While many can quickly answer this riddle about 𝑐𝑎𝑦 𝑛𝑒𝑢, not many are truly confident about their knowledge about the origin and meaning of the tradition of planting 𝑐𝑎𝑦 𝑛𝑒𝑢 during Tet holiday. Unlike other popular traditions all over Vietnam during Tet, planting 𝑐𝑎𝑦 𝑛𝑒𝑢 is more commonly practised in the countryside in Vietnam or can only be observed at traditional festivals.
Legend has it that long long ago every year, when Tet came, devils from the East Sea moved inland. To scare them away, humans erected 𝑐𝑎𝑦 𝑛𝑒𝑢 with items that make noise in front of their home. The tradition has been in practice ever since to both protect people from the bad and to wish for the good, i.e. luck and peace for the new year. Differences in performing the tradition can be observed in different regions and ethnic groups, but what is shared is that 𝑐𝑎𝑦 𝑛𝑒𝑢 is symbolic of peace, luck and of the belief that the good always defeats the bad.
Traditionally, the longest bamboo tree is used as 𝑐𝑎𝑦 𝑛𝑒𝑢 since it’s believed that the number of nodes on the bamboo tree represents that of rungs on the ladder connecting humans and supernatural forces that protect them such as God and Buddha. The bamboo is cut down, branches trimmed or removed, and then decorated with different items. Decorations vary in different areas and ethnic groups, but the most popular items are: red cloth strips, clay gongs/bells, talismans, flags, lanterns, faux firecrackers and banh chung (glutinous rice pie with pork belly and mung bean filling), etc. The Kinh people plant 𝑐𝑎𝑦 𝑛𝑒𝑢 on the 23rd December, while the Muong, a minority ethnic group, erect them on the 28th, and both remove them on the 7th January lunar calendar.
Apart from its religious and spiritual meaning, the tradition of planting 𝑐𝑎𝑦 𝑛𝑒𝑢 embraces both cultural and familial values since setting up a 𝑐𝑎𝑦 𝑛𝑒𝑢 requires support from all family members. The father and eldest son, who are often physically strongest, are in charge of cutting down a bamboo tree, planting and removing 𝑐𝑎𝑦 𝑛𝑒𝑢. The elders, mother and children take care of decorating 𝑐𝑎𝑦 𝑛𝑒𝑢. For young children, this is the best time for them since they can help with putting decorations on the tree while asking their grandparents and parents about items they are hanging: the meaning of talismans, pieces of clay gong/bell or banyan branch in a bamboo basket to scare devils. Their curiosity and love for the traditional custom is significantly nurtured by such quality time with their family members when they can practise the tradition and learn about it at the same time. Isn’t learning by doing and learning by playing the best?
In recent years, with a resurgence of interest in restoring, preserving and maintaining traditional customs and practices, planting 𝑐𝑎𝑦 𝑛𝑒𝑢 during Tet is regaining popularity both in Vietnam and overseas where there is Vietnamese population. The long 𝑐𝑎𝑦 𝑛𝑒𝑢 proudly bending in the Tet Festival of the Los Angeles Vietnamese community during Tet in 2021 was surely a heart-warming image to any Vietnamese living abroad. Not only does it ease homesickness, but it also strengthens our firm belief that our Vietnamese cultural quintessence and traditional customs in general and the tradition of planting 𝑐𝑎𝑦 𝑛𝑒𝑢 in particular will be well preserved and passed on forever.
By Stories of Vietnam team.