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Henri Joseph Oger was born in 1885 in Montrevault, Maine-et-Loire, France. He arrived in Annam in 1908 and was enrolled in the Hanoi Colonial College. In 1910, Oger became a novice officer in an Indochinese state agency in Hanoi. During his two years in Hanoi he set himself an ambitious goal, to write a comprehensive and accurate encyclopedia of local life and customs.

Accompanied by a Vietnamese draughtsman, Oger spent his spare time wandering the city and its suburban villages, collecting information on crafts, merchant quarters and traditions. He garnered over 4000 sketches and outlines, including references from the locals to ensure their accuracy.

Oger employed more than 3000 sculptors to create 4000 woodcarvings, including many Chinese and Nom designs. Woodcarvers who supported Oger included Nguyen Van Dang, and Pham Van Thieu.

The exhaustive work resulted in a collection of ten books called Technique du Peuple Annamit (Crafts of Annam People) that was published in a modest edition of 60 copies. There are only two editions still in existence in Vietnam, an incomplete version stored in the Hanoi National Library and one in the Ho Chi Minh General Science Library.

Although his work was forgotten for several decades, Oger bequeathed the Vietnamese people an invaluable asset. His sketches and notices provide a detailed and lively picture of life in Hanoi at the turn of the 20th century.

After Hanoi, Oger worked in the city of Vinh. In 1916 he went to Quang Yen Province for three years but due to illness had to return to France. Moving to Spain, he was last head from in 1936 when he was just 51.

12Tet paintings

Tranh TET

Tet prints include famous images like chickens crying for the dawn,carps admiring the moon, the rats’ wedding, the toad scholar, the pig and its offspring, two Trung Ladies beating Su Ding’s troops, Tran Hung Dao defeating Yuan invaders, and astrological images.

People typically place a folk painting of the Five Fruit on their alter, a paper pipe or sometimes the Chinese characters for Heart, Fortune or Morality. Even poor people buy Tet paintings, which play an integral part in a traditional Lunar New Year. Bright colours evoke warmth and the vitality of spring for Vietnamese families.

11Kids having fun at Tet

In rural areas there is typically a Tet market especially for children. Here, kids can paint Tet images to decorate their homes; and paint brightly coloured clay animals. Every child receives a piggy bank to contain the lucky money they receive during Tet.

10The Five Fruit Tray

At the heart of each family’s altar lies a Five Fruit Tray, comprising five fruits of different colours that represent the Five Elements. The world is said to have been formed from Metal, Wood, Water, Fire and Earth. Green bananas represent Wood. Yellow pomelo represents Earth in the centre. Red persimmons or tangerines represent Fire. Apples or pears represent Water. Grapes represent black for metal.

9Playing tổ tôm cards

During the Lunar New Year holidays, children love to play Tricards while elderly folk prefer Tổ Tôm cards. In the past, Tổ tôm was widely played, like chess games. Tổ tôm is quite difficult, making it most popular with elderly people. Tổ tôm served as a yardstick to measure men’s intellect.

8Cooking contests

Cooking contests vary in different regions, but serve as more than just entertainment at spring festivals. The rice won from these contests is regarded as a priceless offering for sacrifices.

Cooking contests demonstrate our respect for rice and our processing techniques of this key staple. The contests are sometimes held in communal house courtyards or on boats floating in lakes. Contestants may have to cook while completing other tasks. Regardless of the places and the rules, the cooks are judged on quickness and quality

7Wrapping pork pate

During the Lunar New Year, pork pate is a key food for sacrifices and meals. The pate is made of pounded lean pork and fine fish sauce, wrapped in banana leaves and boiled. Popular from North to South, pork pates mix the rich flavour of pork with the scent of fresh banana leaves.

6Erecting Neu trees

Neu trees are poles that Kinh people and some ethnic minority groups erect in their yards during the Lunar New Year. From this pole hang little loops and various symbolic tokens. According to legend, Neu trees prevented evil from arriving from the East Sea. Over time, the significance of erecting Tet Neu trees changed. On the Evil Elimination night and the first day of the New Year, people once hung fireworks from the Neu tree to welcome their ancestors back, stave off misfortune and attract good luck.

5Cockfights

As spring comes, crowds gather to watch cockfights. Youngsters tend to their cocks to prepare them for combat. Whether they win or lose, everyone is excited. Each round (known as hồ) lasts 20 minutes. After a 5-minute break, the fight continues until one cock loses. Sometimes, fights last as long as a burnt incense stick. The incense might be folded into three, with a break taking place when the first piece burns. Owners massage their birds with ginger juice. The ring is supposed to measure four square meters and have a clay floor. At least two rounds are required, but the fight may go on for ten.

4Chơi tam cúc

In the old days, well-educated families did not allow their offspring to drink or play chess. But in the New Year, particularly on Lunar December 28 or 29, children were allowed to play tricards, or triangular chess, Chinese chess, tổ tôm, etc. At the end of the New Year celebrations the cards were shredded or burnt and the chessboards stored away.

Tricards comprise 32 cards with two sides: black and red. Each side consists of one general (male general on the red and female general on black), two soldiers, two elephants, two tanks, two arsenals, two horses and five pawns. There may be two, three or four players. The game requires rapid calculations and strategy.

3Parallel sentence calligraphy

A gate or door is meant to separate a family from the outdoors, and to keep out evil spirits. Hence, on every Lunar December 30, parallel sentences with auspicious slogans written in lucky red ink are stuck on either side of the door in hope of dissuading evil and encouraging good luck. There are special rules governing parallel sentences used during the Lunar New Year. For instance, if a family member died that year, the bereaved family must use white parallel sentences. For the following two years after a death, the parallel sentences must be green if a man died and yellow if a woman died.

Parallel sentences are also called “liễn”. Liễn are often scrolls of red paper hung from bamboo. In the past, country people even hung red parallel sentences on pigsties, barns and fruit trees to wish for abundance in the New Year. Those who were unable to write their own scrolls hired Confucian scholars specializing in calligraphy.

2Wrapping square rice cakes

Square rice cakes are a traditional food used by the Vietnamese to honour their ancestors and the surrounding world. The main ingredients include glutinous rice, mung beans, pork and dong leaves. These cakes are usually made for the Lunar New Year, as well as for the Hung Kings’ Memorial Day (Lunar March 10). The cakes are green and square, and symbolise the Earth. As Tet approaches, families gather to wrap and boil their square rice cakes. As gifts, they are presented in pairs.

1New Year altar

The Lunar New Year is believed to be the time when different generations and the ancestors are reunited. People make offerings that link the mundane world with the invisible underworld. As well as offerings, a Vietnamese altar should have two kerosene lamps or two candles to represent the sun and the moon. They light up the path for the departed to travel to the world of the living and bestow good health and success. Three incense sticks are burnt to represent “Heaven, Earth and Mortals” in supreme harmony. Betel leaves, areca and a bowl of water are arranged with the bowl on the right (east) and the betels and areca on the left (west). Water is the source of life and betels and areca the fruit of proliferation. In the centre heart lies the Five Fruit Tray.