As a child, every year we always celebrated Tet (Vietnamese Lunar New Year) as it was the most important date in the yearly calendar. It was also be a date that I would dread yet enjoy at the same time. The day would start my two older sisters and myself, lined up in front of our parents and taking turns in giving our best wishes; for their health, prosperity and business success for the coming year. I always hated this part as I was always a wreck at giving speeches. On the flipside, at the end of the day, we’d receive our “Li Xi” red envelope in which would be a tidy sum of money – usually between between $5-20.
Throughout the rest of the day, we’d visit our closest family friends and repeat this routine. To this day, I am pretty sure that they all took great pleasure and laughed out loud in seeing how shy and nervous I was in front of them. By the end of the day though, ‘s be elated and feel like I was a millionaire as I figured out ways of how I could best spend the money.
Fast forward another thirty or so years, and I would find myself experiencing Tet in Saigon (Ho Chi Minh City). After a couple of years of travel, I thought it would be important to understand the cultural traditions and the ins and outs of what happens during this time of the year – basically, understand why we go through this process each year. This year is my second successive Tet in Saigon and despite going through the same motions as last year, I found the second time to be just as interesting, if not more immersive.
The calm before the storm
During the weeks leading up to Tet, there aren’t many obvious hints that it is arriving. There are the standard public lighting displays along the main roads, left over from the western New Year that will remain for Tet the following month, but there aren’t any fixtures that would indicate a major holiday is just around the corner. Inside retail stores, cafes and restaurants, workers casually go about their usual day while there would be no mention of how much they’re looking forward to the holidays.
First run in with crime
During this time, reported crime rates increase as there is the added pressure on people to provide gifts of money to family members and loved ones. Whether you are young, old, rich or poor, there’s an undercurrent of expectation to bring in the new year with well wishes and gifts. Luckily, the reported incidents usually don’t result in physical altercations. They generally involve perpetrators on bikes who cruise around and snatch high value items such as mobile phones, from people whilst they are using them.
In the ten months that I’ve spent in total in Vietnam, I’ve never had a run in with crime – that was until the days leading up to Tet. I have always shrugged off the warnings from my father about using phones in public, and although it wasn’t my phone was almost snatched, a couple of men did attempt to make off with my camera as I was walking back from district five.
After a morning exploring exploring the temples in Chinatown, I decided to walk back the few kilometres back to my home in district one. I had my dSLR camera strap slung over my shoulder, when a passenger on a passing motorbike attempted to snatch it from me. Luckily, I already had a firm grip on the camera strap and being a relatively stocky person, was able to maintain my balance without letting go.
Living in a relatively safe area does create a bubble and I consider myself very lucky to have not come home without a camera that day.
During the week of Tet, there is a noticeable sense of urgency. Many of the storefronts will be stocked with gift displays that spill out onto the walkways. Baskets are filled with gifts, usually food and drinks and wrapped in cellophane and stacked up high on top of each other are. Many other stores will also sell Tet paraphernalia such as red envelopes, incense sticks and decorations. Most food stores will also fill their front displays with Banh Tet and Banh Chung; essential food items and Tet gifts for all families during this time.
Around town artificial blossoms and traditional art stands are installed, along Phạm Ngọc Thạch street and around the Diamond Plaza, where men, women and children arrive, dressed in traditional clothing in order to have their photos taken. During the final days prior to Tet, crowds in these locations swell into a chaotic mess, where even those who can deal with confined spaces may find it unpleasant to hang around in.
Further downtown, the city workers rush to complete the construction of Flower Street along Nguyen Hue Street; where tonnes of bricks and dirt are shipped in to replicate gardens within what I’d describe as a flat and boring public space. At the best of times, Vietnamese public works can lack taste and originality, but Flower Street is something that I’d make an exception for as proper art direction is put into the theming and layout. Given the poor re-design of Nguyen Hue Street, I wonder why they don’t just keep parts of these installations to fill in what is usually the massively empty space for the remainder of the year.
During the final days prior to Tet, the mood steps up a gear into a frantic pace. People are rushing to complete their business duties and household chores for the year as well as finalise their travel plans to visit family outside of Saigon. For those remaining for Tet in Saigon, they are preparing the home for Tet for visiting family and guests from out of town.
Traffic congestion also gets a little out of control, where it’s common to see extra motorbikes driving on the footpath, making the simple task of walking along some streets risky business. If there isn’t an entire family on the back of the scooter, then it’s most likely a giant pot of flowers or ornamental plants that can be seen in the front of most homes during this time.
People also “check out” of work and settle into the holiday spirit a few days prior to Tet. My landlord was in the festive spirit a few days before and held a party for his friends. When I arrived home from a day of exploration, the entire floor space downstairs had been cleared out and already occupied by his buddies, sitting in a circle who made room for me to join in.
In the middle of the floor were bowls of: goat stew, curry chicken, soup and fish from their fish tank that was fried in plenty of oil. They weren’t dishes that I’d eat on a regular basis but were still palatable once washed down with a few beers in quick succession.
That evening, I had the chance to have a proper chat with the landlord. He said his son lived in Seattle and was engaged to a Chinese woman. Despite his dislike of the Chinese, he was still happy for him and will travel to the US for the engagement party. He also had no hesitation in boasting about how he intended on going to Las Vegas for six days and blow lots of money on the slot machines. It’s very typical of most Vietnamese men of older generations that I’ve met in my time here to be quite boastful.
Throughout Tet eve, the city goes through a transformation. What is usually a frantic, dusty and heavily polluted city, all of a sudden becomes quite clean and spotless – something that won’t be witnessed again in another years time.
As part of tradition, everybody performs a cleanse of the workplace and home, literally and metaphorically it is a clean start to the new year. This means, for those roaming the streets in the afternoon, avoiding the footpaths that are awash from the being given the end of year treatment. To perform this task on Tet would be seen as bad luck, so it’s something that is always performed prior.
There’s more food than you can possible eat
Tet eve isn’t celebrated like it is in the west. There are no house parties or sparklers and lavish countdowns nor midnight pash (unless if you’re down by the river). Instead, it’s casually celebrated as a low key affair, spent with family. On any given day, throughout the year, you’re hard pressed to not find anything delicious to eat, and despite most restaurants being closed throughout the Tet period, there isn’t a shortage of food within people’s homes.
I was fortunate to be invited to a couple of Tet dinners during this period, both on Tet eve as well as just afterwards. Tet food traditions vary depending whether you’re from the north to south, but regardless of which region it’s being celebrated, nobody goes home feeling hungry.
Banh Chung: Banh Chung is the main dish that represents the Earth and is served in every home during Tet. It’s a square cake made from glutinous rice and filled with crushed mung bean and pork. The creation of this national icon is an artform, requiring precision in the both the assembly and the wrapping in banana leaf and bamboo string. Patience and persistence is also required as takes a full day to prepare and boil the cake.
When served, Banh chung should be cut into wedges from the middle so that everybody has the equal portion of rice, mung bean and pork. It’s not common to see plenty of Banh Chung leftover well after Tet, but each unwrapped cake is is able to last up to a month. A different method of serving it when everybody has overdosed on it is to lightly fry the segments, adding a different taste and texture dimension to it.
Banh Tet – Similar to Banh Chung, Banh Tet is cylindrical in shape and variations of it can be either salty or sweet, although I am yet to have a sweet one. Predominantly a southern dish, Benh Tet is cut into slices into pieces by using string, as the surface area of a knife causes the blade to stick against the cake, thus disfiguring its cylindrical shape. With both banh chung and banh tet, you will always eat it with pickled baby leeks to contrast the richness of the cake.
Thit Heo Kho Trung (Braised Caramelised Pork with Egg) – This is the ultimate comfort food in my books, and one that without fail, will be seen on the tables of any Southern Vietnamese home during Tet. When I visited my cousins close to Ba Ria on the southern coast, I ask what we were having for dinner and without hesitation, Thit Kho was the response. An extremely rich dish, it’s best eaten with rice to soak up the sauce.
Cold meats – With most meals in Vietnam, you’ll see slices of Cha. Cha is basically a form of sausage made from mostly lean cuts of meat that can be eaten cold or warm. Like Banh Chung, the meat is boiled inside a banana leaf and has a light green colour imparted onto it, adding a subtle bitterness to it. The most common type is Cha Lua made from pork, but there are also variations of cold cuts made from veal, as well as head meat from the pig.
Other items of food that are commonly found are: Spring rolls, boiled chicken, young bamboo soup, watermelons (both the fruit and dried seeds) and oranges.
The Tet aftermath
The Lunar New Year doesn’t stop after New Years Eve. The three days following Tet are reserved for celebrating with family and friends. Families would firstly visit the homes of the parents to continue the eating-fest as well as to pay their respects to their ancestors. In each home, there are shrines dedicated to the deceased relatives, where offerings of fruit, food fake money and incense are made.
Red “Li Xi” envelopes, containing freshly printed money (never used looking currency) are also gifted along with well wishes – mainly for the youngest in the family as well as other guests children. It’s good to see that I’m not the only one who gets nervous having to wish people a happy lunar new year.
Sometimes, the festivities spill out from inside the home and onto the street. Along the side alley near where I live, there was the constant chatter between the neighbours and their guests. While seated on the typical plastic stools at fold out table, they’d be enjoying the typical foods and plenty of pre midday beers and give off the occasional chant of “mot hai ba, yo!” (one, two three, drink!) as they cheers and scull their beers
At larger businesses such as hotels that are open during the first day of the year, the sounds of firecrackers are heard intermittently as well as the beating of a large drum, as performers put on a dragon dance display that is meant to bring good luck. Despite having Chinese origins, the dragon dancers are a source of entertainment for younger children and visiting tourists as they put on an acrobatic display to the beat of the drum and the cymbals.
Tips on spending time during Tet in Vietnam
So, Tet in Saigon is not quite fireworks on Sydney Harbour, or a Times Square count down, but there are still quite a lot of things to do during this period.
It’s not a complete shut down – All of the major bars, hotels and restaurants still operate during the first few days of Tet especially around the areas of Bui Vien Street, while most smaller businesses close for 5-7 days. If you’re in search of street food then it’s best to stick to these areas. Shops around Nguyen Hue where Flower Street is set up will also be open to cater to the many people that will flock there.
The Tet Tax – For those visiting street food vendors around the city, expect to pay a Tet tax, which is usually around 10,000-20,000VND (50c). There’s no point arguing as it’s a big thing for them to spend time away from family in order to cater to a visitor’s noodle soup or coconut juice fix
Book early if you plan on traveling during this time – getting out of Saigon during this period can be challenging but not impossible. The main issue is trying to get back into the main cities as you’ll find that flights may be booked out. Saigon is most affected as most people in Saigon come from rural areas throughout Vietnam; so planes and trains will be affected first, followed by buses as they are the slowest form of travel in Vietnam. If you are flying into Saigon prior a day or two prior to Tet, expect huge delays as the airport isn’t best equipped to deal with the surge in traffic.