Our visit to Vietnam coincided with the Lunar New Year, referred to as Tet in Vietnam. Tet is the most important celebration of the year and falls in late January or Early February depending on the solar calendar. It marks the arrival of spring and lasts for several days. During this time families reunite, and schools, offices, and stores are often closed.
After reading about store and restaurant closures and limited availability of transport options, we were a bit leery about traveling to the country during this time. As it turned out, the beauty and festivities of the holiday only enriched our experience in Vietnam.
Below are the top reasons why Tet is a great time to visit Vietnam.
1) Beautiful flowers markets are everywhere
The first thing we noticed when we arrived in Hanoi was an unusual amount of trees being transported on the back of motorbikes. Later we came across the roadside markets filled with flowers and blossoming trees. In Hoi An, the main street was lined on both sides for several blocks with plants of every kind and color. The Vietnamese colors of red and yellow were particularly popular and some plants had red and yellow bows tied on the branches. Kumquat trees and peach and apricot blossoms are traditional decoration much like a Christmas tree. The trees represent fertility and prosperity and signal a bountiful year ahead.
2) Ho Chi Minh City streets are not jam packed
One of the apprehensions I had about our trip to Vietnam was the simple act of crossing the street. With the mass of motorbike traffic and lack of road rules and traffic signals, this is no easy task. Our Hanoi Kids tour guide said her teacher described it as a ‘fill in the blank traffic system’ which is a perfect characterization.
Our first stop in Hanoi was over a week prior to the Lunar New Year. It was similar to what we expected, bikes streamed down the sidewalk, traffic flowed in all directions and red lights were optional. Reading that Ho Chi Minh was even more congested and frenzied we were bracing ourselves.
When we arrived in Ho Chi Minh City (HCMC) on New Year’s Eve it was not chaotic at all. The streets were noticeably quiet and orderly. There was no traffic from the airport and we were relieved to see no motorbikes riding on the sidewalk. The last minute holiday preparations had been made and residents vacated the city to spend time back in their hometowns with their families. This made for a very pleasant tourist experience, as we were able to safely walk from one attraction to the next.
3) There are plenty of affordable domestic flights
In 2016 Vietjet Air added 800 additional flights or 150,000 tickets over a one-month period during the Tet holiday. Seeing that affordable flights were readily available, we changed our original plan of traveling North to South on an open bus ticket.
On a bus, we would have planned to stop in more cities to cut down on long haul drives. We also may have encountered tickets sold out on the days we wanted to depart, especially due to the holiday volume. An open bus ticket could be purchased much cheaper than point-to-point but I believe it would only have taken us as far as Ho Chi Minh City.
Instead, we booked three domestic flights for just over $100 USD and saved much time. Below shows a comparison of taking ground transit point to point versus flying (baggage cost is included as well). Wouldn’t it be nice if US airlines had prices this low for holiday travel!
Bus (estimates from www.rome2rio.com)
Plane (actual time and $)
|Hanoi –> Da Nang||18hr 9 min||~$34||1hr 20 min||$42.10|
|Da Nang -> Ho Chi Minh City||15hr 24min||~$50||1hr 25 min||$28.30|
|Ho Chi Minh City -> Phu Quoc||11hr 0 min||~$53||1hr 0 min||$36.77|
4) There are plenty of tourist attractions and restaurants open
We thought it would be best to station ourselves in Ho Chi Minh City during Tet. A large city would mean we could find some restaurants that were open so we didn’t have to live off of food from Circle K. More importantly, we needed to find a bar open at 6am showing the Super Bowl, which happened to be the same day as the Lunar New Year.
Some restaurants on our street were shuttered and as we got away from the tourist areas it was more obvious that many businesses were closed. A few would re-open as the days went by but there were still plenty of open restaurants choose from. Our hotel was conveniently located across the street from Bitexco Financial Tower in District One where crowds of people came to see the flower displays and stayed to eat and hang out with friends. Many of the businesses and restaurants were open and making bank from the crowds.
We planned to see the HCMC sites the two days following the New Year and had no issues with booking a Cu Chi Tunnel tour or visiting the War Remnants Museum.
5) Each city is decked out
As we toured the country we had the opportunity to see how each city was preparing for the holiday. In Hanoi, the residents were bursting with national pride. Vietnamese flags flew in front of nearly every business and shop. Streets and sidewalks were light up with twinkling lights.
In Hoi An, the streets doubled as a garden with shoppers on motorbikes coasting from one seller to the next to pick the best plants and trees to decorate their homes. The riverside was adorned with monkey displays and colorful lanterns.
In Ho Chi Minh City, we saw the most elaborate flower displays I’ve ever witnessed. Roads were also adorned with flower banners from lamp post to lamp post.
6) Free entertainment!
In Ho Chi Minh City the Lunar New Year is marked with a firework display. We joined hundreds of other revelers in the plaza to ring in the Lunar New Year and enjoy the free firework show.
The plaza is also lined with incredible and elaborate flower displays which are great for photos or just people watching. Vietnamese families come dressed up, commonly in traditional outfits, to take photos. You can easily spend a few hours taking it all in.
7) The holiday gives great insight into the Vietnamese culture
Reading about the Tet customs and superstitions was quite fascinating. There are eleven days of rituals to wash away bad luck and start the new year off right.
The most interesting to me was one day one when Vietnamese pray to the Kitchen God. The Kitchen God returns to heaven on a Carp to report to the Jade Emperor all the happenings in the household. After praying and making offerings at the family shrine, fish are released into rivers and streams and the kitchen is cleaned to prepare for the Kitchen Gods return. The eleven days concludes with the biggest meal of the year where many special dishes are served.
There are also many superstitions like the belief that the first person to enter the home on New Year’s Day sets a tone for the year and will bring to the family all of that person’s characteristics. Families are cautious to not have someone with a bad star sign or bad character be the first to cross their threshold as it will bring misfortune the rest of the year. They also believe that luck clings to dust and dirt and do a thorough sweep of the house days before the new year to get rid of the bad luck. They won’t sweep the first four days of the new year to be sure good luck isn’t swept away.
Ancestral worship is central to the Vietnamese culture and it is believed that deceased ancestors will visit the family for the Tet holiday. Each home, store, and hotel has an altar with offerings ranging from fruit, coins, and flowers to beer and cigarettes. We witnessed our most elaborate altar when we returned back to our hotel New Year’s Eve and saw this feast laid out.