The 4 Sacred Animals in Vietnamese culture

In Vietnamese culture, many animals are sacred; 4 of them are more important than the others and you can see them very often in architectural depictions or in legends.

The 4 major mythical creatures in Vietnam are the Dragon, the Unicorn, the Tortoise and the Phoenix. Let’s talk a bit about each of them.

The Dragon symbolizes power, originally the supreme power of the Emperors. You can see many dragons in architectural works in temples, pagodas, tombs and Royal Palaces, in Hue for example. This supernatural creature usually has its head up and his mouth wide open holding a precious stone, a jade. It has a flame-like crest and is usually seen as flying, always towards a better life. It symbolizes human aspiration for strength and freedom. 

The Unicorn symbolizes intelligence, peace, good luck and prestige. It represents as well the pureness of women from high ranks in the society, like princesses or empresses. In Vietnam the unicorn is different from the occidental one; it has a strange appearance and is a combination of various animals: it usually has a dragon’s head and a dog’s body but it could be as well a horse body. It can have one or 2 horns. In Vietnamese belief, the unicorn is the symbol of loyalty; that is why we traditionally find unicorn statues guarding pagodas and shrines. For TET, unicorn dances are performed along the streets, as a joyful entertainment bringing happiness, peace and prosperity.

The Tortoise represents longevity, education and wisdom. Its shell is the symbol of the sky and its four legs are the four pillars of the world. Many legends in Vietnam closely connect to the tortoise. One of the most famous, dates back from the 15th century: a poor fisherman was given a magic sword by a sacred turtle which came out of Ho Hoàn Kiêm lake in central Hanoi. He handed the sword to the noble Lê Lợi who, thanks to his magical powers, raised up the Vietnamese people, won many victories and became the sovereign of the kingdom. Several years later, as he walked along the shores of the lake, the sword was caught by the turtle, which took it to the depths of the lake. A huge turtle shell was found in the lake shortly afterwards says the legend… In the temple of Literature in Hanoi, you can see the steles placed on the back of carved stone turtles, to honor talent and encourage education. Before their university exams, students used to go to rub the heads of the stone turtles for good luck, but now it is forbidden to touch in order to preserve the stone turtles. It is interesting to notice that in these 4 holy animals, the turtle is the only one which is real.

The Phoenix is an elegant bird that represents nobility, grace, pride and virtue. The myth says that the phoenix burnt its nest and rose again from its ashes few days later; so it symbolizes regeneration and rebirth. As other holy animals in Vietnamese culture, it combines elements of various animals: it has the neck of the snake, the breast of a swallow, the back of a tortoise and the tail of a fish, quite a weird but elegant bird! Phoenix is often used as a decorative patterns on « áo dài » (traditional costume for women) or objects.

There are other holy animals in the Vietnamese culture such as carps, horses, tigers and dogs, but the four ones we have mentioned in this article are the most popular ones.

If you are interested in learning more about Vietnamese culture and traditions, join our interactive adventure walking tour in Saigon’s Chinatown.

Read More

Tết is coming soon!

The full name of TET is Tết Nguyên Đá (= Lunar New Year)

TET is the biggest and most popular festival for all Vietnamese families. This annual New year celebration coincides with the Lunar New Year celebrated throughout the world, in January or February.

This year, it is very early, falling on January 25th. New year’s eve celebrations happened at home on the 24th with big and festive dinners. Then at 11pm, the families go to the temples to pray for the coming year.

The traditional greetings are « Chúc Mừng Năm Mới » (= Happy New Year) and « Cung Chúc Tân Xuân » (= gracious wishes of the new spring) Vietnamese people also wish each other good luck and prosperity, especially younger ones to elders.

TET is at the same time a very festive and a very quiet time. It is festive and joyful before the first day of the new year with streets, markets and pagodas bustling with people and lion dances, and flowers everywhere. Then it gets very quiet as all shops and business remain closed for approximately one week to 9 days. This is a family holiday so everybody remains in his own family, in the provinces or in the big cities. Family spend time together, cooking and eating special food (« bánh chưng » is one of the very popular food for TET – a cake made with sticky rice, pork and mungo beans), welcoming family members and friends, going to the pagodas.

The 3 first days of TET are the most important: the first day of the year, 25th is the most important day and is really dedicated to the Family. Then 26th is more relaxed, to receive and to visit Friends. Finally 27th is a special day to celebrate and honor the deceased Ancestors of the family.

For international visitors, it is a great experience to have a stroll on Nguyen Hue avenue in the heart of HCMC. All the avenue is magnificently decorated with flowers and shows are performed. People gather there, all dressed with beautiful traditional clothes and taking pictures on the avenue. It is a great opportunity for visitors to take plenty of colorful photographies of the local daily life. The festivities on Nguyen Hue will start on 22/01 in the evening and will last until the 28th.

Superstitions are still very strong in Vietnam and this is a list you should follow if you want to act like the locals before TET:
You should pay all your debts before TET
You should sweep, clean and decorate your home
You should pay special attention to the altar in your house, decorating it with fruits, flowers and cakes.
You should buy new clothes
You should not wear black and white during TET
You should prepare lucky money “Lì xì” for children in red envelops
You should give presents to your family & friends
You should not use bad words

Basically, TET is a time for a new start. You have to forget old grievances and be ready to receive as much luck and good fortune for the upcoming year.

As 2020 is the year of Rat, this animal will be the prominent decoration design everywhere in the country!
According to Chinese astrology, 2020 is the Year of the Metal Rat. The Rat is generally believed to be a symbol of strong vitality and intelligence. This 2020 year of the Rat is supposed to be very auspicious and to bring an amazing prosperity for all signs!

So be ready to welcome it!

We will close for TET from January 22nd to 30th 2020 and we will be happy to welcome you again to join our interactive city tour after TET!

Read More

Incense offering in Vietnam

In Vietnam, you’d better like the smell of incense burning because you’re going to find it a lot, in pagodas, in shops, in private houses and even on the streets.

It is hard to pinpoint a particular time when such practice exactly started in Vietnam. It probably originates from the Chinese colonization. The ritual of burning incense in religious ceremonies dates back from very old times:  depictions of burning incense could be found in tombs and temples of Ancient Egypt!

In Vietnamese, incense is “hương” in the North and “nhang” in the South.

For Vietnamese, an incense stick is not a simple object, it is a sacred element, which is part of their daily spiritual life and of their relation to the world. We can even say that it is part of the Vietnamese cultural identity.

The smoke of the incense sticks is considered as a sacred bridge between the visible life of human beings and the spiritual life of earth, heaven and gods. It helps connecting the world of the living and the one of the deceased (or spirits).

That is why incense offering is so important as a ritual during the traditional Buddhist festivals as well as in the worship of ancestors in each Vietnamese family.

At home or in the pagodas, incense offering especially takes place on the most important days of the lunar calendar (1st and 15th day of each month), as well as on the anniversary of the death of a loved one, or when a baby is born. And of course for traditional TET, the lunar New Year.

When one burns an incense stick, his prayers are passed on to the deities and to the spirits of their ancestors.

In Vietnam, you can find many types of incense: the most common is the small sticks of bamboo covered with wood powder or the conical spirals that hang form the ceiling in the pagodas. Sometimes, they are made of aromatic wood.

Some facts to know about burning incense tradition in Vietnam:

According to tradition, one should always light and burn an odd number of incense sticks (1,3,5, 7 or 9). Each and every of those number has its own meaning and symbolic value. They all represent prosperity and development. Nobody burns only 1 stick; 3 is actually a minimum. One must hold the sticks with both hands and put them respectfully on the altar, showing humility and concentration. Incense offering should be accompanied with prayers. Nowadays even in modern Vietnam, this ritual is still taken very seriously by everybody.

 For Buddhism, burning incense is one of the six offerings together with fresh flowers, candles or oil lamps, tea, fruit and food.

You can buy some incense sticks in every market and in the pagodas.

If you want to be impressed and amazed by the huge hanging spiral incense cones hanging from the ceilings in some pagodas, you should join our interactive walking adventure. It will lead you to some of those temples!

Read More

Of Kite flying in Cambodia : The legend of Th’nuhn Chhey

« Thnuhn Chhey, of the existence of Kites in China, and of Chinese in Cambodia »

… Once upon a time…, there was a poor – a bit cheesy – peasant by the name of Chhey – which means « Victory » – who was forced to become a servant of a rich Lord. Although a kind of ‘dopey’ of his state, it wasn’t devoid of common sense and after many adventures during all his years at the service of his rich Lord, he found himself in a “sampan” boat in the direction of the Middle Kingdom (Cathay/China). And there, for some small misconduct in a society that is being foreign to him, the poor Chhey found himself in the jails of the Emperor of China.

To get rid of his boredom, he asked his guards a little piece of rattan and bamboo, paper and some fine thread to make a kite, and so homesick he was of his native country, that took him to the depths of his soul… The peculiarity of the Khmer kite is the addition of a small bamboo carved device called « Aek » so that when the wind blows through, it can emit a melodious or gloomy sound!

By a moonless night and when the North wind blows through his cold prison cell and bars, Chhey was flying his kite. In the dark of the night, the small instrument « Aèk » produced long and dreary groans – even worse than a night bird – that dread awoke the Emperor of China and the entire Court. The Emperor immediately requested his best astrologers who predicted that the worst misfortunes will befall on the Middle Kingdom « if the Sage of the Khmer country who is imprisoned in the jails is not released within the hour! »… Chhey was brought before the Emperor who – seeing him so humbly prostrating to the ground before Him – ordered to cover Chhey with gold and silver coins until his entire body disappears under the pile.

Chhey of course, took the opportunity to raise to the maximum his posterior to accumulate as much as possible the coins and jewelry! The ceremony ended, the Emperor asked the Chhey’s ‘secret’ who then unveiled the secret of the making of Khmer kites to the Emperor of China, and offered the most melodious “Kh’laèng Aèk” to the Emperor. Then, the Emperor of China had Chhey embark in his most richly decorated sampans and Chhey returned to the Khmer country accompanied by dignitaries from the Middle Kingdom and Chinese merchants, filled with glory and fortune. He lived a long life and had many children!

It is since that day that kites exist in China and that there are Chinese people in the Khmer Kingdom!

Every year, in the month of “kaddoeuk” that often falls in November according to the lunar calendar, young Cambodian children, taking advantage of the cool Northern wind of the Winter Monsoon that blows from China, are flying kites, and even in the most remote villages of the Kingdom, a competition of Kh’laeng Aek (kite) is organized and rewards the best decorated Kh’laeng Aek that produces the most melodious sounds!

If you are interested in learning more about Khmer culture & traditions, join our interactive mystery city tour in Phnom Penh.

© Vireak HOEUNG

Read More

Khmer street food

Phnom Penh is a great city to explore for its temples (wats), its historic district, its remaining beautiful vestiges, its markets and its new trendy neighbourhoods. But let us remind you that another essential part of visiting the Cambodian capital is to try its delicious local street food!

Colorful and tasty, Khmer street food is a great experience for the eyes and for the palate. Each vendor is usually specialized in some certain type of dish.

Most of the dishes can be eaten at any time of the day. Some like the « Nohm Ornsorm Chhruk » (or Steamed Pork Sticky rice) is very popular on special occasions such as traditional ceremonies, weddings or for the Khmer New Year. The Hollow donut (« Nohm Paoung ») is usually eaten for breakfast or as a snack in the afternoon .

Best thing to do for visitors is to wander along the streets in Phnom Penh, especially around the markets and to stop and try some street food whenever the color or the smell attracts you. You will not regret the experience!

If you want to explore Phnom Penh off the beaten-tracks, do not miss our interactive tour.

  • Street Food Khmer
  • Street Food Cambodia
  • Street Food Cambodia
  • Street Food Cambodia
  • Street Food Cambodia
  • Street Food Cambodia
  • Street Food Cambodia
  • Street Food Khmer
  • Street Food Khmer
  • Street Food Khmer
  • Street Food Khmer
Read More