The Tet Festival was originally celebrated by Vietnamese farmers to thank the gods for the arrival of spring, a practice which dates back thousands of years. Today, it’s a time for paying respects to ancestors and welcoming the New Year with family members (‘Tet’ is an abbreviation of Tết Nguyên Đán, which translates as ‘The Feast of the First Morning of the First Day’).
Held between late January and early February, it is officially a three-day celebration but festivities may continue for about a week (sometimes more) with every effort made to indulge in eating, drinking, and socialising. In the weeks leading up to Tet Festival, all homes are thoroughly cleaned (sometimes repainted) to get rid of any bad luck of the old year while ancestral altars are presented with five types of local fruits and votive papers. Locals also decorate their homes with colourful flowers such as chrysanthemums, marigold, Mao Ga flowers, paper white flowers, and lavenders, together with peach blossom and kumquat trees.
What happens during Tet festival in Vietnam?
The first day of Tet is a bustling affair with prayers, reunion dinners, and gift exchanges held between family members. Children usually receive money kept in red envelope by their parents and elder relatives. As with most Asian countries, Vietnamese often wear red and yellow during the festivity as they believe those colours symbolise prosperity and good fortune. Throughout the day, the streets are filled with people performing mua lan or lion dance performances with drums, bells, gongs, and firecrackers going off to ward off evil spirits. Buddhist temples all around Vietnam are also packed with locals giving donations and getting their fortunes told during Tet.
Traveling in Vietnam during Tet
Tet is a great time to see Vietnam at its most colorful, especially in the cities of Hue, Hanoi, and Ho Chi Minh City.
However, reservations are bound to be filled up long before the actual holiday, and transportation before and after Tet is bound to be sketchy at best (everybody wants to be home for Tet!). Also, many tourist spots are closed for several days between Tet.
Do visit if you intend to stay in one place for the duration of Tet, and can commit to letting the Tet travel rush die down. (Read about train travel in Vietnam.)
Expect prices to be jacked up to the maximum throughout the Tet holiday. Don’t take it personally – everyone else is paying up, too. (Read about money in Vietnam.)
Visiting Hanoi during Tet
The Vietnamese capital is the best place to see traditional Tet celebrations taking place, all taking place between the second and seventh day of the festival week.
On the fifth day of the Lunar Month, Hanoi citizens flock to Dong Da Hill southwest of the capital to celebrate Dong Da Festival, which commemorates a victory over invading Chinese forces (the hills in the area are actually burial mounds, covering the remains of over 200,000 Chinese soldiers buried on the battlefield).
On the sixth day, the Co Loa Citadel to Hanoi’s north sees costumed locals forming a procession, much as their ancestors did long ago, in the Co Loa Festival; only today, civilians march in the parade, instead of the former military officials and government mandarins.
Finally, a calligraphy festival takes place all throughout Tet on the grounds of the Temple of Literature in old Hanoi – calligraphers called ong do set up shop in about a hundred booths, brush in hand, writing auspicious Chinese characters for paying customers.
Visiting Hue during Tet
The Hue imperial citadel, located in the former royal capital of Hue, has seen a renaissance of royal-era traditions, none more significant than the raising of the cay neu, or Tet pole, on the palace grounds.
The cay neu repeats itself as a traditional bamboo plant in millions of Vietnamese homes, but the one in the Hue citadel is the biggest and flashiest. The first cay neu was traditionally first set up by the Buddha to drive away evil monsters.
An elaborate ceremony raises the Tet pole on the first day of the holiday; the process is repeated on the seventh and the last day, marking the end of Tet. In olden times, Hue residents would take their cue from the palace ceremonies to set up and take down their own cay neu at home.
Visiting Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon) during Tet
The mass of motorcycles jamming Ho Chi Minh City doesn’t go away during Tet, but parts of the city explode in color during the week-long festival.
In District 8, Tau Hu Canal becomes the site of a flower market, with blossoms and ornamental trees sourced from the nearby provinces of Tien Giang and Ben Tre. The market’s wares vary wildly, from cheap cockscomb flowers in pots to expensive yellow apricot trees.
In District 1, a book festival takes place from the first to the fourth day of Tet along the streets of Mac Thi Buoi, Nguyen Hue and Ngo Duc Ke. Thousands of books and magazines will change hands during the festival.
In District 5, Cholon (Vietnam’s traditional “Chinatown”) offers both color and flavor in excess; as you admire the flowers and decorations adorning the area’s temples, take a chance on local, Tet-only foods like banh Tet (a cake made of steamed rice, mung-bean and pork) and Xoi (colored sticky rice cakes).
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