Vietnam operates with the lunar calendar, and therefore has New Year at a different day to the 1st January. In 2018 New Years’ eve is on the 15th of February and New Year’s day on the 16th of February.
Tết (full name Tết Nguyên Đán, or feast of the first morning of the first day) is a very important time in Vietnam, like Christmas, Hanukkah, Diwali, Baisakhi or Eid in other parts of the world. It is a time when families comes together to remember ancestors, feast and be festive. Many businesses close for one or two weeks, as people prepare to head back to their hometowns to be with their family. This means that big cities are quiet at this time, and the countryside villages and towns are very busy. Also travel at this time is very busy and also more expensive (so if you are travelling at this time please note that nearly all things will cost more, and it will be harder to book transport as buses/trains/planes will be full).
The whole of Vietnam is often very busy in the lead up to Tet, with people buying things, such as traditional gifts, traditional decorations, plants or trees, as well as preparing special Tet foods. Much like in other countries, the lead up to New Year is also a time when people will meet friends for drinks or dinner before heading to their hometowns.
Peach blossom and kumquat trees will be everywhere in Hanoi, and mostly delivered by motorbike which makes the roads look magically semi-forested at times! There are also a lot of people burning stuff, or rather making offerings to their ancestors. You will see this just inform of See You at Lily’s hostel at this time. The Vietnamese burn pretend money (Vietnamese and USD), and also other things made out of paper as offerings. The smoke rises and carries the offering to the ancestors. The belief is that the ancestors receive the offerings and send good fortune back to the people here on earth. You will see this in the streets at the beginning/end of every month throughout Vietnam, but it is most often seen at New Year.
Tet food baskets, given as presents
These paper boots and clothes are typical oferings that are burned at Tet
There are lots of other traditions about Tet as well. It is believed that the first visitor across the threshold of a house will determine the fortune of the family for the whole year. Often the father of the household will pop out just before midnight and come back just after, and mitigate any potential unwanted or unexpected visitors who may bring bad luck. Ideally the first visitor wants to be someone who is successful, good tempered and morally upstanding, as this will bring blessings on the household for the whole following year.
On the first morning of the New Year families will normally go and visit a pagoda, to pray for good luck or for bad luck to finish.
People will also visit the graves of family members and clean them and offer incense and prayers. Actually a lot of cleaning goes on in the days leading up to Tet in every building. This is both in preparation for the festivities and because it is considered to be sweeping away bad luck if you clean in the first few days of the New Year. Businesses, such as See you at Lily’s hostel, which are open will sweep inwards, and not discard the rubbish for a few days to avoid losing the luck. In the family home offerings are made to the family altar, with seasonal fruits as well as whole chickens and red sticky rice (xôi gấc). These are then eaten afterwards.
The first day of the New Year is spent with the immediate family, and then the wider family and friends on the second day. The third day is reserved for teachers. Children will receive a red envelope containing (lucky) money from their relatives at Tet, and people often receive present s of new clothes or shoes, or wear new clothes. In businesses employees often receive a Tet bonus.
The food at Tet varies through the country. Here in Hanoi, Banh chung (Bánh chưng) is eaten a lot in the lead up to and through the Tet festivities. Banh chung is rice layered with bean and/or meat, made into a large square with some wooden blocks and boiled for a long time wrapped in leaves (dong leaves or banana leaves). Once cooled it is then opened and eaten, though often fried as well which caramelises the edges, making it less healthy and even more delicious (can you tell the author loves it?)! Also Banh Giay (Bánh giầy), a round sticky rice based food is made at Tet. This is often served with Gio (see below).
The significance of these offerings is that the banh chung has pork inside representing the fauna (animals), the green bean representing the flora, and the square shape with these ingredients representing the earth. The round banh giay shape and white colour represents the sky. These are a traditional offer for an abundant harvest for the coming year (the good weather from the sky, and the good soil conditions from the earth).
Other food eaten at Tet is Gio, Mut (Mứt Tết) and xôi gấc the red sticky rice mentioned above. Giò is like a pork luncheon meat made wrapped in leaves and boiled. There are different types, some are a very smooth meat and some are with chunks of fat and gristle, which are popular in Vietnam but less popular with the western palette. Xoi Gac is made red by being cooked with the seed of the gac fruit, that imparts the bright colour. The rice has a slight sweetness to it. Mut is dried fruits, often with sugar on them. People will have these dried fruits out for snacks while drinking tea or coffee.
The typical greeting at Tet (which you will see written everywhere) is Chuc Mung Nam Moi (or rather, Chúc Mừng Năm Mới). This will be on banners in schools & colleges, businesses, shops, and on the street. In Hanoi on Tet eve there are lots of fireworks by Hoan Kiem lake, and local people will perform dancing with an animal called a Lan, which is a cross between a lion and a dragon. In more rural areas people will make noise with drums, or other instruments such as bells in order to ward off evil spirits as well as firecrackers.
Tet is actually an odd time for tourists. Travel in the country is harder as the Vietnamese are going everywhere between families and friends to visit, and the cost of travel will go up before Tet, and only go back down when the demand drops, so sometimes they can stay increased for a month! The prices of tours such as Ha Long bay will go up as well in the days around Tet. It is advised to book tours in advance, and aim to be away from the first day of the New Year, if you find a tour departing on that day. That way you can enjoy the lead up to Tet and then avoid the few days of quietness. Maybe it would then be good to go somewhere more rural, such as Mai Chau or Sapa. Though please also expect a dip in levels of service as Tet can be stressful for Vietnamese, much like Christmas can be for Europeans, so please smile and travel with an open heart.
In the big cities or larger towns it becomes almost like a ghost-town (it is actually a good time to learn to drive a motorbike in Hanoi, as the traffic is so light). It is difficult to source food and you end up heading to the few banh my stalls or restaurants that are open, as the proprietors’ family are from Hanoi. But in the lead up to Tet people are even more generous than normal if you meet them out and about, inviting you to eat or drink with them. Also after the first day of the New Year (when they will have been with their immediate family) they are also welcoming into their homes to join them. Though both of these happen more in the countryside than in the cities.
As we say, plan ahead and if you are going to be in Hanoi around this time please contact us for advice.