HCMC Dining Guide

Saturday, January 28, 2012

The King of Holidays

I've gotten a lot of questions from friends and family recently about Tet, Vietnam's Lunar New Year holiday. Tet falls on a different day every year, but it is usually in late January or early-ish February, depending on the lunar calendar. There are 12 Lunar New Year animals, and they rotate through the years, each one signifying different things. 2012 is the Year of the Dragon (so was 1988, the year I was born in), last year was the Year of the Cat (In Vietnam at least. In China it was the Rabbit.), and next year will be the Snake. Tet fell on January 23 this year, and last week I wrote an article for Tuoi Tre News on the subject that will probably answer a lot of questions. I figured I'd share it here. (Remember this was written before the holiday, hence the future tense verbs.) Originally published at: http://tuoitrenews.vn/cmlink/tuoitrenews/city-diary/the-king-of-holidays-1.58928

One of the first things most newcomers to this country learn about as they adjust to Vietnamese culture is the importance of Tet, or the Lunar New Year. When I moved here in September of 2010 I was quickly filled in on the holiday, even though it was still five months away. While the U.S., where I'm from, has its fair share of holidays, there is no equivalent to Tet.

Expats in Saigon are warned that the city will empty out a few days before the day of Tet itself; businesses will close; and there will basically be no one here. Travel within Vietnam itself is advised against, since all of the locals are traveling to their hometowns, meaning every train, plan, bus, and boat is packed to the brim. As a result, most foreigners head to other countries. The school I work at gives us 10 days off, and last year I escaped to Thailand with my two roommates. Almost everyone I knew was traveling somewhere, so I thought it would have been boring and lonely to stay here.

In America, on the other hand, most businesses close for a day or two around Christmas and Thanksgiving; and there are a few federal holidays, such as Martin Luther King Jr. Day, when schools are government-run offices are shuttered, but at no point does practically the entire country shut down for an extended period of time. As the latest AsiaLIFE cover story noted, Tet is like Christmas, New Year's, and your birthday combined.

This holiday can be somewhat difficult to describe to my friends and family back in America, since it is so vastly different from our traditions, but the phrase "Tet" is actually well known in the U.S., because one of the most decisive events of the Vietnam War was called the Tet Offensive. People are certainly interested in how the holiday is celebrated here, and everyone is jealous of how much time we get off of work. They also find it odd that we celebrate two New Year's - the January 1 one, and the Lunar one.

Therefore, Tet is very interesting to observe from a foreigner's viewpoint. The holiday's approach has been evident in the lights lining Dong Khoi and a few other major downtown streets since December. Flower shops overflow with apricot blossoms, the favored Tet flower of southern Vietnam. Shops and restaurants around the city renovate to put their best face forward for the new year. Neighbors in my hem are painting their gates and exterior walls while remodeling their interiors. One family is hurrying to finish a new house before the holiday, which is unfortunate, since they use circular saws and power drills from 7am to 10pm nearly every day.

It really is amazing how every aspect of life revolves around Tet as the New Year approaches. My students become even less attentive than usual, since they know they have a bunch of days off coming up. Prices go up as everyone stocks up on food and drinks for family feasts. Children are given new outfits, and special banh chung cakes are sold everywhere. Even sex is tied to the holiday: this coming year will be the Year of the Dragon, and children (especially males) born in such a year are believed to be predisposed to wealth and success, so couples around the country are doing everything in their power to ensure they have a baby after January 23.

Of course, financial issues come in to play around Tet as well, most notably in the form of li xi, or lucky money. Children in particular are given small bills (although I know some children receive 20,000 or even 50,000 dong bills) by their family members as a token of good luck in the new year. This is a nice gesture, but some people do try to use this tradition to take advantage of foreigners. For example, I took a taxi downtown last week, and when I arrived the meter said 42,500. The drive then rudely demanded 50,000 for "holiday". If he had been kinder about it I would given him the extra money, but he shouldn't have just expected that I would take part in a tradition that is unlike what I grew up with.

All of this means that, once life gets back to normal after Tet, the city feels different. The "spring cleaning" that accompanies the holiday means everything is newly painted and fresh. People are excited by the chance provided to start anew in the new year, and Saigon's hustle and bustle becomes even more noticeable, as everyone strives for success. Oh, and every child can be seen playing with the new toys they received over the break.

To me, all of this is truly special, since I can't experience any of this in the U.S. I love immersing myself in unfamiliar traditions, and I really enjoy seeing Vietnam prepare for Tet. This year, I'll be able to see the country celebrate it as well, since I will be staying in Vietnam. I'm going to Phu Quoc for four days, and then I'll be in Saigon for the rest of the holiday. I'm curious to see how quiet the city really gets, or if all of the hype is overdone. Enjoy your holiday everyone, wherever you're going, and if you fine me asleep on a Phu Quoc beach, please don't disturb me.


Now that I've actually seen this holiday in person, I'd like to add some thoughts related to the above story. People weren't lying when they said city got a lot quieter over Tet. I'd say a solid 70% of local businesses are still closed, including several of my favorite restaurants. Street food is kind of difficult to find as well. I went to the grocery story yesterday and there was no milk, no juice, no bread, and little in the way of fresh fruit. One place that is bustling is the cinema near my house. Tet is the Vietnamese equivalent of America's summer blockbuster season, so the year's biggest domestic movies are now being shown and the place is a madhouse every night.

The major streets are still fairly busy though, which makes me wonder exactly where everyone is going if so many places are closed. There is definitely less car traffic, which is nice. Things should be pretty much back to normal by Monday, just in time for me to leave for Hanoi mid-week to start the H2H ride. Overall I'd say this was a pretty good holiday, although I'm looking forward to having all of my friends back in town, that's for sure.


  1. It's interesting to know how Vietnamese Lunar New Year - Tet was seen from the perspective of an expat like you. Basically I like your writing style as well as how you put your critical thinking in your writing. And I feel glad to learn something from you writing. You are doing a good job. Keep it up and let other readers enjoy more of your writings.