This is some advice from one of our colleagues:
Xin chao, everyone! Chuc Mung Nam Moi!
For those of you who are new to Vietnam and/or would like to learn more about Tet, here is some information that may be helpful to you.
In a nutshell:
Tet is the most important holiday in the Vietnamese culture. It is like several holidays rolled into one:
• Thanksgiving - time to reflect on one's good fortunes and give thanks;focus on food and family, including ancestors
• Christmas - festive, joyful atmosphere; time off from work and school; giving of gifts (in the form of gift baskets and "lixi" or lucky money)
• Birthday - everyone turns a year older on Tet
• First Day of Spring - the Tet trees (one is similar to kumquat tree and the other one is the hoa mai with yellow flowers called "Mai" only blooms during this time); only certain fruit is in season
• Pilgrimage/Family Reunion: time to return home to family and catch up with family affairs; paying respect to ancestors, visit relatives and temples, forgetting about the troubles of the past year and hoping for a better upcoming year
• http://www.vietmedia.com/culture/?L=tet.html - Excellent source of information about many aspects of Vietnamese culture
Some thoughts about "Lucky Money" or "Lixi":
Traditionally Vietnamese people gave lucky money only to children at Tet. In modern times, people began giving gift baskets to their bosses, neighbors, elders, colleagues, business partners, etc. much like the Western tradition of Christmas gifts. Also, many working adults receive Tet bonuses from their employers (usually one month's salary).
As a foreigner living in Vietnam, you may wish to show thanks to people who work for you such as your teaching assistant, cleaner (at home and school), security guard, regular xe om driver, hair/nail lady... well, we could go on and on. We know that many of you are worried about the amount to give, but we can honestly say that even Vietnamese people have trouble agreeing what is "customary." SSIS will provide some sort of Tet gift to the local staff, so any amount or gift you give to your teaching assistant, cleaner, bus driver, maintenance man, etc. is appreciated. SSIS (Wai Mun and Charles) often go around the day before Tet Break and lixi ALL staff as a gesture of good luck for the year. We would recommend that you give a token of appreciation to any Vietnamese person on staff who has helped you either on a regular basis or with whom you'd like to thank. This token of appreciation can be in the form of money or a nice gift basket (put together yourself, wrapped for free at the customer service counter, or purchased ready-made at any supermarket). You do not need to lixi to everyone. The act of lixi is really about the relationship that you personally have with that person.
Some suggested guidelines for you as you navigate this often tricky tradition: (Please remember that it's really your choice.)
• Give money to people in red/yellow/Tet envelopes, not just plain cash. You can find these envelopes at FiviMart, CoopMart, PNC, Tan My market, and along many local streets in town.
• Try to give new or newish bills (try to avoid giving out the old bills, if you can, because it's the new year and new money is important in this tradition). You can go to the bank and get new bills if you'd like. Coins are not really given, except to really young children who don't know any better.
• We usually carry extra envelopes filled with small bills (10-20,000) just in case we forget someone, and we always do. You will find people wishing you a happy new year and smiling at you an awful lot during Tet. We like to have a few extra envelopes handy for situations when a "Happy new year to you, too" just doesn't cut it.
• Teaching assistants: In the past, teachers at SSIS have given between 200,000-300,000. If your assisant has worked with you for more than a year, you may wish to adjust that amount, or supplement with a little gift basket.
• SSIS cleaners: As a team, you can decide how much to give in total to the cleaners for your floor/department. For example, 100,000 each from 3 teachers in one grade level is a nice little bonus, equal to what an assistant would receive.
• Staff Bus driver: In years past, staff members who rode the bus on a regular basis pooled together money and presented one envelope to him. Or, you may wish to give him separate envelopes.
• Your house helpers: One month's salary for a regular full-time employee (maid, nanny). If you have a new employee or one who is shared among several households, use your own judgment (300,000 seems reasonable).
• 20,000 VND is the minimum amount that we would put in an envelope for an adult (e.g. acquaintance, hair/nail lady), just to be polite. Since there's an inflation in VN, maybe increase this amount to 40,000-50,000 VND.
These are just a few thoughts to help with understanding this tradition. If you have questions, email me. I'll do my best to help you. Again, please do not worry too much about the amount you give for "lucky money." It's about the relationship you built with the people you work with or come in contact. But the good news is, Vietnamese people are usually very forgiving of foreigners. Any gesture of thanks, given with your best intentions, will surely be appreciated.
Chuc mung nam moi!