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Lunar New Year in Southeast Asia

Lunar New Year, also known as the Spring Festival, Chinese New Year or Tết. It marks the beginning of the lunar calendar, usually between late January and mid-February. It’s like a fresh start. Bringing prosperity and a chance to leave behind any bad luck you have from the last year. The Lunar New Year is deeply rooted in specific cultural and traditional practices such as dragon and lion dances, giving red envelopes, and the consumption of symbolic foods. Families come together to welcome good fortune and enjoy the happy atmosphere together.

This special celebration is all about family, honoring ancestors, and keeping away bad spirits. Many Southeast Asian countries like Vietnam, Singapore, Thailand, Indonesia, Malaysia, Philippines celebrate with their own unique traditions, beliefs and fun activities.

Before Lunar New Year

Spring cleaning is a common practice known in most Asian cultures. Homes are scrubbed thoroughly from top to bottom. It is a strong belief to sweep away any lingering bad luck you may have from the previous year. And only after deep cleaning your home, can you make room for good fortune to enter the home. Dusty corners are banished, and old items are replaced with new ones to symbolize a new beginning. Red is considered an auspicious color, symbolizing good luck and prosperity. And homes are decorated with red lanterns, couplets with poetic phrases, as well as other traditional and propitious decorations.

Shopping streets are packed with activities as families seek out auspicious decorations and festive food. Red lanterns, traditional banners, symbolic ornaments and other Lunar New Year decorations are displayed in front of stores to attract customers. To add a touch of elegance to your home, you can get symbolic decorations such as peach blossoms, kumquat trees, and round fruits like oranges or tangerines. You can see these bustling streets in Chinatown area across Asia.

Markets come alive day and night with the chatter of people buying ingredients for special Lunar New Year dishes. This is also the time when families carefully plan out their dishes for Lunar New Year’s Eve and the following days. They want to ensure that each dish holds symbolic significance from longevity noodles to dumplings representing wealth. The kitchen will become the heart of the household. It is common for families to gather in the kitchen to prepare special foods. Cooking traditional dishes is often a special part of the celebration.

The practice of exchanging traditional recipes among neighbors and friends occurs in some cultures. In some cases, people may share special Lunar New Year recipes that have been passed down through generations. This exchange is a way of sharing culinary traditions and maintaining a sense of community. This is believed to bring a taste of home and warmth into the New Year.

Most Vietnamese families will engage in the age-old practice of making a traditional Tết dish, bánh chưng (square sticky rice cakes). This dish is made of glutinous rice and fillings made of mung beans, as well as fatty pork. While in other Southeast Asian countries, nian gao (sweet rice cake), also known as tikoy is consumed. It is a traditional New Year rice cake made from glutinous rice flour. It has a sweet and sticky texture. And it symbolizes the hope for a “sticky” or a close-knit family and the wish for progress and growth in the coming year. When you travel in Asia during the Lunar New Year, you must not miss out on tasting these delicious traditional delicacies.

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Lunar New Year's Eve

On Lunar New Year’s Eve, families will gather for a reunion dinner. The reunion dinner is a time for families to come together and bond over a shared meal. It is a moment of reflection and gratitude as relatives expresses appreciation for one another. Elders will offer blessings and words of wisdom, passing down traditions to younger generations. This traditional practice has been known for generations and is the most important aspect of the Lunar New Year.

The reunion dinner features a variety of dishes such as fish, dumplings, noodles and a whole chicken. Fish (yu in Mandarin) sounds like the Chinese word for surplus or abundance. The serving of fish symbolizes the wish for prosperity and abundance in the coming year. The fish is often steamed or braised whole, representing completeness and unity within the family. Dumplings (jiaozi in Mandarin) are shaped like gold or silver ingots. It symbolizes wealth and prosperity. Families will gather to wrap and cook dumplings, turning the preparation into a communal activity that strengthens familial bonds. Long noodles (mian in Mandarin) are served uncut to symbolize longevity and a wish for a long and healthy life. Noodles are typically prepared in a stir-fry or soup with various ingredients added for flavor and texture. The most important dish out of all is a whole chicken with its head and feet intact and is often served as a centerpiece dish. Similarly to the fish, it also symbolizes completeness and family togetherness. It can be steamed or braised with aromatic spices and herbs, imparting rich flavors to the meat.

And in Vietnamese culture, dishes like caramelized pork with eggs (thịt kho hột vịt), pickled vegetables (củ kiệu), stuffed bitter melon soup (canh khổ qua nhồi thịt) and fried spring rolls (nem rán/chả giò) is commonly served for Tết. Laughter and conversation fill the air as relatives gather around the table, exchanging stories and catching up on each other’s lives after feasting on auspicious dishes. Lunar New Year is a time for family to reconnect and gather. For those who live far from their families, it’s exciting as they get to return home after a hard-working year. The atmosphere is one of warmth and joy as family members reconnect and strengthen their bonds.

At midnight, families gather to welcome the new year. They believe lighting firecrackers and fireworks scares away evil spirits and brings good luck for the upcoming year. The sky fills with loud sounds and bright colors, representing positive hopes for the year ahead. Fireworks make beautiful designs in the dark sky. This tradition passes from generation to generation. But, in modern times, not everyone may follow this practice. Some families may develop their own traditions and beliefs and choose to celebrate Lunar New Year in alternative ways.

Most companies in Vietnam often organize year-end parties and dinners to celebrate the achievements of the past year and to foster better relationships among employees. Employees come together to enjoy delicious food, share laughter and stories and may participate in activities. It is usually held before employees leave to reunite with their families in their hometown for Tết. It is a time for management and staff to express gratitude for their efforts and accomplishments throughout the year. As well as look forward to the opportunities and challenges that the new year may bring.

During Lunar New Year

Red envelopes (lì xì in Vietnamese) are given during Lunar New Year celebrations as a symbol of good luck, prosperity, and blessing for the recipient. During gatherings, elders traditionally give red envelopes to younger family members including children, grandchildren, nieces and nephews. This practice is rooted in East Asian cultural values of respect for elders and filial piety. Elders offer these envelopes as a gesture of love, care, and support, wishing the younger generation happiness, success, and abundance in the coming year. And it is given by married adults to unmarried individuals and children. The act of being given red envelopes by elders symbolizes their role as guardians and providers within the family structure. It also reflects the passing down of blessings, wisdom, and family traditions from one generation to the next. Additionally, some companies have also adopted the practice of giving employees red envelopes during Tết as a symbol of appreciation and good fortune. This practice reflects a growing recognition and adaption to Asian cultures in the workplace.

During Tết, families and friends often gather to enjoy various activities, including games like Mahjong, Lắc bầu cua (gourd crab fish tiger) or xì dách (blackjack). By playing these games and betting, it brings some hope to attract positive energy and blessings for the coming year. The symbols used in Lắc bầu cua are believed to have auspicious meanings and associations with luck and prosperity. For example, the gourd symbolizes fertility and abundance, while the crab represents resilience and adaptability. While the game involves some gambling, it is primarily seen as a form of entertainment and social bonding rather than a serious gambling activity. Fun activities like this offer a way for people to relax, socialize, and enjoy each other’s company during the holiday period. In some Vietnamese communities, it may be passed down through generations to preserve cultural heritage. While others believe that participating in some gambling games during Tết brings good luck and prosperity for the coming year. Winning in these games may be seen as an auspicious sign or a positive start to the new year.

Dragon and lion dances are traditional performances often seen during Lunar New Year celebrations. It adds a joyous atmosphere and cultural significance to the occasion. These lively performances are enjoyed by people of all ages and are a cherished tradition in many East Asian countries. You must catch this beautiful performance! They’re believed to bring good luck and happiness for the coming year by scaring away evil spirits. These dancers involve performers wearing colorful dragon or lion costumes and moving to the beat of drums and cymbals. They’re performed in public, homes and businesses where people gather to watch it. It has gained popularity beyond East Asia and is often featured in cultural events and festivals worldwide. They serve as ambassadors of Asian culture, attracting tourists and promoting cross-cultural understanding and appreciation. It is not only a form of entertainment but also deeply rooted cultural traditions. They serve as expressions of cultural pride and heritage, passed down through generations. The intricate movements and choreography of lion and dragon dances showcase the skill and artistry of the performers. These dances combine elements of martial arts, dance, and acrobatics, requiring agility, coordination, and precision.

During Tết, many people choose to wear traditional clothing called áo dài. These elegant garments are worn by both men and women. It is characterized by their long, flowing design and vibrant colors. The áo dài often features intricate patterns and embroidery. It symbolizes prosperity, happiness, and good fortune for the new year. By wearing áo dài during Tết, people honor their cultural heritage and show respect for tradition. This is the best way of celebrating Vietnamese identity and sharing in the joyous spirit of the holiday with family, friends and coworkers.

Lunar New Year in Asia is a beautiful celebration where people come together. You must experience such a beautiful culture festive once in your life. You will discover the uniquely different Asian cultures and traditions. However, it’s important to note that during Lunar New Year, offices and businesses are often closed. Some restaurants might take a break during the first three days as families prioritize spending time together. Despite the typically bustling nature of cities, the atmosphere during this time is like no other. It’s a rare opportunity to witness a city in repose, yet still infused with a sense of joy and anticipation for the year ahead.

If you’re seeking a truly unforgettable experience in Asia, there’s no better time than to experience Lunar New Year yourself in person. We offer premium tour programs across Southeast Asia. If you are looking for a different kind of experience in Asia, tell us your dream vacation and we'll turn it into a reality!

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