When pink peach blossoms appear on the streets, offices, and houses to brighten the grey days of the chilly winter and drizzling rain in the north, it’s a sign that Tet – the longest holiday of the year is just around the corner.

A long-time belief

The offering feast for Tao Quan is prepared by Nguyen Thi Lan Anh, a resident in Hanoi.

Preparation for welcoming the Lunar New Year usually starts a week prior to Tet, with a farewell ceremony for Tao Quan or the “Kitchen Gods”. As Vietnamese have long believed that on the night of the 23rd of the last lunar month, Tao Quan, the Gods who observe everything that takes place in the house, ascend to Heaven and report to the Jade Emperor on all family events of the last year.

The Tao Quan’s farewell ritual, which falls on January 25 this year, is one of the most important ceremonies for the Vietnamese people in a new Lunar Year.

Legend has it that Tao Quan will ride carp to heaven on the 23rd day of lunar December to deliver an annual report on the household’s activities to the Jade Emperor and only return home on Tet Eve to continue their duties in the kitchen.

“So, people hold an offering ceremony for Tao Quan in the hope they will pray for good things for their family,” he told The Hanoi Times.

The golden fishes are bought by Nhung Ngo, a Hanoian, as Tao Quan’s means of tranport to visit the Heaven. 

“However, the profound meaning of the Tao Quan custom is to show a good character of Vietnamese – the gratitude,” he added.

Tao Quan, who comprise two male gods and one female god, are believed to bless family members and keep up the kitchen fire- the symbol of happiness and prosperity in every home.

“People usually conduct a farewell ceremony with offerings to show their respect to the Kitchen Gods. They also clean and decorate the household altar with fresh flowers, fruits, and a tray of delicacies to help the Gods prepare a ‘sweet’ report,” Trieu stated.  

Good offerings

As the due date is coming, Vietnamese families help the Kitchen Gods to prepare for their once-a-year long trip to Heaven.

Preparing a hearty worshiping tray filled with abundant votive offers, somehow, is the way that Vietnamese families show their thankfulness to the deities.

Each family in each region throughout Vietnam has its own ways of preparing offerings for the Kitchen Gods. Common offerings include incense, flowers, fruit, betel and areca nuts, sticky rice, chicken, pork paste, spring rolls, and bamboo shoot soup.

People also buy paper clothing for them to wear on the journey, as well as a (paper) gold ingot to pay for the travel expenses.

For some reason, though, the Tao Quan’s favorite steed for their journey is fish, preferably a freshwater carp, which is why people flock to the market to buy three live carps at this time of year. A fishbowl is offered together with the offering tray on the altar.  

According to Vietnamese belief, the image of carp also conveyed the aspiration of “Carp metamorphosing into Dragon”, which implies sublimation, persistent spirit to conquer knowledge, and success.

The real Golden fishes may be replaced by the fake ones, which are made of jelly or steamed sticky rice. Photo: Viet Ha 

Apart from fish, other indispensable offerings for the ritual are votive paper shoes, robes, and mandarin bonnets.

So far, so sweet. But the Tao Quan comprises three people, a woman, and two men, in one entity.

They have to do with an ill-fated love triangle, where a marriage broke up after a violent row and the wife married someone else. Years later the second husband inadvertently kills his predecessor; the anguished wife threw herself onto the funeral pyre and her equally grief-stricken husband followed. Seeing their sorrow, the king of heaven transformed three of them into a kitchen for them to be together.

After the ritual, the paper carps are burned, live carps are released into nearby lakes or rivers, which is considered a kind act to be rewarded with good luck. Then Tet Holiday, the most important Vietnamese festival officially begins.