Experience New Year with a difference at Tet Festival in Vietnam. Immerse in the colour and passion and celebrate the awesome party vibe just like a local.
Tet Festival in Vietnam is one of Asia’s truly great national happenings. As the world celebrates Chinese New Year, the people of Vietnam celebrate Tet in their own distinctive style. In typical beguiling Asian fashion, Vietnamese Tet is the same but different. To celebrate Tet as an inquisitive outsider is to experience just how powerful and influential family ties still are, the colourful traditions and the eccentric customs that are still practised religiously. Tet is all about big meals with big extended families, vibrant floral displays on every street corner and even more extravagant new outfits to show off. The Vietnamese celebrate by looking to the future and the past; respecting ancestors is just as important as the planning for the future of the younger generation. This is probably best represented in the bizarre practise of burning ghost money annually for long deceased but not forgotten relatives to ensure a comfortable afterlife. This is just one of the many colourful quirks of Tet to experience.
With the country’s transport system grinding to a halt for the holidays, the question for any foreign visitor is ‘to Tet or not to Tet?’ The answer should be a resounding yes! The days-long Tet Festival is best enjoyed not in bite-sized chunks but staying put for several days to really soak up the unique vibe. Once safely ensconced in the city, you’ll be pleasantly surprised. Half the population has joined the million-strong exodus to spend time in their family villages, so those mean city streets usually clogged with maddening levels of smog and spluttering motorcycles are actually quite bearable for a change. It takes a little savvy forward planning to make it all run smoothly – transport, accommodation, even where to eat and what to do – but spending Vietnamese New Year’s Day in situ is definitely one to chalk off the bucket list. Read on for our top tips and best destinations for the ultimate Tet experience.
Hoi An is a striking historic town at any time of year but it trips the light fantastic to a whole new level come Tet holidays. For curious visitors looking to taste the Tet experience for the first time it’s a win-win. In the mostly traffic-free centre there is none of the insane bumper-to-bumper gridlock found in Ho Chi Minh City or even Danang, and as a predominantly tourism focused town, a larger proportion of businesses stay open. The old-world charm is palpable after dark as hundreds of shimmering lanterns illuminate the town and riverbank with even more gusto than usual. In spite of the huge crowds at the height of the New Year festivities, there is a profound ethereal quality amid the smoky incense-filled air.
New Year’s Eve generally kicks off with a lion dance while huge pyrotechnic fireworks displays light up the sky above Hoai River Square, Cua Dai Beach and at Cham Island. Head to the water’s edge to watch the night sky explode in colour and grab some tasty Tet goodies to snack on. Hoi An also hosts a lantern parade and an epic array of other cool happenings. Hoi An’s celebrated artisans make their mark with public art installations, live fashion shows, acrobatic martial arts demonstrations and live music. For some more serious party action, the town’s bars and cafes also rock until late but expect virtually everywhere to be filled to the rafters.
Ho Chi Minh City
In this heaving city of excess, Vietnamese Tet ushers in a little more refinement with the mean streets dotted with colourful blossoms and ornamental trees. In fact, the banks of Tau Hu Canal transform into a buzzing flower market for Tet week. It’s a photogenic floating market too and the communal floral displays across the city are simply stunning, not least Nguyen Hue Flower Street in District 1. Coming with kids in tow? Head for the green oasis of Dam Sen Park with space to run wild and time to enjoy kid-pleasing rides and sideshows. It’s also the best spot to immerse in local city life, watching Saigoners happily at play.
Upon the stroke of midnight ahead of Vietnamese New Year’s Day, fireworks envelop the night sky. Take your pick from about half a dozen large gatherings, such as Rung Sac Square or the Nga Ba Giong Memorial in Hoc Mon District. Increasingly popular is the practice of heading to a slinky open-air sky lounge to sip cocktails and see them all at once. Some of HCMC’s landmark hotels put on free door shows for passing revellers ranging from the traditional to the bizarre, but always highly entertaining. Catch performances of deafening drummers and dragon dancers, classical music, vaudeville acts, pantomimes and magic shows.
From a traffic perspective an eerie quiet descends on downtown Hanoi on the big day but there is still plenty of activity around. Families stroll arm in arm in their finest Tet regalia amid the floating flower displays at Hoan Kiem Lake. Mist shrouded and fringed by soaring trees, the lake is brimming with picnicking groups and kids running wild among the sculptures. One notable attraction that stays open through the Vietnamese Tet Festival is the impressive Temple of Literature in Quoc Tu Giam. There is a ton of cool interesting sights here – and you don’t need to be an Asian bookworm to appreciate it. Striking flower arrangements embellish the five ancient courtyards and a large band of calligraphy masters set up stalls on Scholars’ Street to display their art for the holiday crowds.
Of course, Tet is yet another excuse to splash the cash in a manic frenzy of shopping too. Forego the crowded malls and instead check out the Hang Ma flower and antiques market. It’s a must-see for the appealing displays of kumquats and apricot blossoms and mountains of trinkets and gemstones. Who knows, you may even come across the occasional ‘real antique.’ During Vietnamese New Year’s Day and beyond, the show goes on at the famous Water Puppet Theatre, which is sure to push all the right buttons for bored kids. It’s a hugely entertaining show delving into Vietnam’s complex folklore myths and legends with lots of slapstick fun that little kids will love despite any language barrier. The ‘stage’ is a tank filled with murky water and brought to life by skilful puppet masters and smoky special effects.
Take a leaf out of millions of Vietnamese and head for the hills at Tet. That said, Sapa is no ordinary rural village awaiting the prodigal sons and daughters’ return for the holidays. You get just about the most distinctive Tet Festival experience here, thanks to not only the awesome rolling scenery but the deliciously colourful Hmong tribal culture on display. As a standalone experience in its own right, Sapa needs no introduction – the serene mountainous beauty makes it one of the most captivating hillside getaways in Asia, and to experience Sapa is to experience four seasons in a day, they say.
The striking sight of Hmong townsfolk in traditional dress is omnipresent year-round in Sapa but come Tet, the cultural immersion cranks up to a whole new level. This is thanks to the rather unique Gau Tao Festival. This is far removed from the usual Tet community jamboree with traditional Chinese roots. It’s a village ritual with more animist overtones giving thanks to ancestors and looking ahead to a prosperous harvest, complete with a whole host of quirky fertility offerings and fun activities. These include crossbow shooting and symbolic fighting contests. Notably, the flute dancing and singing contests held over several days serve as a rather quaint platform for young single men and women to find romance.
For the average Vietnamese family, Tet is the annual blowout where all one’s birthdays, Christmas and western New Year celebrations are rolled into one. It’s the big one as far as family time is concerned with migrant workers dotted across the globe moving mountains to get home in time for the occasion. It all adds up to a copious amount of Tet themed goodies to devour on the dinner table. It should come as no surprise to learn the art of celebrating the festival is called ‘an Tet’ which directly translates as ‘eating Tet.’
Dinner tables are festooned with the customary Tet staple Banh Tet, a sticky-rice cake stuffed with mungo beans and pork. A southern Vietnam savoury treat is Gio Cha, which is a Chinese style deep fried spring roll filled with ground pork and mushrooms. A slightly different variation popular in the north is known as Nem Ran. One of the more complex snacks cooked at Tet is Thit Heo Ngam Mam, which is a meat and vegetable roll braised in fish sauce and numerous herbs and light spices.
Another notably Tet treat is undoubtedly Nem Chua – a fermented sausage that will tickle the palate with its sweet, sour and spicy essence. When trawling the street food scene or if lucky enough to snag an invite to a local home, you’ll be accosted with mountains of multi-coloured calorific sweet candied treats. Take your pick of ‘Mut Tet’ candies from coconut, ginger, sweet potato, kumquat, or tamarind. Some serve special purposes to relieve ailments, get rid of hangovers, and even apparently cure flatulence!
In conclusion – Do Tet like a true local
Sure, it takes a little effort to plan every last detail but there really is no party quite like a Vietnamese Tet party. The wide-eyed welcome and broad smiles are larger than ever, the streets bloom, and the awesome food is more abundant. In many ways Tet Festival in Vietnam is absolutely the very best time to visit, not least because family matters more than ever. That means more opportunity to immerse in local life, even at this seemingly manic time of year.
Start practising your ‘Chuc Mung Nam Moi’ (Happy New Year) in readiness for a likely invitation to spend time celebrating in a family home. The Vietnamese are famously hospitable even at such an important time when the average stress levels crank up. There is a whirlwind of activity as everyone is in a mad scramble to buy a new party outfit, spruce up their home, visit friends and settle outstanding debts, and of course dive into traditional Tet delicacies. It can seem confusing, a little manic and a quaint slice of traditional life all at the same time, yet that is all part of the magic of Tet. You’ll also get up close and personal to a true Vietnamese Tet experience with a stay in a family run boutique hotel or homestay. Fire up the HotelQuickly app and start searching for a last-minute Lunar New Year escape.
Melissa is a passionate foodie, travel writer, and editor working in media internationally and in the USA. She has lived in Bangkok since 2004 and has a background in the travel industry. Melissa’s writing has been published globally in many prestigious online and print magazines for over a decade. Her motto for life is “You cannot live or love well if you have not wined and dined well!”