Tet Nguyen Dan Sino – Vietnamese for ‘feast of the very first morning of the first day’ & the name given to celebrate the lunar new year. ‘Tet’ as it is known by the locals, is Vietnam’s largest and oldest national celebration and epitomizes its cultural identity. Tet is Christmas, Easter, New Year and Thanks Giving; all rolled in to one, huge package – celebrated with great gusto and cheer. The official celebrations are rolled out across three days, and a day or two either side is usually also taken as a holiday, making the event a week-long affair. Anticipation swells in the weeks leading up to the big event and as such, the country undergoes a gradual transformation. Almost unbelievably, the atmosphere becomes even more frantic that usual. However, come the actual event, the urban centers are practically devoid of any life; the stores are closed, the streets are barren, and a certain calmness exists. Indeed, a very surreal time to be in Vietnam. The Vietnamese new year celebration is primarily a family affair and often the only occasion family will see each other – it serves to remember ancestors, celebrate each other and delight in old memories. Tet combines ancient myth and legend – wonderful tales of giant carp doubling as kitchen gods, jade emperors, with the joy of the present. Certain centuries old traditions including friends, family, food, gift giving, religious worship and decorative displays, are all an integral part of the festivities. Based on the Chinese zodiac, Tet has a significant impact on how the following year will prevail – ‘it’s written in the stars’ so to speak, and as such, why it is such a spiritual and special time.
The Buildup/ The Setting
Vietnam, famed for its chaos, is a particularly special explosion of the senses in the build up to Tet. The usual maze of heavily congested traffic becomes crazier, the small roadside stalls seem to swell in numbers, peach, mandarin and kumquat trees line the streets – the lamp poles above them hang Vietnamese flags, proudly fluttering in the wind. The same lamp poles are also dressed in wonderful light displays and decoration; the words ‘Chuc Mung Nam Moi’ (happy new year) arch from pole to pole. The smell of burning incense wafts through the streets, large public flower displays are erected and exhibited in the down town areas, as are large symbols of the coming years zodiac – 2018 will be the year of the dog. The atmosphere is frenzied; people darting between markets and stalls, collecting new year outfits for their children and gathering various last-minute essentials. Red and yellow, the colors of luck and fortune appear prominently on almost everything, from envelopes filled with ‘lucky money’ (gifted to children from their grandparents) to traditional attire and flowers. People also scramble to clear their debts; any arguments should be resolved, houses are cleaned, any maintenance repairs are carried out, and offerings to the gods are put on display. Amongst all the chaos though is a resounding energy of harmony and joy. The locals are beam from ear to ear in anticipation of their well- deserved annual. The atmosphere is truly electric.
A mass exodus of the cities takes place in the 2-3 days leading up to Tet, as people make their way home to remote and rural areas, where 75% of Vietnam’s the population resides.
If you are traveling during this time – prepare for extremely heavy traffic, huge cues, delays and general pandemonium; be prepared to spend a few extra hours just traveling to the airport. When things go wrong (as they likely will), be sure to smile and go with it – avoid confrontation, anger and frustration or ‘losing one’s face.’
The new year symbolizes confidence in humanity, brings redemption, hope and optimism for the people. However, Tet is less about the celebrations, and more about the reunion. For most families it’s the only time of year where they come together as one, delighting in each other’s company and reflecting on old, happy memories. The smell of local delicacies, the joyous mood and infectious sound of laughter float from house to house. Food is a particularly prominent feature of the festivities, especially the preparation of ‘Banh Chung’ – a green, square rice cake said to symbolize the earth, made from rice, mung beans & pork, then covered in banana leaves. Candied sweets are also a popular choice of snack, as are bowls of fresh fruit which are said to bring luck and also serve as offerings to the Gods. Time in between socializing, eating and drinking, is usually spent at pagodas, giving thanks to the gods and ancestors who are said to visit the family for the holidays. These ritual practices mean a lot to the contemporary generation as it their connection to the past and a way of ensuring their cultural identity never fades. The Vietnamese believe the way you spend the New Year’s Eve will determine the following years events, so ‘Giao Thua’ as it’s known, is a particularly scared time. Families will request that a person of good temper, morality and success is invited to enter the house first due to the good luck they will bring. This custom is known as ‘Xong Dat’ and unless you have been specifically invited to somebody’s house on the first day of the year, then it is not acceptable to turn up.
Tet as a Tourist/ What to Expect
While Vietnam during Tet is certainly not as we always know it, do not despair – it is an awe-inspiring occasion and possibly one of the best times to experience it at its truly authentic peak. Revel in the festivities and joy of the locals, but do plan accordingly as most shops, restaurants and bars close business for the holidays. The streets will seem completely desolate, but if you prefer a quieter slow-pace of life, then it’s an ideal. Less traffic and motorbikes also mean a significant reduction in pollution, making a stroll of the streets and sights, a much more pleasant experience. Major tourist activities and attractions might also be restricted – shorter opening hours or not open altogether. Please consult your personal travel designer for further information. Tet is an expensive time for the Vietnamese and as such, petty crime rates do increase as people scramble to front the costs. Extra caution with your belongings is advised – particularly the use of smart phones on the street.
Do’s and Don’t
Prepare for crazy traffic and leave plenty of time to get to the airport
Be extra vigilant with your belongings
Try the traditional cuisine!
Prepare for restricted access to activities, shops, restaurants. Check with your personal travel designer who can provide you with further information.
Give red gifts – red symbolizes happiness, luckiness, and wealth
Always have your camera at the ready, boundless photo opportunities are guaranteed
Embrace the atmosphere and take it all in
Lose your temper, argue or swear
Break any glassware or ceramics, it is said to bring extremely bad luck
Invite yourself anywhere, you must always be invited
Wear an entire outfit of black or white – these colors can be spiritually offensive