Kitchen God Day in Vietnam

Every year on the lunar twenty-third of December, according to lunar calendar, Vietnamese people hold the ceremony to say goodbye to Ong Tao or Kitchen King who goes to heaven and report to the Jade Emperor all about the family that he had taken care of over the past year. This ceremony is called Tet Ong Tao or Kitchen God Day – a beautiful Vietnamese cultural feature, as it is described. Celebrating Tet Ong Tao is a must custom prior to Tet, Vietnamese New Year, that expresses the belief of Vietnamese people in God’s supporting daily life.

Your kitchen must be clean and tidy, as it is, according to Vietnamese belief, the home of Ong Tao. And, you sure do not want to let the Kitchen Gods live in a messy place on such an important day. It begins with a celebration and after the ceremony finishes, the final process is fishes (gold fish and carps) being freed in a river nearby. This goes together with bags of ashes from the kitchen. Now it is a noble thought that fishes get released, as traditionally animals in general are not treated very nicely. Especially dogs and cats get tortured because then their meat “tastes better”. As I was previousy married to a Vietnamese woman, my son and I once gently released fishes into a pond. Only to be told later that we did it in the wrong location. It had to be a river!

The reality was a bit shocking to an outsider like me. On a high bridge in Hanoi I witnessed plastic bags with ashes thrown into the river at great hight. And the fishes suffered the same fate. Fishes would not be able to survive the long way down and many were even still in a plastic bag, unable to escape. And some died a tragic death after they smashed on the concrete constructions at water level. Those who did empty the bags with ashes saw the ashes going into all directions because of the wind. Some released it even against the wind, covering everybody in ashes. Adding to this there was a huge amount of garbage.

There are many local customs and sometimes foreigners like me wonder what the point is when one of those customs leads to pollution and death. I am an outsider, and as a photographer I can only document and show it.