[NOTECelebrating Tet in Ho Chi Minh City: Hey, look at this! My 30 posts about everything are starting! How fun!]

The anticipation of Tet always starts somewhere immediately following (Solar) New Years Day, and it’s pervasive. As in, the signs are literally everywhere.

As Tet (lunar new year) was a freakish 4 weeks later than in 2014, we were privileged to experience the country in a state of suspended celebration – loving the solar new year, while hanging on to the promise of the lunar one, 6 weeks later. It made for a country where, as our visiting friend Katrina noted, it was like an entire country of people who forgot to take down their Christmas trees.

True enough, Kat… true enough. It’s because it was more than like that, it was that. And it was on purpose.

But there’s more to Tet than just recycling Solar New Year’s. This holiday, sometimes (and inaccurately) known as Chinese New Year, is imbued with traditions both ancient and modern, and it’s an interesting time to visit Vietnam, if only because of how very different the atmosphere is.

Celebrating Tet in Ho Chi Minh City

There are many things you can expect to see during Tet time (roughly five days on both sides of the official new year date).

First of all, let’s take the days leading up to Tet.

The streets get crazy. I absolutely love this city, but, my god, driving in the month leading up to Tet is an exercise in ramping up your tolerance levels of stupidity. People are in a hurry, and they’ve got a lot to do before they leave.

As Tet approaches, you can feel the energy flowing off people. It’s common for Vietnamese, especially younger workers, to work 6-7 days a week, and this 2-3 week holiday is the biggest, most important, and longest of the year. On top of it, the weather is usually still a little cool (even as we head into the hottest part of the year this year in particular, because of the holiday’s strange placement in mid-February).

Celebrating Tet in Ho Chi Minh City

You know when you were young and you had that final hour of packing the car before you go to Grandma’s in another state for 2 weeks? It’s like that final hour for at least 2-3 days before the city starts clearing out. General chaos reigns, everyone’s busy, and children are underfoot everywhere. But soon, the streets are empty, and silence descends.

Hoo boy, does it clear out. Saigon becomes a strangely peaceful and quiet place. The sounds of motorbikes and horns, bicycling ice cream and bread vendors, and everyday service people are simply gone for several days, replaced with the faint banging of drums and simple birdsong.

It’s lovely, and a bit unsettling.

Once Tet hits, there are at least 5-6 days where there’s virtually nothing open. Families take the time to eat massive, traditional home cooked meals. In Vietnamese, the verb for celebrating Tet is ‘an Tet’, literally meaning “eat Tet,” which should be a pretty good indication of how central food is to this holiday (my vietnamese teacher complained this morning of gaining 2 kilos – which kind of makes it the analogue to American Thanksgiving).

Tet in Ho Chi Minh City

There are also some various traditions (the wiki here lays it all out pretty well, so I’ll avoid simply regurgitating) that are performed regularly every year, including quite a few to symbolically prepare for a successful and lucky coming year. There’s much cleaning – of the house, of the alter, and of personal wardrobes – and young family members are given lucky money (li xi, in the south) from their elders.

So what is there to do during Tet?

HCMC doesn’t completely clear out – there are plenty of families here now where the entire family lives in the city, and so travel to another province or hometown is unnecessary. These people need something to do!

In between giving the front gate a fresh coat of paint and thoroughly cleaning the family altar, locals like to relax at three main holiday events: the New Year’s Fair, Flower Street, and Fireworks!

The New Year’s Fair

Each year there is a large fair in the middle of Saigon. In 2014 it was in September 23rd Park along Pham Ngu Lao, but this year it moved to the MUCH larger Tao Dan Park, which was a big improvement.

Tet in Ho Chi Minh City
I love this picture. Musical Goats. Can’t you just hear their musical bleats?

Whole families come out for entertainment, shopping, rides, crafts, and food… all the food, fried.

Tet in Ho Chi Minh CityThere are large displays of traditional arts, of all kinds.

Tet in Ho Chi Minh CityFruit and flower sculptures, bonsai, carved wooden sculptures and chairs, preserved butterflies (including whole pieces of artwork made out of butterfly wings… hrmm), and exotic birds from all corners of Vietnam are on display all over the park for two weeks.

Tet in Ho Chi Minh City
Dragon Lions are said to chase away bad luck during the Tet holiday. More prosperous businesses will hire dancers to perform outside their house/business at midnight on the New Year.
Tet in Ho Chi Minh City
Obligatory Ho Chi Minh tax.
Tet in Ho Chi Minh City
My eternal question for carvings like this, or the massive hardwood
chairs/tables: who buys these and where do you put them??

Families are also invited to get hands on. There are ceramics and face-painting areas.

Tet in Ho Chi Minh City

There’s a regular western flair in one corner this year, with a bouncy castle (!!) and a few rides, like this CRAZYWAVE machine. Hypnotizing, and more than a little fun.

Tet in Ho Chi Minh City

I’d be remiss not to mention that you can get the most badass fair food in Vietnam. Honestly, this place is the best. Go HUNGRY, and eat slowly! You can get anything fried on a stick here, and it is hands-down glorious.

Flower Street

Ham Nghi, in downtown HCMC, is a major street leading from Ben Thanh Market to Bitexco tower and the Saigon River, and each year it is transformed into selfie paradise.

Tet in Ho Chi Minh City
Thousands of live plants, including flowers, trees, shrubs, bamboo stands, and more than one koi pond are constructed along the entirety of the street for a week leading up to Tet.
Tet in Ho Chi Minh City

Traffic is not permitted, and people flock with their SO’s, children, and friends to capture pictures for the new year.

Tet in Ho Chi Minh City
Did I mention they built temporary ponds full of fish and lotus?
Tet in Ho Chi Minh City
Not only is all of this temporary, but it’s still living, and it’s all wired for electricity… would it even be a holiday if there weren’t millions of neon lights? I think not.
Tet in Ho Chi Minh CityAs for fireworks, they happen annually over the river at midnight on the last day of the Lunar Year. I skipped them, as I don’t like to deal with the crowds after fireworks (I still have memories of escaping Rhythm and Booms in Madison, WI… uf da). Fortunately for us, you can see some of the most impressive ones from our house’s rooftop (although some new development looks like it will block most of that soon).

Some final tips for being in HCMC during Tet:

  • STOCK UP beforehand. Get toilet paper and any food you’ll need for 3-4 days, just to be safe. We like to have a BBQ over Tet, so that includes supplies like charcoal and starter sticks, as well as any groceries we might want to cook.
  • No maid service. Sorry.
  • If you find a business open during Tet in Ho Chi Minh City, the laws of the free market apply: it’ll be more expensive, even if it’s just the rice guy on the corner a day or two before Tet proper.
  • On the first day of Tet, DO NOT enter someone’s house unless you are invited. The luck of the first person to enter will curse/bless the house throughout the coming year (this is why families who have recently lost a family member are not welcome to drop by during Tet).
  • Honestly, it’s a long, kind of boring holiday once it actually starts, being as focused on the nuclear family as it is. Use your time in Saigon to relax and don’t expect phenomenal service, and you’ll be ok!
If this sounds like too much of a crap shoot for you, I would recommend Thailand or Burma for the holiday, as business there continues much as usual.