You thought you could relax with the Western new year celebrations out of the way? Think again. The whole of Vietnam is now warming up for the Tet holidays — noticed all those police stop points and fields full of lucky trees recently? If you’re heading this way February 10 to 14 this year, consider what this will mean for your trip. The whole country will be on a go-slow for at least a week either side; Vietnam becomes gridlocked, garish and glorious and contrary to most traveller stories it is in fact an amazing time to be here. That is, so long as you’re armed with a little knowledge on customs, protocol and a calm smile
Tet road rules
You really shouldn’t be attempting to hit the roads on your motorbike over the Tet holidays without at least five passengers, a handful of live ducks in carrier bags hanging from your handlebars and a four-foot Tet tree in a concrete pot balanced between your thighs if you want to blend in. For the rest of us, abide by the laws of the road, which I think means don’t go through a red light, wear a helmet and make sure your bike has a working horn (obviously), at least one wing mirror and working lights, or be prepared to hand over a fortune in on-the-spot fines.
It’s okay, that’s a lucky tree.
It’s customary for the Vietnamese to work through a whole new wardrobe over the Tet holidays, with splashes of high octane colour and questionable fashion logos ruling. Anything in the funeral colours of black or white are abandoned for lucky red and yellow. And if the Vietnamese news article I read about this year’s luckiest Tet wear (the year of the snake) is right, brightly coloured snake print — slinky and tightfitting to create snake-like silhouettes for the ladies and matching snakeprint ties for the gents — will also be a good choice. If you’re invited to someone’s home during the Tet holiday, stick with the black and white ban for good karma to all.
Tet in Saigon.
One word covers it all here: DON’T! With every bus, train and plane packed with Vietnamese heading home, prices spiral and travel time at least doubles from heavy traffic. The 16-seater air-con minibuses become 40 seaters and hard seat third class on the train is like playing sardines with livestock and end of the world provisions take up every inch of floor space. Even pre-booked flights generally work on the delayed system and fellow local travellers can quite often be first-time flyers, so expect the possibilities of thigh stroking, projectile vomiting, constant texting and even motorbike helmets worn during the flight.
Booking ahead is the way to go here. Generally in big cities and tourist spots high on hotels you’ll find booking sites still have last-minute deals and hotels don’t tend to close. In smaller destinations, especially ones that only have small family-run guesthouses out in the sticks, be prepared for some difficulties. As most of these places are not available to book online, you’d be wise to go through a local booking office before you arrive at your destination and get them to secure your room in advance.
Most tour companies run throughout the Tet holidays but be aware that most sights will be mobbed by local families picnicking. It’s a great time to take off for a daytrip into the smaller villages on a motorbike, when celebrations are in full flow and hospitality is at an all-time high. Just take a reliable bike.
Marble Mountain at Tet.
This is where the fun and confusion starts. On the first day of Tet it’s customary to be lovely whatever is going on around you, as local belief is that your behaviour on these first few days of Tet will bring goodwill, prosperity and luck for the oncoming year. So even when you get a cab at five times the going rate you will be expected to turn that frown upside down.
Happy New Year by Abba. You will hear this at least frequently enough to know all the words by the end of January. By Tet you will be self-medicating to stop the song from going round and round in your head even in the few minutes it is not being played.
Almost every Vietnamese business will close for Tet (even if just for a day), as the business owner will go to the pagoda and seek advice from a fortune-telling monk on a lucky day and time to reopen a brand new (the same) shop where they will hold a ceremony for their ancestors at an altar and offer gifts to the gods on an elaborate table in the shop’s entrance, while burning incense. If you enter a shop over Tet the protocol is to buy something, no matter how small, as if you don’t this brings very bad luck to the shop. Remember to smile as you buy that fabulous lacquered pig at three times the non-Tet price.
Hoi An… nobody does Tet better.
Best place for Tet celebrations
Hoi An! It’s a huge lantern festival of fun and frolics and one of the top destinations during the Tet holidays for the Vietnamese. It’s crazy, fun and brilliantly confusing (if you don’t like crowds though, forget it). Da Lat would be the next best, while cities Hanoi, Saigon and Da Nang are tops for parties; if you want an off the beaten path Tet travelling challenge, head for the provinces.
Tet treats. Try everything you may never get the opportunity again!
There are simply too many Tet treats to mention. Markets close, restaurants work on limited menus or shut up shop altogether, but the real beauty of Tet is the street food: suddenly every square inch of pavement is crammed to overflowing with stalls and plastic stools rammed with raucous locals celebrating. If there ever was a time to mingle with the locals and go away with a warm feeling inside (that will of course be the rice wine), it’s over Tet.