A foreigner’s guide to Tet in Vietnam

February 02, 2016
Urban Adventures

With the Lunar New Year upon us, we’ve been talking to our team over in Asia to see how they celebrate at this special time. In Vietnam, the New Year holidays are called Tết, and families and friends across the nation gather together.

If you’re a foreigner in Vietnam during Tet, you might need a bit of advice as to what the holiday means, what traditions you might come across, where you can celebrate, and the places you should totally avoid. Our locals have answered all these questions in this guide to Tet in Vietnam, because as we all know — they know best!

Tet: The local lowdown

Tet falls on the first day of the first month of the Vietnamese calendar, which is usually around late January or early February on the Western calendar. The Tet traditions actually begin one or two weeks before Tet, when legend has it that the Kitchen God rides a carp up into the heavens and reports on the things that have been happening over the course of the year. He then returns back on the 30th of the last month of the Vietnamese calendar.

On this day, families gather together, preparing food and paper creations to dedicate to relatives that have passed away that year. Parties are thrown in family homes all over Vietnam during this evening; mothers cook up food, families watch comedy shows together, and everyone anxiously awaits the celebrations to come. At midnight, the family joins to light incense sticks on alters, which signify asking God and deceased relatives to come and join them in spirit.

On the first day of the New Year, the head of the house picks a person, usually of the same age, and invites them to enter their home — a very special part of the ritual. It is thought that if the family has good luck on that first day, it will continue for the rest of the year. Therefore, the first person to enter the home in the New Year plays a vital role in the the luck and prosperity the house will receive.

A Vietnamese family gathering to make bánh tét (tét cake). | Photo by Wikipedia Commons

One of our team members, Sang, told us that her favourite part of New Year is waking up on New Year’s Day and going out into the street. For her, life is usually very hectic as she lives in the big city, so during Tet she relishes the peace and quiet. Stepping out into the streets in the early morning, she can hear nothing other than flags flying in the wind, and she said that there is something very special about that for her. It sounds pretty mesmerising to us, too!

New Year’s Day is always a lucky one for children, as they receive red envelopes with money from their elders. This doesn’t come for free, however, as the children must greet their elders in the traditional Tet way before they receive the envelopes.

The best places to celebrate Tet

For locals, Tet celebrations are a pretty private affair. Almost everyone will travel to their family homes and spend the time with their nearest and dearest. But if you’re a foreigner, you still have options for celebrating this fascinating Lunar New Year.

Our locals recommend a few places in Hanoi where you can see some celebrations without having to be with a family. These include Ngoc Som Temple at Hoan Kiem Lake, Quan Su pagoda, where you can see the locals praying, Hanoi Opera House, where companies like Heineken put on events, and anywhere where you can see the fireworks. These spots could be very busy during this time, but if you don’t mind the crowds and want to get right in the thick of it, these are some of the best places to do so.

Avoid the crowds on the streets of Hanoi. | Photo by Hanoi Urban Adventures

Alternatively, you might be lucky enough to enjoy the celebrations with a local family, but this might not be possible if you’re not already connected with a family who would be happy to take you in. Another of our local team, Ha, suggested that you could take the time to enjoy the quiet on the streets of Hanoi, a very rare phenomenon indeed.

Places to avoid during Tet

Even though it would be tempting to go to the Perfume Pagoda, a famous Buddhist shrine in Vietnam, during Tet, these kinds of places can become extremely busy and travel can be a complete nightmare.

It’s also very important to note that restaurants, museums, art galleries, and everything else in between will be closed during Tet, so it can be a difficult time of year to do anything. Stock up whenever you can, and simply go with the flow.

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