Are you ready for Tet in Vietnam yet?


Unless you’re in solitary confinement, you know Tet is coming. Yes, folks, it’s that time of the year for giant sound systems, end of year parties, shopping madness and babies hanging off the front of motorbikes in the cutest brand new clothes mum could find.

Tet, the Vietnamese New Year, begins on the 16th of February (Western calendar) 2018. It’s both one of my favorite times of the year and frequently the most stressful. The shops are jammed full of locals stocking up on food, gifts and offerings for the celebrations that occur over the four official days of Tet. Please note that stocks of little red envelopes for the lucky money run out pretty quick too.

If you’re part of the non-75% complaining expat crowd, Tet is a fun time to be around. Lots of party invites, unless you’re Daniel Hauer and off the A-list. And with many Vietnamese out of town, it’s a rather quiet time. 

As I’ve mentioned recently in other articles, you need to plan for the biggest national holiday of the year. ATMs run out of money and are sometimes not re-stocked for a few days.  Banks and plenty of expat and local businesses shut and half the population head back to their hometowns to spend time with relatives and take a break from the relentless pace of life in Vietnam.

It’s surprising just how much goes on at this time of year.  Flowers and fruit trees, cherry blossom branches and other deco items fly out the door. 

Homes get the spring clean early as part of the ‘kitchen gods’ ceremony (the gods tell heaven that you’ve been good) as a way of getting rid of bad luck from the last year – and Household ancestral shrines are decorated with five kinds of fruit – a wish for prosperity. Then they have the kitchen ceremony, this year on the 8th of February, so don’t be surprised if the landlord suddenly turns up and sets up a little table in front of the house with food and decorated paper.

Every female young or old is stuck in a kitchen whipping up yummies for the family and visitors over the TET holiday while the unhelpful men sit outside drinking with their mates. 

I’m sure you’ve noticed the kids are trotting around in brand new clothes, particularly the littlies done up to the max in over-the-top ‘cuteness’ fashions. The lucky ones already got their new bikes or smartphones.  Teenage cafes that sell juices and sweet foods do a roaring trade as the customers flash their new status symbols at the kids with stricter parents!

For children, it’s that time to re-stock, literally, a years’ worth of clothes, as they’ll receive ‘lucky money’ (red envelope, don’t forget!) on top of the presents and becomes a world of embarrassment if mum and dad decide to spend the money on education or something for the house.

The gap between the well-off urban youth and the rural kids is fairly noticeable too. Urbanites get books, toys, clothes and phones. Rural youngsters get new shoes, donated school supplies and warm outdoor jackets.  Sometimes TET shows up inequality as well as joy.

For the adults, it does get a little stranger.  If you have the chance, it’s quite fascinating to walk around the markets selling stuff for TET.  Apart from the usual sparkly gold and red banners, posters and golden Buddha’s – go and check out the ‘votive paper’ shops. 

These are paper items burned to remember dead relatives but also, depending the occasion, festival or celebration, to bring luck to the living. The paper items are considered gifts for ancestors too.  So it’s not surprising to see paper ‘luxury’ items such motorbikes, cars, household electrical appliances mixed in with the more traditional animal and household shrine items. The jury is still out about burning luxury goodies with some locals claiming it degrades the deeper meaning of the rituals.

Rivalry in displays of wealth is likely among the well-to-do.  Better upgrade the SUV; if the neighbor has a bigger TV, update the size of yours and the wife needs a flashier motorbike for pottering around town.

At this point, I’ve only covered a small fraction of what goes on.  In the next article, I’ll talk a bit about suitable gifts, visiting during the TET break (there are rules) and non-related things…just for the heck of it.

Remember, TET is fun so don’t get stressed. Although I recommend beer and nice uncrowded beaches at this time, you can do singing bowl yoga meditation if you wish!  Made your gift list yet?

And…TET marks the start of spring! Yay!