Celebrating Tet in Vietnam

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When I first began planning my time in Vietnam, I did it without knowing anything about which day the Lunar New Year would fall in 2014. I was basing my decision more around the holidays back home in the U.S., and my elephant volunteering gig in Thailand. It just so happened, though, that I found myself in Vietnam as the country prepared for and then celebrated Tet, or the Lunar New Year in Vietnam.

Yes, I rang in 2014 twice this year!

Being in Vietnam during Tet definitely made my travels in the country more interesting, especially from a cultural standpoint. I got to see how the locals prepare for Tet, and then got to celebrate right alongside them. Talk about a memorable experience!

Tet decorations in Saigon, Vietnam

In the U.S., Christmas and New Year's are packaged more or less as one giant holiday, and that's kind of what Tet is, too. The locals celebrate the coming of the Lunar New Year with all sorts of celebrations, including a “holiday” period that can last for days. And, just like in the U.S. where we buy Christmas trees and have New Year's Eve fireworks, there are specific things to do when celebrating Tet, too.

Preparing for Tet

Preparations for Tet begin weeks before the actual holiday.

Buying a tree

Much like my family buys a pine tree in December for Christmas, Vietnamese families buy plants for Tet, too. In the north, the plants of choice are either peach blossoms of kumquat trees. In the south, people also buy huge bunches of yellow chrysanthemums to decorate their homes for the New Year.

Peach blossoms in Vietnam

Kumquat tree in Vietnam

Kitchen gods ceremony

In nearly every Buddhist house in Vietnam, you will find a small icon in the kitchen of the three “Kitchen Gods” — one female and two males who look over and protect the home. On the 23rd day of the last month in the lunar calendar, these gods return to the heavens to report back to the Jade Emperor. There is usually a ceremony to celebrate this day, and the kitchen icon is usually replaced. Along the riverbank in Hue, we saw several “retired” kitchen god icons along with offerings.

Bidding farewell to the Kitchen Gods in Vietnam

Pray for the coming year

In Hoi An, we visited a few traditional-style Chinese assembly halls. Inside, they were all hung with large coils of incense — coils that would be lit on New Year's Day and take up to two weeks to finish burning. Hanging from each coil was a prayer, basically asking for good luck and good fortune for each member in a family in the new year.

Incense coils for the new year in Vietnam

Preparing special food

The most popular food to prepare for Tet is Banh Chung — chunks of pork fat coated in mung bean surrounded by rice and wrapped up in banana leaves. This is then boiled and served as a special treat for Tet.

Making Banh Chung (sticky rice cakes) in Vietnam for Tet

Banh Chung (sticky rice cakes) for Tet in Vietnam

Extra decorations

In Hoi An, extra lanterns were hung all over the city. In the Imperial Citadel in Hue, large pink blossoms were dotted around near the river and good luck ornaments were hung on trees.

Lanterns in Hoi An, Vietnam

The real surprise came when we arrived in Saigon, though, which went all-out for the holiday.

Tet decorations in Saigon, Vietnam

Tet in Saigon

Talk to anyone who lives in Saigon (Ho Chi Minh City) full-time, and they will tell you that the city “empties” for Tet. Residents head home to their families in the north, markets and shops close up for days, and there's much less traffic than usual.

To me, though, Saigon still looked like a bustling, lively city — and it was completely decked out for Tet.

Tet decorations in Saigon, Vietnam

In the evening, flowery lights stretched over intersections. Whole streets closed down and were flooded with people and the smell of street food. A decorated park displaying twisted bonsai trees and perfectly-pruned flowers had the same family-friendly atmosphere as the county fairs I love so much each autumn at home. Squares and well-known buildings were covered in twinkle lights, and there was music everywhere.

Tet decorations in Saigon, Vietnam

Tet decorations in Saigon, Vietnam

Tet decorations in Saigon, Vietnam

Celebrating Tet in Saigon, Vietnam

I've been to some cool celebrations and festivals all around the world, but the way in which Saigon transformed for Tet really impressed me.

Tet decorations in Saigon, Vietnam

On January 30 (well, by my calendar), the city celebrated New Year's Eve with an elaborate fireworks show over the river. My Intrepid Travel tour group went up to the roof of our hotel to watch and celebrate our last night together as a group.

Tet in Saigon, Vietnam

The next day, everyone in Saigon — locals and visitors alike — seemed to be out in the city. Little girls wore colorful dresses and families snapped photos in front of elaborate decorations. It was hot and chaotic, but also so fun to experience.

Tet decorations in Saigon, Vietnam

Tet in Saigon

On this occasion, I was really glad to be visiting a place during a major holiday.

Tips for Traveling in Vietnam During Tet

TRAVELING — If you are traveling through Vietnam during Tet, try to plan your itinerary so that you will be traveling from north to south. Many people from the north of Vietnam work in the south of the country, and they all head home around the same time to visit their families for Tet. If you, too, are trying to go northwards during this time, good luck! Bus, train, and plane tickets sell out quickly, and the ones that you CAN find can be really expensive if you're headed north. Either that, or you'll find yourself packed into an 18-seater mini bus with about 50 other people!

CLOSURES — Make note that, since many people head home to visit family during Tet, a lot of shops and markets will close for the holiday. And they won't just close for a day — sometimes they can be shut up for up to 5-7 days! This only affected my travels in Hoi An, where many of the famous tailoring shops were getting ready to close for Tet and therefore couldn't do any custom tailoring unless we could come back a week later for fittings. For the most part, though, we still had no trouble finding restaurants and such that were still open.

NOT SO CHAOTIC — If you're hoping to find the chaotic, scooter-filled streets that Saigon is so well-known for, you may be a bit disappointed if you visit during Tet. As mentioned above, the city becomes comparatively “quiet” during this time of year.

 

Have YOU ever visiting a country during a major local holiday?

 

 

*Note: I visited Vietnam as part of a complimentary tour of Vietnam and Cambodia with Intrepid Travel. However, as always, opinions are completely my own.

If you'd like to book this same tour, check it out here.

Vietnam Express Southbound tour

"It's a dangerous business, going out your door. You step onto the road, and, if you don't keep your feet, there's no telling where you might get swept off to." - JRR Tolkien

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36 Comments on “Celebrating Tet in Vietnam

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  1. I knew the very basics of Tet so this was such a neat read. And how fortuitous it worked out for you to be there during it! I still think the photo of the kumquat tree is my favorite although Saigon looks amazing.

    I was in Seville, Spain for Semana Santa and it was unforgettable. Sevilla is THE place to experience it and yeah, it didn’t disappoint 🙂

      Being in Seville for Semana Santa would be amazing! But yes, Tet in Saigon was pretty darn great, too. Glad you enjoyed this post!

    Great post Amanda! I think its incredibly fascinating learning about how other cultures celebrate. I wish western culture had a few more traditional ways of doing things sometimes like they do in Vietnam and other similar countries.

      It’s really fascinating to me, too! One of the coolest parts about traveling, for sure.

    I didn’t know about this festivities, but it looks pretty cool: so colourful! You were really lucky to be there at the exact time without knowing! 🙂

      Yes it definitely worked out well! It was really fun to celebrate 2014 twice!

    I was also in Vietnam for Tet (I think we may have chatted on Twitter about this right after). Anyway during the preparations I was up north in Hanoi but then went over to Nam Dinh with my Vietnamese friend to spend the Tet holiday with her family and relatives. Oh what an amazing time it was! So much food, fireworks, fun, and, well, alcohol. I have yet to write my Tet post, unfortunately, but you’re photos are much better than mine so I might just have to concede this one to you: ya beat me to the punch. Congrats! 🙂

      Ah, but you got to celebrate like a local! That sounds awesome, too.

    What an incredible experience!

      It was indeed pretty cool! And a nice addition to my time in Vietnam. All the decorations in Saigon were just incredible!

    Your pics are amazing and captured the overall feel for Tet in Vietnam, some minor corrections are needed to improve the post:
    . The “kitchen Gods” practice is not Buddhist related – it’s a Vietnamese tradition, practiced by Vietnamese Catholics and others.
    . Beside decked-out cities and towns,Tet is also celebrated as extended family reunions: visits ancestral resting places, young cherishing longevity of old, old granting young “fortune moneys” and eat, play, re-energize… Small villages also feature traditional sports, talents, singing competitions.
    . Saigon emptied some of its working people northern direction (some actually went to central) but most went south.
    Glad you had a good time!

      Thanks for the extra tidbits! From what I was reading, the Chinese also have the “kitchen gods,” and I was led to believe it was a Buddhist thing! My bad!

    Looks like you had a great time in Vietnam during Tet and I was celebrating it in the Mekong region. The street decorations were amazing and got a couple of Li Xi, from the few friends I have over there.

      Great to hear that you enjoyed Tet in Vietnam, too! The street decorations in Saigon were really impressive!

    What an incredible cultural, culinary and visually appealing holiday. Your good fortune brought you to the right place at the right time. What a trip!

      Definitely! I loved learning about all the different traditions that go along with the holiday.

    I can only imagine the smell of incense wafting through the streets during that time… just amazing pictures!

    I liked your blog. Never been to Vietnam. The way you describe the celebration of TET makes it just a little bit more interesting for me.

    Really interesting. We were traveling in roughly the same timeframe and read so many things about stuff being closed and transport being expensive. We ended up saving Vietnam for another time. We headed to Cambodia and then through Thailand which was pretty good too. The only issue we had was in Siem Reap as apparently the Chinese NewYear is similar time and they all go to SiemReap and book up the hotels.
    Definitely looking forward to Vietnam and despite the really interesting story you paint, I think we will head there during a more “normal” time.

      Yeah, being in Vietnam during Tet was really fun, but I think it could have been stressful if I hadn’t been on a group tour. I highly recommend going back to see Vietnam sometime, though!

    Hi Amanda! I came across your blog as I was searching for articles on tips on traveling to Vietnam during Tet holiday. I will be traveling solo and was hoping to do the cu chi and mekong river tour, would tours be canceled during the holiday season as well? Sigh. Didnt get to double check the dates.

      On the actual couple days of Tet I’m not positive – but I don’t think those tours would be canceled. I think most of the popular touristy stuff would still be running!

    Tet looks awesome. I definitely would want to stock up on supplies thought becasue everything closes up.

      We were still able to find places open for dinner and such. But yeah, a lot of the markets close down, along with a lot of the smaller shops. It was so cool to be there for Tet though!

    Tet is the most important festival in Vietnam and the Vietnamese putting in everything into it. I was invited my a friend that lives in Vietnam to spend tet with his family, it’s truly an amazing experience. The food, the designs, the city lights up all the long.

      I’m sure that was a really unique experience!

    Hey, have you got any advice about Tet outside of the big cities? We are arriving in Hanoi a week before and travelling down to HCMC by train and leaving from there so we will be somewhere on route for Tet but I’m not sure where would be best while it goes quiet as don’t want to be stranded. Thanks

      I’m afraid I don’t have much experience during Tet other than what I’ve already written about on my blog. But I would definitely try to be in a larger city during the full-on Tet celebrations. I was in HCMC during it, and in Hoi An before that. Everything seemed like it was going to shut down in Hoi An for 3-4 days. And even in HCMC many shops and restaurants were closed. So I’m not sure I would recommend being in a smaller village/town when things close! (If you stick to larger cities, though, you should at the very least still be able to find restaurants that cater to tourists that will stay open.)

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