14 Mar Celebrating TET in Vietnam
One of the great things about living in another country as opposed to just travelling through is that you get a more in-depth taste of the culture you’re living in. I’m not going to pretend I know everything about Vietnamese life after being here for just seven months, but I have learnt that festivals are very important and none more so than TET, the Lunar New Year holiday.
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What is TET?
You’ve heard of the Chinese New Year, right? Well similarly, TET celebrates the beginning of Spring and its date is determined by the Lunisolar calendar. That means it falls in either January or February, often on the same day as the Chinese New Year. The actual TET holiday lasts for three to four days and most businesses close during that time so that people can go home to visit their families. In reality, the TET holiday usually runs for at least a week or even longer depending on whether the dates fall on a weekend.
I’d say that Vietnamese people typically work really hard. They’re literally up at the crack of dawn and they often work long hours. Children go to school from 8.00am till 4pm five or even six days a week and many of them have private classes after school; I teach some of my kids at the public schools first thing in the morning and again in the evening at the language centre. I’ve been told by Vietnamese colleagues that this is a relatively recent trend, but still, it makes English kids seem lazy by comparison. In addition to this, Vietnamese people don’t have a lot of time off; TET is the main holiday in Vietnam and it’s a big deal.
People start preparing for TET weeks in advance, cleaning and decorating their homes for the arrival of family visitors. As the holiday draws closer people start buying peach blossom and orange trees to place in their homes; these are decorated with New Year wishes and envelopes with ‘Lucky Money’ which are exchanged on TET itself. Families gather together to celebrate and eat special meals; traditionally, it’s thought that the first person to visit your home during TET will determine your family’s fortune for the year. Many Vietnamese homes have a family altar which they will leave offerings at to pay respect to their ancestors.
How we Celebrated TET in Vietnam
This year TET fell very late, during the third week of February, so we were exhausted and really looking forward to a 10-day break, as were the kids at school. As the academic term wound down we spent a fun week making traditional paper lanterns with our classes, which the children decorated with pictures and New Year wishes.
We were also excited about the holiday as two of our friends from England, Jo and Bonner, were visiting us and we had a lot of adventures planned. First we enjoyed a soothing break in Sapa before returning to Hanoi by overnight train during the early hours of TET eve. That same day we made the journey to Cuc Phuong National Park. As we ventured outside in search of a taxi to the bus station we were stunned by how the city had transformed. On our market street, Tran Phu, business was booming and the stalls spilled out into the road like never before as people took the last opportunity to stock up on food before the holiday; much as we do in the western world before Christmas. Rather than frozen turkeys though, there seemed to be a lot of live chickens being sold and slaughtered on the street.
Once we had left the hubbub of the market we were struck by how uncharacteristically quiet the streets were in Hanoi. The roads, which are normally choked with a never-ending, beeping, stream of traffic were eerily quiet. Most shops and restaurants were boarded up and there were none of the usual crowds of people on tiny stools by the roadside eating and drinking; we even had some trouble hailing a taxi to take us to the bus station and I began to worry that the buses wouldn’t actually be running.
Thankfully they were and we found ourselves crammed onto a local bus with lots of Vietnamese people on their way to visit family for the holiday, carrying bags full of food and presents. Once we got out into the countryside the bus passed through small towns and villages, often we’d stop outside a house and watch a passenger disembark to be greeted warmly by a crowd of relatives. This gave the journey a festive feel and I couldn’t stop thinking about how similarly we celebrate Christmas in the UK, with plenty of food and family time.
I have yet to write about our jungle adventures at Cuc Phuong but on the day of TET itself we were welcomed at the restaurant with some traditional food gifts; a meat pate and Banh Chung, a cake of sticky rice packed with meat and beans. We arrived back in Hanoi on the second day of TET and although we had trouble finding a restaurant to eat at because everything was closed, we had fun walking around Hoan Kiem lake with thousands of Vietnamese people, many dressed in traditional clothes. There was a party atmosphere as vendors sold popcorn and ice creams, children played and groups posed for photos by the water.
Travel during TET
We had a great time over TET but if you’re just visiting Vietnam for a short period, the holiday can be a bit of a nuisance. Hotels here in Hanoi were pretty booked up and restaurants, museums and attractions were closed, transport can be more difficult to arrange and things are typically more expensive. We anticipated problems with travelling during TET so we booked our train tickets to Sapa a few months in advance but we were still caught off-guard in other ways.
Several times over the holiday period taxi drivers tried to charge us more expensive set fees rather than use the meter, which has never happened to us before in Hanoi and I take taxis to and from work several times each week. We ordered a bus transfer from Sapa town to Lao Cai to catch our train back to Hanoi through our hotel, only for the driver to try and transfer us to a local bus because he didn’t want to make the 45-minute journey during the holiday. We were short on time and had already paid a more expensive fee for the ride so we refused to move from the van. After an angry exchange and a phone call to the lovely owner of our hotel, another private car was arranged for us and we caught our train in time. On the journey back from Cuc Phuong we also ended up paying 150,000 dong rather than the normal 75,000 because it was the second day of TET.
If you are going to visit Vietnam during TET my advice would be to plan carefully, book ahead and prepare to hunker down in one place for the three or four days of TET itself. Make sure your visit is long enough so that you have time to sightsee before or after the holiday. All in all, we loved our TET experience, the festive feel of the city and the cheerful calls of: Chuc Mung Nam Moi!
Happy New Year everyone!