Tet Nguyen Dan, Vietnamese New Year, adheres to the same lunar calendar that governs Chinese New Year. In fact, many of the celebratory traditions (lion dances, feasts, and fireworks, namely) are the same.
Tet Nguyen Dan translates literally to "the first morning of the first day of the new year." This day varies by the year but is always in either January or February. The Vietnamese consider Tet to be the most important in their considerable festival lineup. Family members travel from across the country to spend the holiday in each other's company. Foreign visitors can and do join in on the fun.
How the Vietnamese Celebrate Tet
Long before Tet, the Vietnamese try to get rid of any bad fortune by cleaning their homes, buying new clothes, resolving disputes, and paying their debts. They burn gold leaf paper and offer up live carp to the Kitchen God, who is said to visit everyone's family on this day and report back to the Jade Emperor.
Tet is a time for paying tribute to ancestors. Each day for the duration of the week of New Year, offerings are placed on the household altar and incense is burned in memory of the departed.
Locals purchase peach blossoms and kumquat trees and place them around the house, these plants are iconic in Tet folklore, symbolizing prosperity and health.
On the stroke of midnight, Vietnamese usher out the old year and welcome the new Kitchen God, beating drums and lighting firecrackers. The dogs are encouraged to bark because their barks inspire confidence. A hooting owl, on the other hand, is regarded as an unlucky omen.
On Tet, families lay out a splendid feast of bánh tét (sticky rice and mung bean "cake"), củ kiệu tôm khô (pickled scallion heads), and thịt kho hột vịt (pork braised with eggs). Family and friends visit each other before going off to their respective places of worship (Christian or Buddhist) to pray for the year to come.
As the Tet holiday unfolds, people offer warm greetings of “Chúc Mừng Năm Mới” (Happy New Year) to everyone they meet. (The tones of the Vietnamese language are hard to catch if you’re not a local.)
Tet in Hanoi
The Vietnamese capital is one of the best places for tourists to celebrate Tet. On the week before Tet, locals crowd to the Quang Ba Flower Market to snap up pink peach boughs to help bring luck to their households.
- At the stroke of midnight, fireworks erupt throughout Hanoi, including at Thong Nhat Park, Van Quan Lake, Lac Long Quan Flower Garden, My Dinh Stadium, and Hoan Kiem Lake.
- On the fifth day, Hanoi citizens flock to Dong Da Hill for the Dong Da Festival, which commemorates a victory over invading Chinese forces (the hills in the area are actually burial mounds, covering the remains of over 200,000 Chinese soldiers buried on the battlefield).
- On the sixth day, the Co Loa Citadel sees a traditional procession by costumed locals. Nowadays, civilians march in the parade instead of the former military officials and government mandarins.
- Finally, a calligraphy festival takes place all throughout Tet on the grounds of the Temple of Literature in old Hanoi. Calligraphers called ong do set up shop in about a hundred booths, brush in hand, writing auspicious Chinese characters for paying customers.
- In the Old Quarter, makeshift altars crowd the sidewalks, propitiating the Kitchen God with offerings of meat and fruit. Many of the shops in the Old Quarter have catered to generations of families: Quoc Huong on Hang Bong Street, for example, has sold banh chung cakes for Tet for over 200 years.
Tet in Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon)
The mass of motorcycles jamming Ho Chi Minh City doesn't go away during Tet, but parts of the city explode in color during the week-long festival.
- The flower festival along Nguyen Hue Walking Street transforms this pedestrianized boulevard into a flower-themed carnival, replete with blossom-shaped displays, artwork and light shows. Selfies with the flower installations are permitted, nay, encouraged!
- At midnight, fireworks shows ignite at six areas across the city: the Thu Thiem Tunnel, Dam Sen Park, Cu Chi Tunnels in Cu Chi District, Rung Sac Square in Can Gio District, Lang Le-Bau Co historical site, and the Nga Ba Giong Memorial.
- In District 8, Tau Hu Canal becomes the site of a flower market, with blossoms and ornamental trees sourced from the nearby provinces of Tien Giang and Ben Tre.
- In District 1, a book festival takes place from the first to the fourth day of Tet along the streets of Mac Thi Buoi, Nguyen Hue, and Ngo Duc Ke. Thousands of books and magazines will change hands during the festival.
- In District 5, Cholon (Vietnam's traditional Chinatown) offers both color and flavor in excess. As you admire the flowers and decorations adorning the area's temples, take a chance on local, Tet-only foods like xoi (colored sticky rice cakes).
Tet in Hue
The Hue imperial citadel, located in the former royal capital of Hue, has seen a renaissance of royal-era traditions. The most significant is the raising of the cay neu, or Tet pole, on the palace grounds.
The cay neu repeats itself as a traditional bamboo plant in millions of Vietnamese homes, but the one in the Hue citadel is the biggest and flashiest. The first cay neu was traditionally first set up by the Buddha to drive away evil monsters.
An elaborate ceremony raises the Tet pole on the first day of the holiday. The process is repeated on the seventh and the last day, marking the end of Tet. In olden times, Hue residents would take their cue from the palace ceremonies to set up and take down their own cay neu at home.
Hue celebrates Tet in many other ways, among them:
- Flower markets flourish along the Huong River promenade, Nghinh Luong Dinh Park, and Nguyen Dinh Chieu Walking Street.
- Paper flowers from Thanh Tien Village are a popular Hue Tet product, having been made in this village for over 400 years. Craftsmen use colored paper, bamboo, and cassava to create these artificial blossoms that look even better than the real thing.
- Fireworks light up the sky above the imperial citadel at midnight of Tet Eve.
- Restaurants and bars along Hue’s backpacker streets will remain open throughout the Tet holidays, serving both rustic Central Vietnam food and high Imperial cuisine.
Tet in Hoi An
This throwback town on the Thu Bon River leverages its centuries-old infrastructure and old-school culture to make its Tet celebrations unique among Vietnam tourist stops. You can take in the Tet spirit just walking or cycling down the Old Quarter, but to get the most out of a Hoi An Tet stay, enjoy the following local experiences:
- Fireworks on Tet Eve will kick off the local New Year, lighting up the skies above the ancient town at the stroke of midnight.
- A boat racing competition takes place on the second day of Tet to honor the Water God. Individual teams from Hoi An’s different wards compete in a boat race on the Hoai River, a tributary of the bigger Thu Bon waterway. Locals spritz water on the passing boat teams for good luck.
- A lantern festival takes place for one week from the beginning of Tet, illuminating the ancient quarter from An Hoi Bridge to the Hoai River Square. Visitors also enjoy free outdoor musical performances, lantern-making workshops and a lantern parade down the streets.
- Bai choi folk singing exhibitions show off a UNESCO-recognized cultural heritage artform, transforming the An Hoi Sculpture Garden into a showcase of traditional Central Vietnam choral music.
Is it Safe (or Cheap) to Travel during Tet?
Tet is a great time to see Vietnam at its most colorful, especially in the cities of Hue, Hanoi, and Ho Chi Minh City. However, reservations fill up fast and transportation before and after Tet is bound to be sketchy at best. Beware that many tourist spots will be closed for several days between Tet.
If you can commit to staying in one place while the rush dies down, then, by all means, do. But don't take it personally that prices will be inflated to the maximum throughout the holiday; even the locals will be paying more, too.