Tet in Hoi An

Most people have heard of the Chinese New Year celebration, but have you heard about the Vietnamese Tet holiday? Tet is the Vietnamese Lunar New Year and the most important of all Vietnamese celebrations. Tet is a very special celebration in Hoi An. You can get an idea of what this means if you imagine a celebration that rolls both the western Christmas and New Year celebrations in to one. Every family comes together to share large meals, decorate Tet trees and eat Tet food.  All to welcome in the Lunar New Year.

Taking the opportunity to participate in this large Tet festival offers visitors to Hoi An a truly unique and unforgettable experience. Tet is colourful and fun, but is best enjoyed when you plan well ahead and stay in one area. Bear in mind that the whole of Vietnam is on the move. Everyone travels back to their hometown to be with their family. Making travelling around Vietnam a lot more challenging compared to during the rest of the year.

Hoi An is a tourist town though, so it is less affected by Tet than other remote areas. Be be prepared for some disruption (and partying) while travelling here during this time. Fortunately the Hidden team have a few Tet celebrations under our belts. We have collated all the information you’ll need to understand the history and traditions behind the Tet celebration.  Our insights provide you with all guidance and tips you’ll need to fully enjoy this very special time of the year.

Banners for Tet
Chuc Mung Nam Moi – Happy Vietnamese New Year.

Understanding the History and Traditions of Tet

What is celebrated during Tet?

As you travel through Vietnam you may have noticed the multitude of very special calendars displayed everywhere – the lunisolar calendar. These calendars are a combination of the international solar and the lunar  calendars. The solar calendar is used in Vietnam within a work context. As well as for birthdays and anniversaries. The lunar calendar determines the important events, religious based activities and festivals. Tet is the most important of all: the New Year celebration. While Tet is the extended celebration of the New Year and the arrival of spring, it is also a very welcome break within the agricultural year. Between harvesting the crops and sowing the new ones.

Tet is short for “Tet Nguyen Dan”, which literally means: “The first morning of the first day of the New Year”.

The western celebration of Easter is also based on the lunar calendar. Hence the date changes every year, as it does with Tet (in contrast to Christmas which follows the solar calendar falling on the same date every year).

Year of the pig decoration
Pig themed Tet decorations in Hoi An. 2019 is the year of the pig.

When and For How Long is Tet Celebrated?

Tet is celebrated after twelve lunar months. A lunar month is only 29 days long, so the date for the Tet New Year celebration changes annually (according to the solar calendar). It usually falls in late January/early February.

Hidden Hint: Here are the dates for the next few years: 5th of February 2019, 25th of January 2020, 12th of February 2021.

Tet comprises of five official public holidays in Vietnam.  But in true Vietnamese style, this can easily extend up to nine or even fourteen days. The timing is very fluid and flexible. There is just no way a business owner can ask their staff to be back on a certain day. Let alone work during Tet. People would rather quit their jobs than miss out on the highlight of the year!

Votive money being burnt
Paper money and other items burnt as offerings to your ancestors. Dont be alarmed, this is fake money!

What Does Tet Mean for Vietnamese People?

Tet is the time for a new start. Unlike in the western world, where we often don’t act on our New Year’s resolutions. Vietnamese people do clean up their life for Tet. In a literal as well as a figurative sense. Houses and temples cleaned, debts paid, grievances forgiven and squabbles settled.

Superstition plays a large part.  With the belief that whatever happens on the first day of the New Year sets the tone for the coming year. To ensure that the first visitor brings good luck, the first visit of the day is carefully planned and orchestrated. This ensures a lucky person is the first to enter the house on Tet morning.

….And most of all it is a time to party (with family and friends) in your hometown!

Hidden Hint: Learn some Vietnamese – Chúc Mừng Năm Mới! (Happy New Year!) – Pronounced: Chook Mung Nam Moi!

Customers in a gold shop
Shoppers buying gifts and settling debts on the run up to Tet

What are Tet’s Traditions?

The last two weeks prior to Tet in Hoi An are hectic with preparations. The atmosphere gets festive, happy and optimistic and decorations start to adorn the town and the smells of food preparation fill the air. Parties are everywhere, gathering family and friends. It’s very likely that you’re invited to celebrate with your Vietnamese acquaintances and neighbours during this time.

Tet is ultimately a family celebration and the days surrounding it are carefully divided in to who will be visited when. The first day reserved for immediate family and parents. The second day for close family friends and relatives. The third day dedicated to your old teachers. From the fourth day on it is all about having fun, drinking and enjoying each others company. Not that that isn’t also the case on the first days!

An essential part of Tet in Hoi An is paying respect to the kitchen gods and ancestors. Little tables with offerings of food, incense, and gifts made out of paper, carefully prepared every day.

Vietnamese offerings table
A traditional offering table outside a home in Hoi An.

New Beginnings, Flowers and Food

As Tet is all about new beginnings – you better get on good terms with Lady Luck! She is a capricious lady, so don’t sweep your house on Tet. Or you would be sweeping out all your good luck! Red “lucky money” envelopes are given to children, but to qualify as lucky money the 50,000 VND or 100,000 VND notes need to be new, clean and crisp.

Flowers are literally everywhere. The whole country covered in red, yellow and pink blooms. Tet even has a Christmas tree equivalent; the Kumquat tree. This tree doesn’t need any extra decoration though as it comes beautifully equipped with bright orange fruit. These Tet trees grow extremely well in Hoi An and you may see trucks coming in to town from all over the country to buy their trees here and sell them elsewhere throughout the country.

No celebration in Vietnam exists without an extensive food menu. Apart from all the regular Vietnamese delicacies, there is also special Tet food in Hoi An: Bánh chưng, known as Tet cake is a traditional Vietnamese rice cake made from sticky rice with mung bean and pork which is cooked wrapped up in a leaf.  Plenty of roasted watermelon seeds dyed red (the colour of luck) for nibbling on during the celebrations. There might not be much of a nut inside them. But it’s fun to join your Vietnamese friends cracking them while sitting together sharing a drink.

Family time in Hoi An
A family share a laugh outside their home during Tet in Hoi An.

Travel in Vietnam During TetWhat to Expect as a Tourist

Contrary to popular belief, foreign visitors can and do join in Tet festivities. You should plan well in advance though, prepare and buy whatever you might need in advance of the public holidays, and be aware that the whole country is somewhat in disarray. Prices do go up dramatically for regular goods and service levels drop during Tet. The temples are very busy, banks closed and all public transport packed or booked out. If you’re lucky enough to find a ticket then expect to pay a premium – Tet is not a time for bargaining.

Hidden Hint: Nguyen Truong To Street is lined with pop up stalls selling all sorts of Vietnamese food during Tet in Hoi An, a perfect compensation for all the restaurants that are closed.

That said, Hoi An is a tourism hub so you will find tourist hotels and restaurants and even some shops and vendors operating but at a reduced level during Tet. For example one of the biggest tailors in town Bebe which has three shops in the Old Town, will keep its main store open. Staff choosing to work during the Tet holiday are at this one shop in Hoi An, and of course offered extra pay. Shops targeting Vietnamese customers however, close. Hoi An’s Old Town is open, but many of the museums, art galleries and cultural sites  close on the main days of the Tet celebration. There is simply no-one around to attend to visitors.

Decorations for Tet in Hoi An
Red is the lucky colour of Tet, decorations around Hoi An almost exclusively red.

How to Enjoy Tet in Hoi An –  What to Expect and What to Do

The good news is that the Old Town of Hoi An remains open during Tet. It’s a bit busier than usual, as many Vietnamese become tourists in their own country during this holiday. Hoi An being one of their favourite Tet holiday destinations.

Hidden Hint: Get yourself in to the Old Town of Hoi An on Tet morning. You’ll be able to experience the town like it was 50 years ago, quiet and peaceful—the complete opposite to the day before.

Expect the last days leading up to Tet in Hoi An to be totally, crazy busy – especially around the markets. Everyone is doing their shopping for the big celebration. It is serious business time in the days leading up to Tet, so you may find some of the usual Vietnamese politeness might be gone.  

The Best Way to Enjoy Tet Time in Hoi An

The best way to enjoy Tet time in Hoi An is to immerse yourself. Wander around town and take in the atmosphere. Join in the enthusiasm and excitement. We have found the best places to do so are:

  • Tran Hung Dao street  – this will become one of the most beautiful areas in Hoi An during Tet as it becomes overflowing with flowers.
  • Ride your bicycle through the Kumquat plantations behind Thich Quang Duc street
  • Visit the market, which will be huge and growing, taking over all the roads surrounding the usually allocated market space.
  • Join a special food tour during and after Tet
  • Admire the Tet fireworks welcoming in the New Year in Hoi An’s Old Town

Keep an eye out two days into the New Year as the Tet Fair begins (hội chợ) in Hoi An. It is similar to a travelling fair with singers, bingo and many games for children and children at heart.

Brightly coloured flowers for Tet
Flowers of all colours used as decoration during Tet. Just don’t give someone a bunch of white flowers as they signify death.

Tet Do’s and Don’ts

Remember, Tet is the happiest time of the year in Vietnam, everyone is joyous. This is absolutely no time for arguments, shouting, getting angry or criticising. Any of this would be a bad omen for the year to come.

Apart from that remember:

  • No black clothing, wear as many colours as possible.
  • Don’t upset anybody! Say nothing bad about anyone.
  • Don’t turn up uninvited. Superstition is rife and much of this is in relation to who the first person to enter the house at Tet will be. It is much better to leave it until midday before visiting.
  • Keep talk optimistic and happy. Tet is not the time to talk about bad things that have happened or  could happen – stay positive.

When invited to Tet celebrations in a Vietnamese home:

  • Gifts not expected, but appreciated. A simple idea would be a bottle of alcohol or flowers (but just ensure they are not black not white)
  • Don’t give white flowers . They signify death and are especially not welcome during Tet let alone the rest of the year.
  • During Tet you are not to sweep the house. So please don’t try and clean up with the broom or you may sweep away your guest’s good luck for the entire year!  
  • It is very unlucky to break a plate or glass. Tet is not the time for clumsiness, so tread carefully.

Hidden Hint: When invited to a Tet celebration, get some red envelopes. Fill them with new 50,000 VND or $1 USD notes in preparation to give them to the family’s children.

Lucky money envelopes for Tet
Red envelopes filled with ‘lucky money’ hung as decorations in Hoi An.

Hidden Hoi An’s Thoughts

Tet is very much a Vietnamese festival steeped in tradition and importance. Choosing to travel in Vietnam during Tet should be a conscious decision.

If you want to receive impeccable levels of service, participate in lots of activities and attractions, and make plans as you go, to travel around independently –  then Tet is not the time of the year for you to visit Vietnam.

If you enjoy delving deep into experiencing a foreign culture, relaxing and going with the flow when things become changeable, and immersing yourself in local festivals.  Then Tet in Hoi An should be high up on your list. Just go out and be surprised, the Vietnamese sure know how to celebrate. Be open, be happy! You just might be invited to join in with a Vietnamese family’s Tet celebration in Hoi An and end up having the most unforgettable time.

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