If you Google “should I go to Vietnam for Tet,” you will get a resounding “no” in your search results: Travelers complain about expensive and hard-to-book transport, and locals warn about closed sites and restaurants. But “no” wasn’t a convenient answer for our traveling schedule, so we did what we never do: ignored collective wisdom (a first for two people so reliant on TripAdvisor and LP’s Thorn Tree) and booked our trip during Tet, Vietnam’s Lunar New Year.
The woman who gave me a chunk of Banh Chung, a boiled sticky rice sweet treat sold during Tet.
What luck! Sure, we may have paid a bit more on bus and plane tickets (and maybe our tips were a tad more generous at restaurants), but being in Vietnam during Tet has been wonderful.
Tet is “kind of like our Thanksgiving, Christmas, New Year’s, and birthday wrapped into one,” said an American expat we met, who now lives here with his Vietnamese wife. “It is by far the most important holiday in Vietnam.” Embarrassingly, P and I knew very little about it before arriving, but over the course of our two weeks here, it’s been hard not to immerse and verse ourselves in all things Tet — we strike up convos with locals in restaurants and workers in our hotels, and find ourselves Wikipedia-ing things at night like… Bánh chưng, the omnipresent leaf-wrapped packages we see for sale everywhere. We learn this is filled with boiled sticky rice and mung bean paste, and as I eavesdrop on a family at the market eating this right out of the Dong leaf, they hand me a section of the stuff and say, “Happy New Year. Try!”
When we arrived in Saigon, the hustle and bustle of New Year’s preparations were just beginning — hotels were decorating their lobbies, city workers were constructing big horse-themed displays in parks and thoroughfare medians, and locals were scooping up new clothes, toys, and all kinds of goodies from the markets to take home to their families up North or in the Mekong Delta. Nearly 9 million people live in Saigon, but during Tet, there are only about 3 million who stay in the city. This mass exodus does mean flights, buses, and trains get booked early. We booked our travel 10 days out: late enough to miss the train option, but early enough to have our pick of the litter for planes and buses.
Kids posing next to a horse display in Nha Trang
When we got to the beach-side city Nha Trang, the final week of preparations were in full swing. Here, we watched as truckloads of flowers were brought into the city and lined up the sidewalks: huge chrysanthemum planters (usually purchased as a duo and displayed on both sides of one’s front door), kumquat trees (placed in the center of one’s front room to symbolize fertility and the hope for a fruitful year), fake cherry blossom trees with brightly colored tissue flowers (where elders will hang “lucky money,” or envelopes filled with small bills for family members to snatch off the tree and carry with them all year as a good luck charm), bonsai creations, and many other flowers like begonias, marigolds, and gladiolas. Flowers and flower planters literally blanketed every spot of sidewalk — which meant, in order to get from place to place, we had to walk on the street into oncoming motorbike traffic. Uncomfortable at first, this only got more harrowing in the days right before the New Year, as more and more people were buying plants and delivery boys were strapping these 50-pound pots onto their motorbikes, magically balancing them as they darted through traffic. What a show!
We arrived in Hoi-An just in time for the New Year. This old port town is full of Chinese temples and Japanese-style merchant houses, all painted in French-Colonial yellow. Strings of brightly colored lanterns dangle across the streets; shops are full of the city’s once-important exports (beautiful silks, colorful lanterns, porcelain, lacquer, and paper); and elegant restaurants and hip cafes abound. Hoi-An would be overwhelmingly charming without a huge celebration going on, but to be here during Tet — well, we just felt really lucky.
A man delivering a kumquat tree, a symbol of fertility and fruitfulness for the coming year. These are usually displayed in the living room.
Old Town Hoi-Ann, just before Tet
Sidewalks were jam packed with flowers. These huge mum pots are bought as a duo and displayed on each side of your front door.
Since the sidewalks were packed with flowers, we had to walk directly into traffic to get from place to place. Fun!
A man burns paper money as an offering to ancestors on New Year’s Eve; there were dozens of families doing this on the streets.
On New Year’s Eve (Jan 30), we watched as the thousands of flower pots gradually disappeared from the sidewalks. At 8 pm when we headed downtown, merchants were selling flowers at a fast clip (and likely rock-bottom prices). We heard they started giving them away for free at 10 or 11 pm, because at midnight, the sidewalks, the roads, and all floors MUST be spotless — if you “sweep” during Tet, you may sweep away all your good luck. During dinner at our favorite Vietnamese restaurant thus far (The Moon), we watched the chef and his sister prepare their offering table at the door, then we headed into the streets as nearly every head of home burned paper money in tin cans as offerings to their ancestors. The riverfront was packed with people — gorgeous silk displays lit the riverwalk, paper lanterns floated in the river, polka-like New Year’s music blasted from speakers, and motorbikes–so many motorbikes!–honked their horns in a frenzy to find a parking spot in time for… the fireworks.
Hours before the New Year, the streets are sweep perfectly clean.
Colorful silk displays decorated the riverfront
Year of the Horse!
A smoky, but beautiful fireworks show
At exactly midnight, the show began. It wasn’t quite the high-tech, long-running firework spectacular we’re now accustomed to in the US, but it was gorgeous. So many smiles, so much awe. When they ended, we headed back through the narrow streets. Every front door was open with an offering table set in the middle. Incense was lit on each table, and as we made our 15-minute walk home, we got to progressively see the offering process: First, they would pray behind the table. Then, they may toss out a bowl of rice on the street, followed by cups of tea or water. Then, many head to the Chinese temples to pray for success in the New Year: The temple we passed on the way back to our hotel was already packed with worshippers at 12:30 pm.
New Year’s Day is generally reserved for family gatherings. We biked into the countryside, where we spotted families sitting outside drinking beer, playing board games, or just talking. The next 3-4 days are spent welcoming friends or neighbors in the home, or making special outings with your family to temples and heritage sites. As we walked around Hoi-An and now as we meander through Hue, we realize Tet is also a time to don your brand new clothes: Women in scuff-free shoes, guys in crispy denim, and little girls in spot-free dresses abound.
The Tet holiday formally ends tomorrow. So far, we haven’t been overcharged for much and we haven’t had much trouble with holiday closures. We did miss out on seeing one old merchant home in Hoi-An, but… who cares about another lifeless site when you get to experience a colorful, loud, and magical celebration?
A man at his offering table, just after midnight
A family cruising about town in their new clothes
Visiting temples to pray for a successful 2014.