now been abolished, leaving only the practice of leaves collecting and bathing.
The role of Tết Đoan Ngọ to Vietnamese families
Đoan Ngọ Festival not only plays a significant role in every Vietnamese life for practical and holy meanings but it is an occasion for family reunion and showing gratitude to ancestors. As I mentioned above, who lives far from home will try their best to arrange work to come back home, since it’s been a deep-rooted part in every Vietnamese’s childhood. And future generation, will definitely always be taught to inherit and maintain this tradition.
*All photos used in this article are on the internet.