Reading Time: 13 minutes

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Vietnamese New Year. The Tet Holiday Explained Through The Eyes Of A Westerner.

Vietnamese New Year. The Tet Holiday Explained Through The Eyes Of A Westerner.
Reading Time: 13 minutes

A holiday, a party, a week off, hopes for the future, a clean slate, a drunken family fun fest, the time to set goals, and envelopes of cash exchanging hands. The Tet holiday is many things to the people of Vietnam. An event that could be compared to Christmas or New Years’, here’s what the Tet celebration looks like through the eyes of a westerner. 

What is the Tet holiday in Vietnam? 

On paper, Tet is the Vietnamese New Year based on the lunar calendar, celebrated in conjunction with Chinese New Year. For this reason, the date changes to align with the lunar cycle opposed to western New Year which follows the Gregorian calendar,

To understand Vietnamese traditions and holidays, especially the phenomena of Tet, you’d need to be Vietnamese. Or, at the very least live in Vietnam long enough to understand the culture. I have, and here is my opinion on Tet from the foreigner’s perspective after living in Vietnam and having married into the Vietnamese world.

 

Tet Markets

The markets come to life in a mix of holiday reds and yellows during the Tet holiday season.

TET Is Like Christmas But Bigger

Tet or “TẾT” could be best compared to the western world’s Christmas. Families take time off to get together, “gifts” are given, and the whole country celebrates like it’s 1999. Except it’s nothing like Christmas. It’s bigger! Much bigger! 100x bigger!

In the west, we first have Thanksgiving, a one day holiday that usually involves a family meal. If you can make it to dinner, great, if not we will see you at the Christmas meal. Tet is similar in that there are Tet markets full of festive foods and everyone is out shopping in preparation for the 3 days of Tet and all the eating that will be done.

However, with Christmas, as it creeps closer you can anticipate some festive parties and get-togethers. Workers will take the 25th off and often the 24th and 26th, but not always. If the dates line up with New Year you may take the whole week off of work, but not everyone.

In Vietnam Tet rules. It rules everything. Everyone takes EXACTLY the same week off. When I say everyone, I mean literally EVERYONE.  

Tet festival Ho Chi Minh means the whole of the city, virtually all 8.5-million people, emptying out of the city and into the countryside. All employees expect to be off work and basically quit for the week. Every business closes up shop. Every food store and hotel is vacant. It’s a ghost town. 

Now is your chance. If you’ve ever wanted to rip down the city streets in your Ducati Monster or Lamborghini without concern of anyone blocking your way, the vacant streets of Tet are the perfect time.

Even, or should I say, especially, every government institution closes up. Trains, hospitals, schools, basically anyone who was employed last week is now off for Tet.

 

The Problems:

You need a ride to Danang? Not with public transport, maybe on your scooter.

Does your motorcycle need repair? You might be walking, the mechanic is closed.

Need to see a Doctor? Hopefully, you can survive for the week, they’re out of town.

 

The Vietnamese Accepted Solution:

If the business you need happens to stay open the price of things doubles, triples, quadruples, or maybe even quintuples! These family run businesses know if they are going to work it’s going to need to be worth their time. What was a basic $25 hotel room suddenly becomes $125. They are trading their family time for your money, so they are going to adjust the bill accordingly.

As a worker, you might enjoy the time off to spend with your own family. Or maybe you won’t because of the lost income, the extra expense of travelling home, or the expectation of bringing some of your big-city money back to share with the family. More on that city money shortly.

The avalanche that is Tet snowballs up the whole of Vietnam as the country comes to a crashing halt before the post-Tet thaw a week later. It’s an unbelievable sight to see.

Christmas but bigger

Tet. The Events, Family and Local Customs

Tet is the abbreviation of Tet Nguyen Dan and is meant to mark the end of winter and the arrival of spring. The idea is that you forget about the troubles from the year that has just gone by and focus on a new and positive upcoming year. 

To celebrate, the country develops a New Year’s Eve type of atmosphere. Cities like HCM, Hanoi, and Da Nang during Tet will organize fireworks displays. Its all part of the Vietnamese New Year superstitions and traditions that have occurred for centuries. This new year, new opportunity mindset gives people the confidence that the past has cleared away any negativity and the future is open to new and positive outcomes. 

You might see less obvious traditions like;

  • Wind chimes atop bamboo sticks that jangle in the wind to ward off evil spirits.
  • Lanterns hung in doorways to welcome home ancient ancestors.
  • Firecrackers and gong-banging to scare away negative energy.
  • Red Couplets that look like red banners with Chinese writing handing from buildings.
  • Special flowers like marigolds, daisies, lilies or special additions like peach or apricot braches that are placed in the home.
  • The cleaning of homes, especially the kitchen, to appease the watchful Gods whom keep an eye on the family throughout the year.
  • Special ceremonies between the elders and the ancestors where the offering of food and incense are given.
  • Special guests invited to be the first to enter the home on New Year’s day. It’s believed the first person in the door can set the mood for the entire year.

 

Many Vietnamese prepare for the Tet Holiday by cooking traditional food like spring rolls, Banh Chung/Banh Tet, a special cake made from rice mung bean and pork. Xoi or Gio Cha, types of sticky rice. Thit ga, a boiled chicken, as well as a number of other delicious holiday foods. 

 

This and many other customs take place during Tet, including visiting a person’s house on the first day of the new year, wishing New Year’s greetings and blessings, giving “lucky money” to children and elderly people, or opening a new business. Overall it’s a time for new beginnings. 

 

Tet holiday. Dragon Dancers

A look at some of the Dragon Dancers that can be seen roaming the streets during the Tet holiday.

Tet Holiday The Truth About What Happens When You Arrive In The Family Home

Vietnam has a very strong backbone culture of “family first”.

The hardworking city family members spend their days slogging away and sending money back to their families in the countryside. Then for Tet children go back and see the families who have been receiving payments throughout the year. 

Are families excited to see them? You bet! This is where the money comes from.

How do people celebrate Tet holiday? Huge family parties occur and things to do during Tet include drinking copious amounts of beer and singing Karaoke.

Buried within the beer drinking are various religious activities such as visiting the dead and paying respect to Pagodas.

Tet also has this effect of guilting people into visiting all the people of past importance. Family members, past teachers, family friends, friends of family members and everyone else remotely connected to the family. 

Imagine trying to visit your entire Facebook friends list with any remote connection to your family, all within a week.

Each meet and greet comes with several beers on the table. Visit four houses and you’ll likely have finished a dozen or more beer. This makes for either great conversation or awkward drunken moments. It depends on how much “visiting” was done before you arrived.

During subsequent days, people visit relatives and friends. Traditionally but not strictly, the second day of Tet is usually reserved for friends, while the third day is for teachers, who command the most respect in Vietnam.

 Local Buddhist temples are popular spots as people like to give donations to the temples and to get their fortunes told during Tet. Children are free to spend their new money on toys or on gambling games. Prosperous families often pay for dragon dancers to perform at their house. As well, public performances of a Tet dragon dance occur and are common within the local community.

You’re getting the idea of what this ongoing party feels like. 

Traditional TET holiday Tree

Vietnam is crazy at the best of times, during Tet it gets crazy drunk

 Some of the best adventures in this country are had on two wheels, and we have the complete list of why anyone can travel Vietnam by motorbike to prove it. But this whole theory is based on the convenience of the country and the ease of travelling within it. 

  • Tourist towns are all within a day’s drive.
  • Mechanic are literally 5-minutes apart.
  • Public services and transport are easy, convenient and cheap
  • You can grab a roadside meal virtually anywhere.

Then Tet arrives and like a light switch, everything turns off and disappears. Flights, trains, and busses are fully booked weeks in advance and hotels are no different. It is a time when the unprepared traveler finds themselves sleeping on the street as there really isn’t any accommodation left.

If you require a mechanic they often need to be begged for help and you can assume they are working on your bike while half, if not fully intoxicated. What was last week’s 30-minute fix for $10 is today’s 4-hour job for $80. In many ways, a breakdown is game over during Tet.

As we mentioned earlier you’ll arrive to each house and expect to have a few beers. However, no one is walking door to door, and taxis are out of the question. You can assume that you’re driving or riding on the back of a motorbike of someone who has spent most of the day drinking. It’s not really frowned upon, it’s likely expected.

Each year after Tet the government releases drink driving fatality numbers. They are always alarming and the number of lives lost is not only absurd, but it’s also almost expected. The government is now finally taking some serious action though and as of January 1st 2020 the rules around alcohol change.

  • Blood alcohol content allowed during driving will change from 50mg/dl to 0mg/dl.
  • New rules that don’t allow anyone under 18 to be involved with the advertisement of alcohol.
  • Media that caters to audiences of under 18, students or pregnant women will not be allowed to advertise alcohol. 
  • You won’t be allowed to advertise any alcoholic beverages with a concentration of over 15%


Beer Companies, The Driving Force Behind Tet

When I think of Tet, I think it should be written right on the bottle of beer: “Tet, brought to you by Tiger beer!”. 

Heineken and other brands try and get a piece of the party pie, but Tiger beer has dominated the Tet holiday. 

  • Business to business relationships are respected by companies handing each other crates of Tiger beer as gifts for Tet
  • Buying a new motorbike? Expect it to come with a free case of Tiger beer.
  • Want to thank your major client for a great year? Bring a case of Tiger beer.
  • Going to visit the family? Bring Tiger beer.
Tiger Beer Tet Holiday
Image: vaib.vn – Tiger Beer, the unofficial sponsor of Tet!

You get the feeling that Tiger is sponsoring Tet, and somehow this finds its way into the most serious of traditional places, with most houses paying their respects to the dead with Tiger beer cans. A picture of the deceased, a few candles and a load of beer delicately placed around the shrine is a very normal entrance to a Vietnamese house.

Somehow beer has dominated the tradition of showing family respect. 

At the family home during Tet everyone must drink together with the standard “Yo”. Being British I’m used to sitting around enjoying a pint alone or with some family to watch a football match or enjoy an afternoon during a holiday like Christmas. 

 In Vietnam, drinking alone is unbelievably rude, and so it is custom to join in with the 3-minute “Yo” gaps and drink large quantities of beer at a time. Sipping is out of the question!

“Yo” Explained: If you’re not familiar with the Vietnamese lingo yet, the explanation of “Yo” will fast track you into Vietnamese culture. Yo is the Vietnamese equivalent to Cheers. Every time you go to take a sip of beer, you must first invite everyone at the table to (Yo / Cheers), then you can drink. It would be weird/rude to Yo yourself and not invite everyone else for a drink. Thus, drinking solo is rude, it’s a group thing. 

Tiger beer has somehow managed to get their advertising behind everyone, right down to the deceased family members who’ve been celebrated with beer cans. It’s incredible really. Santa gets respect via milk & cookies (Coke in the commercials), Jesus gets respected via a quick prayer over a meal, and everyone involved in Tet gets Tiger beer. Amazing! 

Even the elders get involved and you’ll often find the dominant elder male at a table call out “100%” to another male at the table they want to show ranking position over (usually the younger cousin, family friend or foreign British guy.) Then the dominated male is forced to finish the drink in their hand. Sometimes they want to outrank the entire table and everyone needs to drink. It’s like a big family frat party.

On this rare occasion, you can see Heineken making the rounds, and me being expected to finish drink after drink to appease the father-in-law next to me.

Lucky Money. The root of all corruption

Let’s compare Lucky Money to Christmas presents. 

In the west, we give Christmas presents. You know how this system works. 

You either get;

  • An incredibly thoughtful gift where the monetary value isn’t important.
  • A very expensive gift to override the need for much thought put into the gift.
  • A gift card to somewhere you love and will actually use. The middle ground when someone wants to be thoughtful but doesn’t want to get you the wrong thing.
  • A gift card for Amazon or a supermarket. A coverup when someone doesn’t know much about you but feels the need to get you a gift.

As for the Lucky Money, this tradition is as much thoughtful as it is expected.

The Lucky Money system goes something like this;

  • The youngster is first shipped off to the big city to earn some “real money”.
  • While away they are also expected to send paychecks back to the poor families in the countryside each month.
  • Tet rolls around and now this big city money is expected by all of those back in the countryside. The grandparents, parents, and children all waiting for little envelopes.
  • Wash, rinse, repeat, and the whole cycle of expectations never ends.

The amazing thing about Lucky Money is the way it is put into these small red envelopes, red is the symbolic color of luck, then handed over to the receiver in a sly and hidden fashion.

However, corruption thrives in Vietnam and I can’t help but wonder if it doesn’t come from this tradition of the sly slip of money from one to another. Even with the best of intentions, lucky money is handed over as if it was a police bribe!

Picture a small child watching his trusted family handing over small envelopes of cash to keep them happy. It’s now in this child’s head that this is ok and encouraged, and they even know the best way to go about doing it!

Lucky Money

Travelling During Tet – The Upside

There are certainly some upsides to travelling during Tet and to witness this cultural phenomenon is definitely worth being a part of. Take what you know about Christmas or New Year and magnify it 100%, then you might start to have some understanding of the scale of this operation.

To witness entire cities empty to the point of a full scale war evacuation is incredible. However the true magic is in seeing Vietnams “family first” culture. A way of life basically lost in the west.

In the west we appreciate the family, but work will usually trump the idea of taking a week or two off just to spend time with your family, especially when they are spread all over the country.

In comparison, the Vietnamese manage to maintain huge blocks of land where several generations can all come together for this once a year celebration. It’s here you’ll find everyone from great-grandparents all the way down to great-grandchildren nustled under one roof for the holiday.

As a traveller we get to witness the closure of a country to the point that no one will do anything but drink beer. As frustrating as this may be when driving along and getting a flat tire or arriving in a city to find no hotels. The dedication to the “I will not work attitude” is something that no traveller would have ever normally been able to experience.

During this time you’ll get to witness an entire cultural revolution under one roof. The great-grandparents and probably the parents will still be living in bamboo huts and farming the land, while across the table is the university student who’s studying to design apps and speaking perfect English. It’s incredible to see the evolution all sitting around having a beer together.

These cultural gaps are huge in Vietnam and with the western ideologies flowing in over Facebook and the internet, as a result of this globalization. Tet is, in turn, becoming a dying holiday and each year that goes by the impact on the next generation is getting washed away. 

A country developing as fast as Vietnam can no longer afford to shut down for a month. The young generation understands how costly it is to them financially to continue with this tradition. Not only are they giving and giving financially, they are then expected to stop working and then continue to give more over Tet. It’s not financially sustainable for them. From a business standpoint, those new up and coming business owners want to maintain new found international trade relationships, and these relationships don’t want to wait a week or two for business to continue.

It won’t be long until TET dies or becomes westernized.

When you’re here, embrace the beer drinking, get involved with the family fun, and refuse to do anything for a week but visit family. This is Tet, and while it lasts, home is best place to spend tet in Vietnam. You must love and respect it!

How To Plan For A Holiday In Vietnam During Tet 

If you do plan on traveling to Vietnam during Chinese New Year, you’re off the cuff adventure will need to become a well-buttoned shirt with all the creases ironed out.

  • Book every Hotel in advance and confirm your reservation.
  • Know exactly what activities you plan to do and assume most attractions will be closed.
  • Arrive before the holiday begins so you can organize everything you might need to enjoy your stay (phone cars, food, rentals, etc.)
  • And just in case, pick yourself up some Tiger beer!

If we could offer one piece of biased but honest advice: rent a good motorbike that is not going to break down. During Tet a breakdown could be more of a holiday stopper than saying no to grandpas’ suggestion that you finish your Tiger.

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