Is visiting Vietnam during Lunar New Year a good idea?


Tet, or Vietnamese Lunar New Year, is without a doubt the most important holiday in Vietnam.
Tet Flower display in the shape of Vietnamese Flag
Tet Flower display in the shape of Vietnamese Flag
Tet to Vietnamese is like Thanksgiving to Americans. It’s time to celebrate with families, usually with so much food and drink. No one should have to work. Instead, they spend time visiting those who are important in their lives.
For the whole week of lunar new year in Vietnam, you will find people much more willing to turn down your business for the sake of celebration. That means it’s tough to find food, activity, or transportation around the country.
However, if your plan of travelling in Vietnam happens to align with Vietnamese New Year, don’t be discouraged. Traditionally, this holiday in Vietnam presents challenges to visitors with the lack of services. These past few years, however, things are changing. In Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh, it becomes much easier to find businesses that stay open throughout the holiday. The atmosphere is going to be much different. You will see less of the usual hustle and bustle, but a rare glimpse into a very interesting culture.

So is visiting Vietnam during Tet or Lunar New Year a bad idea?

If you are looking for the excitement of a regular New Year celebration, perhaps look elsewhere. But if you are looking for an authentic view of the life in Vietnam, this is the perfect opportunity.
Note: In 2015, the Lunar New Year’s Eve is February 18, 2015. The official bank holiday is from the 15th to the 23rd of February, 2015.
Here are a few things to keep in mind when travelling in Vietnam during Vietnamese New Year:

1. Do plan ahead for transportation:

A few days before and after Tet, public transportation will be a nightmare. The majority of Vietnamese workers will all try to find their way home, and then return to the big city for work. Therefore, if you absolutely have to arrive or leave during these days, get tickets in advance, and be prepared for the unavoidable crowd.
The week of Tet itself presents a different challenge: No one is travelling and no one is working. Therefore, it may be harder to travel from one city to another during this week, especially from the New Year’s Eve to the third day of Tet (for 2015 Tet: from the 18 to 21 of February). Check with your travel agent before planning your trip. Otherwise, stay in Hanoi or Ho Chi Minh city for the period.

2. Don’t worry about food or accommodation

Travelling in Vietnam during Tet has a certain advantage: you don’t have to compete with the local crowd. Some hotels or restaurants close for a few days during Tet, but many remains open. Therefore, you can certainly find vacancy in most places in Hanoi and HCMC.

3. Do visit Temples and Pagodas during Vietnamese Tet

Temple ground packed with local visitors during Vietnamese Lunar New Year
Temple ground packed with local visitors during Tet

During Tet, if Vietnamese are not at home or visiting relatives, they will be at a Temple or Pagoda, praying for a good year to come. Visit religious grounds to experience the spiritual and festive activities for yourself. Note that during these days, most popular spots will be very crowded. Therefore, be mindful of your belongings. Also, be respectful of the observed custom to avoid offending local visitors.

Altar adorn with flours and fruits during Tet
Altar adorn with flours and fruits during Tet

4. Don’t call it Chinese New Year

Cherry blossom - Tet flower in Hanoi1
Cherry blossom – Tet flower in Hanoi1

While the holiday may originate from China and is quite often called so in the US, it is celebrated in many countries in Asia. Vietnam is one of them and the people are proud of their own holiday. While the date aligns, the holiday in Vietnam is dressed up with many Vietnamese customs, foods, and traditions, which make it distinctively Vietnamese. Stick with the politically correct term of Lunar New Year, or, as the Vietnamese endearingly call it, Tet.

5. Do try the Tet specialties

Vietnamese Tet Specialty: Homemade rice cake
Vietnamese Tet Specialty: Homemade rice cake

If you sign up for a tour package with one of the travel agency in Vietnam, you will be introduced to some of the specialties during these days. Perhaps some rice cake during lunch or a piece of fruit candy for dessert.

The fact is there are certain specialties for Tet that you don’t really see Vietnamese cook or serve any other time of the year. It’s a unique advantage of visiting Vietnam during Tet.

Often, expats who live in Vietnam can be introduced to such specialties by their friends and co-workers. We were even invited by a friend to join the making of Banh Chung, when they showed us how to make and enjoy the traditional rice cake. For visitors, such opportunities are rare, but a quick conversation with a restaurant owner or the hotel reception can help point you to the next tasting opportunity.

6. Don’t miss the seasonal festive activities

Throughout the month leading up to Tet and after Tet, there are festivals and special events everywhere.
Visitting Vietnam during Tet: Lion dance to welcome a new year
Visitting Vietnam during Tet: Lion dance to welcome a new year
Most cities in Vietnam will have fireworks on the Lunar New Year’s Eve (February 18th for 2015). Visiting the fireworks sites is a wonderful experience. You can almost touch the excitement in the air. Check out vendors at the event and what they offer: from little branches of cherry blossoms to traditional trinkets and decorations. Notice the little bags of salt or sugar cane tree. Vietnamese believes that buying such items during the very first moment of the new year will bring good luck.
There are also exhibitions of Tet flowers in Hanoi and Saigon. Plus, if you ask the locals, they may even point you to a traditional festival at a temple or pagoda.

Vietnamese New Year Festival: Tug of war
Vietnamese New Year Festival: Tug of war

New Year Festival: Stilt walker
New Year Festival: Stilt walker
Musical performance during a Vietnamese New Year festival
Musical performance during a Vietnamese New Year festival

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