Are you in Vietnam at the moment or travelling there soon?
Did you know that the mahoosive Vietnamese holiday, Tết, is on February the 16th 2018?
Travelling during holidays or cultural events can have a major impact on your plans and this will certainly be the case for Tết. For this reason we’ve put together a Vagabond’s guide to travelling in Vietnam during Tết to keep you in the know during your adventures!
If there’s one thing we learnt from a year in Vietnam, it’s that there’s a lot of confusion from travellers regarding Tết. It’s a pretty huge deal, it’s like Christmas and New Year’s all crammed into two weeks of family, tradition and culture. Despite the importance of the event reliable information was very hard to find. We really didn’t really know what to expect. Local friends weren’t very helpful and all we could gather is that some things would be very busy and some things would be very quiet…
It’s safe to say we survived, had a bloody brilliant time and have come out with all the information you need to adventure with confidence. In this Vagabond’s guide to travelling in Vietnam during Tết you’ll find out;
What is Tết and why it’s so important
When it is and where it’s celebrated
The traditions and customs of the holiday
What to expect whilst travelling
Tips for travelling in Vietnam during Tết
Tết? What is it, When is it, Where is it?
These are all things that took a long time to figure out. When asking local friends most would respond with ‘it’s a holiday…’. After asking more and more questions we eventually go to the bottom of it.
In short Tết is the Vietnamese celebration to welcome in the new year. Traditionally it was used as a time to show respect for family and ancestors and also to have a break between agricultural seasons. It’s a very spiritual holiday, a time to finish off the current years business and start the new year with good fortune and happiness.
This New Year ain’t January 1st though, it changes every year and goes by the lunar calendar (generally from mid January to mid February). This year (2018) Tet is on February 16th and the official national holiday runs from the 15th until the 20th of February. We’ll be moving into the year of the dog for those of you interested in the zodiac.
Despite there being only 5 days of official holiday, everyone is in party mode for at least a week before and after. In 2017 New Years Day was January 28th however the whole country began to slowly shut down from Christmas onward. Although Tết is officially the first day of the lunar year, the word Tet is also used to describe the whole celebratory period.
So What Actually Goes On?
Whilst Christmas and New Year in the West have moved away from their religious routes, Tết has kept true to it’s history and the holiday period is filled with many traditions and customs. There’s a very obvious emphasis on tying up all loose ends from the current year and starting the next year in the best way possible. It’s a magical time filled with superstition, fortune and history.
Before Tết people clean their homes to get rid of bad luck and make sure they’ve paid all of their debts and resolved any outstanding arguments. People, especially children, will buy new clothes to wear on the first day of the year and homes and streets are brightly decorated. Kumquat trees and peach blossoms, both with important symbolisation’s in Vietnamese culture, are put in homes and businesses again with the hope of bringing good wishes for the year to come.
Trays containing 5 fruits are taken to shrines and temples – the fruits vary regionally but all symbolise elements for a positive year. You’ll also see a lot of people wearing red, similar to other Asian countries, as it’s believed the colour brings good luck.One of our favourite aspects of Tết is Banh chung, or Tet cake – a green leaf wrapped square that you’re sure to see being bought and sold everywhere. It’s traditionally made together by the family and contains glutinous rice, mung beans and pork. To all you Veggie Vagabonds, in many veggie restaurants or shops it’s possible to buy a meat-free alternative which is absolutely delicious!
What Do the Vietnamese Do?
People will generally try to smile and be nice, as they believe that what they do on New Year’s Eve will determine their fate for the rest of the year. Cities empty as families return to their hometowns to spend time with relatives, friends and neighbours. Typically the first day of the year is spent with immediate family, the second for visiting friends and the third for temples. The temples will be filled with families giving prayers and offerings to bring good wishes. It’s also a great time for kids as they’re often given gifts and ‘lucky money’ in a red envelopes.
Although you may not notice all of them, Tết is filled with fascinating holiday customs. At the start of the year people refrain from sweeping or cutting their nails and hair as to not get rid of good luck. Also the first person to enter a home in the new year has huge significance as it is again thought they bring either good or bad luck. Generally the head of the house or someone successful is the first person to be invited in after midnight in the hope of bringing a prosperous year.
What Should I Expect?
Much like Christmas and New Year, even if you’re not celebrating Tết it will definitely affect your travels. Many shops and businesses shut so the weeks leading up can be incredibly busy. People are in a mad panic to get all their holiday necessities and to say markets and shopping areas will be busy is an understatement. People traditionally are friendlier and optimistic at this time, however, are people always happy when they’re doing Christmas shopping? If you’re a fan of hustle and bustle then this can be quite an experience. If you’re a country bumpkin who likes the slower pace of life you’re likely to have a heart attack.
You’ll see people celebrating in the streets, perhaps throwing firecrackers and definitely burning sheets of lucky paper for their ancestors. The party atmosphere is easy to feel and in bigger cities public stages will be set up showing free entertainment, music and karaoke. Drink driving is at it’s peak, so be vigilant on the roads and also be extra wary of police. At this time of year the ‘under the table’ culture in Vietnam goes into overdrive and lots of traffic police will want all the Dong they can get.
Visiting temples at this time of year is a similar situations to markets. They will be very busy. If you’re looking for a relaxed meditative atmosphere then this is not the time to come. If you want to see real Vietnamese culture and families paying their respects to gods and ancestors then you could temple hop for days.
Whilst the build up to Tết can be very manic, the days following are blissfully serene. This is definitely a family event and most Vietnamese will be at home feasting and celebrating together. The streets will be as empty as you’re ever likely to see them. In Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City that’s really saying something. You can walk along the streets in peace, however Hanoi without beeping and surging traffic is like England without rain. It can be a pain in the arse but it won’t seem the same without it.
One of the best way to experience Tet is with a local family. This may be difficult if you’re not spending much time in the country but if you get the chance to meet and bond with locals they may invite you to celebrate with them. This will be an incredible opportunity to experience the culture and hospitality and shouldn’t be passed up.
Is it Going to Affect my Travelling?
If there’s one thing that’s for certain it’s that Tết will definitely affect your travels. It’s huge and happens across the whole country. Businesses will shut, attractions will close and everyone will be on the move either to their hometowns or on holiday. Whilst Tết is not necessarily a bad time of year to visit Vietnam, it’s important to know what you’re going up against.
This is probably going to be one of the biggest hindrances. As mentioned, there will be a mass exodus of people leaving cities and in the week leading up to Tet roads will be like clogged arteries. Short journeys can take all day and longer journeys are perhaps to be avoided unless you like sleeping on the road. Routes coming out of bigger cities and heading North or South from HCMC or Hanoi will be particularly rammed.
Many Vietnamese will use public transport so if you’re planning on travelling during this time then you have a lot of competition. Buses, planes and trains will be booked long before the holiday so make sure you’re organised and book your tickets early. Being so busy, expect delays on all forms of transport and a nice increase in price. If you’re flying at this time of year, make sure you give yourself ample time to get to the airport because there will be traffic!
Once Tết arrives, transport will be available but limited. It won’t be busy as most Vietnamese are tucked up at home with their families but expect high prices and unreliable times and schedules. At the best of times Vietnamese transport can be erratic so contact companies before and don’t be surprised if they make up the price in front of you.
After Tết traffic is not so bad as people will return to the cities bit by bit rather than the whole country at once. Smaller transport companies will slowly get back to schedule but it will take at least a week before it gets completely back to normal.
Transport from travel agencies may be more expensive however it might not be anymore reliable than cheaper alternatives. It’s quite common for travel agents to charge double the price and simply buy regular public transport tickets. You’ll get dropped off at the station and end up getting the same bus as everyone else but for a whopping price tag.
Try to avoid long distance travel in the week building up to Tết
If you DO travel just before Tết make sure you book your tickets at least 1 month in advance
Bring a book
If you’re travelling to the airport give yourself a lot of time
Be prepared for delays and increased prices
Make sure you contact the travel company before travel
For larger accommodation you’ll be spoilt for choice. Many tourists are put off by travelling during the holiday and for mid range accommodation you’ll have plenty of options. You won’t need to book in advance and we’ve even heard of some hotels dropping prices as they have so few customers. We also know that other hotels increase their prices due to the holiday so it’s best to take a look online and see what the best deals are.
In smaller, rural locations it may be more difficult to find accommodation during the holiday period. Family run guest houses will quite likely close so make sure you check online to see. If you do find a small guest house which is still open there’s a good chance you’ll be invited to the families celebrations which will be an incredible experience.
Aim to stay in more developed areas for a wider variety of accommodation options
Smaller hostels and guesthouses are less likely to be stay open during Tết
Hotel prices can vary but will generally be under booked and easy to find
Find somewhere with self catering so you can cook for yourself and avoid hunting for restaurants
Staying in a smaller guest houses will be a good way of experiencing cultural celebrations
In the week leading up to Tết shops and markets are like swarming wasp nests, with everyone trying to get their shopping before the holiday. In touristy areas some shops stay open however they’re few and far between. If you’re staying outside of cities or well travelled spots then you may struggle.
Although markets and shops used to be closed for almost a week now it’s only likely to be the first few days of the new year. A word of warning that haggling should be done with caution during this period. The Vietnamese believe it’s a bad way to start the year, so if you don’t like the price of something it’s better to walk away than going into business mode.
Shops will be busy building up to Tết
Shops may shut or have little stock
Stock up on water and necessities if you’re going to be in more rural locations
Be prepared to walk to find an open shop
Restaurants, cafes and bars
If you’re wanting a culinary tour of Vietnam, then this may not be the ideal time. Outside of busy tourist areas most restaurants will close over the holiday as families will eat together at home. In the last few years you could almost forget it’s a holiday in areas of Hanoi and HCMC and there’s quite a lively atmosphere. Although not all, bars, restaurants and cafes will remain open this can be a good time to meet some locals and learn a bit about the
Expect higher prices, limited options and fewer places open
If places are open, they’ll be in holiday mode, so go with a relaxed attitude
Embrace the holiday and if you see locals drinking and eating ask if you can join them
If you’re going on the booze cruise then be respectful of the local culture
If you do find a good place to eat then fill up!
Museums, galleries and mausoleums will be closed for the national holiday days so they’re out of the question. This can be a great time of year to explore the free activities in a city and marvel at the empty streets. You can wander the streets, parks and temples and it’s an awesome time to take photos. Temples, however, will be the only part of cities that remain very busy as most locals will visit them throughout the holiday. Most National Parks will still be open (or just not physically able to close) but it’s a good idea to call and check before. Popular destinations like Hoi An will be busy with local families, as will popular beaches close to cities so are to be avoided if you like peace and quiet.
DEFINITELY go to visit temples to see local culture
Although ATM will be open, banks will be closed for the national holiday
take advantage of the quiet streets and explore the city or go for a run/cycle
Have an adventure in empty national parks
Save museums, galleries and mausoleums
Our Most Important Tip!
Learn this phrase and say it when you meet or say goodbye to people;
chúc mừng năm mới
It’s the Vietnamese phrase to say ‘happy new year’ and it’s sure to put a smile on any locals face. We were still saying it a month into the new year…
A Vagabond’s Guide to Travelling in Vietnam During Tết
This is without doubt an incredibly special time in the Vietnamese calendar and can make for memorable and unique travel experiences. To watch fields of families paying their respects in temples is truly priceless and exploring deserted cities is a beautiful opportunity. That being said, travelling during Tết can also cause a big headache if you don’t plan ahead. Our words of advice are to go with an open mind and a lot of patience. Respect that this is the most important time of year for the Vietnamese and if you get the opportunity definitely celebrate with them and embrace the holiday.