Our Expert Guide to Travelling in Vietnam During Tết Holiday
If you plan on travelling during Tết you need to be prepared as it will have a major impact on your trip – this guide has all the info you need to know!
*Updated for 2019!*
If there’s one thing we learned from a year living in Vietnam it’s that Tết is a pretty confusing holiday. Ask other travellers what the celebration is for and they’re unlikely to know. Ask some of the locals and they’ll likely struggle to explain it too. Even with its mysterious reputation Tết is a seriously big deal, it’s like Christmas and New Year’s all crammed into two weeks of family, tradition and culture.
Despite the celebration being incredibly important, and it having huge impacts for travellers, finding reliable information is surprisingly hard – we learned first-hand. We didn’t know what to expect and definitely didn’t know how to plan the two week period. Local friends weren’t very helpful and all we could gather is that some things would be very busy and others 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 Tết travel guide you’ll find;
- Tết… what is it, when is it and where is it celebrated
- The holiday build up
- Holiday traditions and customs
- The Vietnamese and Tết
- What to expect whilst travelling
- Tips for travelling in Vietnam during Tết
Tết… what is it, when is it and where is it celebrated?
These are all things that took a long time to figure out. Many locals will just say ‘it’s a holiday…’ which is right but there’s a whole lot more to it than that.
In short Tết is the Vietnamese welcoming of the the new year celebrated throughout the country.
Traditionally it was a time to show respect for family and ancestors, past and present, and also to have a break between agricultural seasons. It’s a very spiritual holiday, when people finish the current year’s 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 but is generally from mid January to mid February. This year (2019) it’s on February 5th and the official national holiday runs for about a week afterwards. This link has scheduled dates for the coming years. Also, to those of you interested in the zodiac we’ll be moving into the year of the pig .
Despite there being only 5 days of official holiday everyone is in party mode for at least a week before and after. This makes visiting Vietnam during Tết a whole different experience to other times of the year. When we were there in 2017 the Vietnamese New Year’s Day was January 28th however the whole country began to slowly shut down from Christmas onward.
And, although Tết is officially the first day of the lunar year, the word Tết is also used to describe the whole celebratory period.
Visiting Vietnam? You’ll probably need a visa… here’s our step-by-step visa guide!
The holiday build up
Though the actual holiday is famously relaxing the weeks before are completely different – Vietnam goes into overdrive!
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 are set up showing free entertainment, music and karaoke.
Most shops and businesses close for 2 weeks over the holiday so before everyone is in a mad panic to buy all their necessities. Markets and shopping areas will be carnage. If you’re a fan of hustle and bustle then this can be quite an exciting experience, If you’re a country bumpkin who likes the slower pace of life then prepare to have a heart attack.
Whilst the build up to Tết can be very manic, the days following are blissfully serene.
When the holiday begins cities empty and families return to hometowns to spend time with relatives, friends and neighbours, feasting and celebrating together. The streets will be empty and in Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City that’s really saying something. You can walk the city in peace though they have a very different feel without all of the beeping horns and scooter dodging.
Want to know more about travelling in Vietnam?
Some interesting Tết traditions and customs
Whilst Christmas and New Year may have moved away from their religious roots in the West, Tết has kept true to its history and the holiday period is filled with culture and tradition. There’s a very obvious emphasis on tying up all loose ends from the previous year and starting the new year in the best way possible. It’s quite a magical time filled with superstition, fortune and history.
Before Tết people clean their homes to get rid of bad luck, make sure they’ve paid off all of their debts and resolve any outstanding arguments. People, especially children, will get 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 symbolic meaning in Vietnamese culture, are put in homes and businesses, again with the hope of bringing good wishes for the year to come. You’ll see them all over the country either being displayed or being bought and sold from markets.
You’ll also see plenty of trays containing 5 fruits being taken to shrines and temples. The fruits vary regionally but all symbolise elements for a positive year. Many people wear 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 travellers, Hanoi is a surprisingly good place for vegans and in many veggie restaurants or shops it’s possible to buy a meat-free alternative which is absolutely delicious!
The Vietnamese and Tết
Generally people try to smile and be friendly to others as they believe what they do on New Year’s Eve will determine their fate for the rest of the year. It’s also normal to refrain from sweeping or cutting nails and hair as to not get rid of good luck.
Typically the first day of the new year is spent with immediate family, the second for visiting friends and the third for visiting temples. Temples will be filled to the brim with locals giving prayers and offerings to bring good wishes for their loved ones. It’s also a great time for kids as they’re often given gifts and ‘lucky money’ in red envelopes!
The first person to enter your home in the new year also has huge significance and is thought to 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.
One of the best ways you can 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 that shouldn’t be passed up!
What to expect travelling in Vietnam during Tết
Travelling at this time of year will have a huge impact on your travels, so you need to plan accordingly. 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.
These are some of the most important areas you need to think about…
Transport during Tết
There will be a mass exodus of people leaving cities just before Tết so roads will be like clogged arteries. Short journeys can take all day and longer journeys should perhaps be avoided unless you like sleeping on the road. Routes coming away from big cities like HCMC or Hanoi will be particularly rammed.
Many Vietnamese will use public transport so it means you’ll need to book all transport tickets far in advance.
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 big price increases. If you have a flight to catch then make plan 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 (if they’re running at all). 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 gradually rather than the whole country at once. Smaller transport companies will slowly get back to regular schedules but it will take at least a week before it’s completely back to normal.
Transport from travel agencies is often more expensive and may not be any more 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 bigger price tag.
Transport tips during Tết
- Try to avoid long-distance travel in the week building up to Tết
- If you do travel at this point make sure you book your tickets at least 1 month in advance
- Bring a book to pass the time
- 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
Accommodation during Tết
Many tourists are put off travelling Vietnam during during Tết which means 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’ve had so few customers. 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 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.
For accommodation at this time of year your best places to search are Hostel World for cheaper options, Booking.com for a range of budgets and Airbnb for guest houses and home stays (you can save £35 off your first booking with this code!).
Accommodation tips during Tết
- Aim to stay in more developed areas for a wider variety of accommodation options
- Family-run hostels and guesthouses are less likely to 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
- If you can stay in smaller guest houses it will be a good way of experiencing cultural celebrations
Shopping during Tết
In the week leading up to Tết shops and markets are swarming with people trying to get their shopping before the holiday. In touristy areas some shops stay open however it’s 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 – haggling should be avoided 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 trying to negotiate a cheaper price.
Shopping tips during Tết
- 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
- DON’T HAGGLE, it’s seen as disrespectful
- Be prepared to walk to find an open shop
Eating and drinking during Tết
If you’re wanting a culinary tour of Vietnam this may not be the ideal time. Outside of cities and touristy 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 you’ll still see quite a lively atmosphere. Some bars, restaurants and cafes will remain open and this can be a good time to meet some locals and learn a bit about the
Eating and drinking tips during Tết
- 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
- Be respectful of the local culture if you’re drinking
- If you do find a good place to eat then fill up cos you might not find another
Sightseeing during Tết
Museums, galleries and mausoleums will be closed for the national holiday so they’re out of the question. This can be a great time of year to explore the free activities in Vietnam and marvel at the empty streets.
Temples will be the only part of cities that remain busy as most locals visit them throughout the holiday. 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.
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 filled with local families, as will popular beaches close to cities.
Sightseeing tips during Tết
- Definitely go to visit temples to see local culture
- ATMs will be working but 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 for after the holidays
Whilst it is an incredible country there is a lot of corruption and bribery in Vietnam which unfortunately tends to increase around Tết. This period is expensive for everyone, so everyone wants to take home as much money as possible before the holiday period. Officials, and police in particular, are much more likely to strengthen their money making schemes. Watch out for traffic police!
This is also the time where drink driving is at it’s peak, so be vigilant on the roads!
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 after the new year…
A Vagabond’s Guide to Travelling in Vietnam During Tết
This is without a 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 in Vietnam 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!
If you’ve been to Vietnam during Tết or have any questions then drop us a line in the comments below!