If you are considering visiting Vietnam sometime around the second half of January and the first half of February, you may experience the most important Vietnamese festival – Tết (Tết Nguyên Đán), which means Feast of the First Morning of the First Day. Tết is a Lunar New Year (sometimes also called the Spring Festival). It is rather different from celebrations of a New Year that are based on the Gregorian calendar. But it shares many similarities with celebrations of a New Year in countries like China, Korea, Japan, Mongolia, Tibet. Lunar New Year celebrations were spread to other East Asian countries from China. Although Chinese New Year is in many ways similar to Tết, it undergone cultural revolution. While Chinese New Year is mainly about family reunions and food (and of course money-filled red envelopes), Vietnamese Tết still includes also distinct spiritual aspects.
Before I tell you more about Tết, it is fair to say that because the festival is time of family reunions, a foreign visitor does not experience the same thing as a person that is an integral part of local society. As an outsider, you will encounter very calm streets with most of the businesses closed (except for omnipresent cafeterias). During first days of Tết holiday, expect that it will be very difficult to get your laundry done, to find an open restaurant, and to order a taxi, motorbike or food delivery via locally most popular application called Grab. Be aware that some taxi drivers are trying to take advantage of this situation and shamelessly ask for multiples of usual rates, explaining that it is a Happy New Year (in Vietnamese English, it is always ‘Happy New Year’, never just a ‘New Year’). Streets and traffic will be easy-going and you will have plenty of opportunities to explore the festival from the outside-perspective and – of course -, enjoy magnificent fireworks (unlike in many Chinese cities, where fireworks are prohibited even during New Year`s celebrations).
Few days before the New Year, people start getting back to their families, clean and decorate their households with flowers, fruits, banners with calligraphy, incense sticks, decorated bamboo sticks, kumquat trees full of orange fruits or peach trees. Seeing people shopping for these trees that are lining the streets resembles markets selling Christmas trees. Making households neat and representative is before the New Year is very important because in the coming days, many important visitors will arrive. Before the New Year, Vietnamese people also clean graves of their ancestors and offer them flowers and fruit.
New Year`s Eve is the time of worship by family altars. Walking the streets at night, you will see many shops and restaurants open yet without guests, and the owners praying by altar placed in front of their businesses. Among the offerings, you will find things like sodas, fruits, alcohol and many more. At midnight, big cities are launching impressive fireworks. The following day – the first day of a New Year – is reserved for family reunions. At that time, you will also see many restaurants open, but the guests are in fact the owners family and ordinary walk-in guests are usually not being served. Children are given lucky money, people visit Buddhist temples, many public places have exhibitions of astonishing amount of the most exquisite bonsai trees, unique stones and rarely shaped pieces of wood (great place to see them is for example a park stretched along the Perfume River in the city of Hue).
Celebrations continue for several days. People eat many kinds of festive food, play special games, and mainly say goodbye to everything that has happened in the past year. Experiencing Tết is indeed very refreshing and I find it a great alternative to western New Years celebrations. Tết officially takes place for only three days but in reality, it is more. In the past, New Year celebrations lasted even for one whole month! Same as in China, the last day of the traditional New Years celebrations is marked by the Lantern Festival.
The last year was a year of a Dog. In February 2019, we have started a new year of a Pig. While it is true that years of a Pig bring some slightly negative things, it is also a great year for accumulating wealth. Happy Tết to everyone!