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. 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.
Tet is very special celebration and taking the opportunity to participate in this large 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, as 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 than other remote areas. You’ll still need to be prepared for some disruption (and partying) if you do choose to travel here during this time. Fortunately the Hidden team have a few Tet celebrations under our belts and 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.
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. While the solar calendar is used in Vietnam within a work context, as well as for birthdays and anniversaries, it is the lunar calendar that 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).
When and For How Long is Tet Celebrated?
Tet is celebrated after twelve lunar months, and a lunar month is only 29 days long, so the date for the Tet New Year celebration changes annually (according to the solar calendar), but 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 as 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 to work during Tet, people would rather quit their jobs than miss out on the highlight of the year!
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 are cleaned, debts are paid, grievances are forgiven and squabbles are settled.
Superstition plays a large part – it is believed 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 to ensure it is a lucky person who enters the house first 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!
What are Tet’s Traditions?
The last two weeks prior to Tet 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 held everywhere to gather family and friends and it’s very likely that you’ll be 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 is reserved for immediate family and parents, the second day for close family friends and relatives, the third day is dedicated to your old teachers and 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 is paying respect to the kitchen gods and ancestors. You will see little tables with offerings of food, incense, and gifts made out of paper, that are carefully prepared every day.
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.
You’ll see flowers literally everywhere – the whole country is covered in red, yellow and pink. 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 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: 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. There are also plenty of roasted watermelon seeds that are dyed red (the colour of luck) for you to nibble 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.
Travel in Vietnam During Tet – What 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 may be closed and all public transport will be packed and often 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, 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. For example one of the biggest tailors in town Bebe which has three shops in the Old Town, will keep its main store open. The staff who choose to work during the Tet holiday will be at this one shop, and of course be offered extra pay. Those shops targeting Vietnamese customers will however be closed. The Old Town is open, but many of the museums, art galleries and cultural sites are closed on the main days of the Tet celebration, there is simply no-one around to attend to visitors.
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. It is likely to be a bit busier than usual, as many Vietnamese become tourists in their own country during this holiday – Hoi An being one of their favourite destinations.
Hidden Hint: Get yourself in to the Old Town 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 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.
We think that the best way to enjoy this time is to immerse yourself, wander around town, take in the atmosphere and get swept up 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 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 fireworks welcoming in the New Year
Keep an eye out two days into the New Year as the Tet Fair begins (hội chợ). It is similar to a travelling fair with singers, bingo and many games for children and children at heart.
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.
If you get invited to celebrate Tet in a Vietnamese home:
- Gifts are not expected, but are 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 – these 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 considered very unlucky to break a plate or glass. Tet is not the time for clumsiness, so tread carefully.
Hidden Hint: If you are invited to a Tet celebration, get some red envelopes and fill them with new 50,000 VND or $1 USD notes in preparation to give them to the family’s children.
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 delving deep into experiencing a foreign culture, relaxing and going with the flow if things become changeable, and immersing yourself in local festivals is what you’re after when you visit a foreign country – Tet should be high up on your list. We say just go out and be surprised, the Vietnamese sure know how to celebrate. Be open, be happy, and you just might be invited to join in with a Vietnamese family’s Tet celebration and end up having the most unforgettable time.