One Country Two New Years

One Country Two New Years

We spent over a month in Vietnam book ended by a western New Year celebration in Ho Chi Minh City and lunar New Year celebration in Hanoi.  Both had the trappings of a proper party, large groups of people, live entertainment and of course fireworks.  However, the tone for each was very different, New Years in Ho Chi Minh involved the latest pop stars blasting their hits to screaming on lookers with jumbo screens broadcasting the event in the streets while in Hanoi Tet involved a few local talent acts, lots of families and ancestral altars.  Of course some of the differences are geographical, Ho Chi Minh City is more cosmopolitan than the old world charm of Hanoi, but the holidays are very different as well.

The preparations leading up to Tet are involved, not only because the city shuts down for the festivities, but certain food must be prepared, the house must be cleaned making room for relatives returning home, debts must be paid off, borrowed things returned and gifts presented.  The markets were packed with Tet related items; pigs for luck and prosperity, orange trees for wealth and peach blossoms to signify the coming of Spring.  Anything red or gold is lucky and so the streets were lined with decorations in those colors as well as vendors selling necessary items such as peach blossom trees required in each household during Tet.  The hustle and bustle of preparation made for quite a scene.

The huge crowds of Vietnamese people shopping for Tet decorations from their motorbikes caused quite a traffic jam leading up to Tet.

In preparation for Tet  you could see glowing family alters through the windows of each house to pay homage to their ancestors.  The altars are stocked with fruits and other items to provide for the kitchen god’s journey back to the heavens to report on the events of the family’s previous year.  There is a short ceremony marking this departure where sacrifices are made for the Kitchen God’s to use on their journey, in hopes they will give a good report to the heavens providing for a prosperous new year.  We observed several people burning fake money, which can be bought at the markets, as a part of this ritual.

It is customary to burn fake money as a sacrifice to the Kitchen Gods for their journey back to the heavens to report on the family's last year.

Once Tet arrived streets were empty as the first day of the lunar new year is reserved for close family.  Children wear their new clothes and give traditional Tet greetings to their elders, in response children are given red envelopes with lucky money.  The most auspicious moment of the lunar new year is receiving your first visitor as many Vietnamese believe that the first visitor determines the family’s fortune for the coming year.  Therefore you never visit someone on the first day of Tet unless you are invited, in fact some particularly superstitious people leave their house and return right at midnight to ensure they are the first to pass through their threshold in the new year.  By doing this they can be certain that no one else passes through the doorway first that might bring bad luck in the coming year.   After the first day of Tet the second is typically reserve for friends and the third for teachers as they are highly respected in Vietnam.

Red envelopes that are given to children by their elders with lucky money inside.

Local Buddhist temples are popular spots during Tet as I realized on a trip to the Temple of Literature, which was busier than the overcrowded markets before Tet.  People like to give donations and have their fortunes read during Tet.  The long lines for fortunes made me believe that the Temple of Literature may actually  be giving away free iphones.  Entire families waiting to find what the new year held for them as well as young couples hoping for good news such as a new child watched intently as their fortune was written for them.

A street lined with fortune tellers at the Temple of Literature during Tet.

Watching the traditions of Tet unfold in the streets of Hanoi was a special treat, the busy markets in preparation, empty streets during Tet and then the promising fortunes being told post-Tet were all exciting and foreign for me.  We didn’t get an opportunity to participate in Tet traditons with a local family, but were able to observe this auspicious holiday from a distance.

Unlike New Years in the States, Tet is about reflecting on the year gone by and spending time with family and friends.  With the entire capital city of Hanoi shut down for Tet the usually busy streets were vacant.  Walking down the eerily empty streets of the old quarter I found myself in the same reflective mood as the locals.  Hoping for good fortune in our coming travels and reminiscing on our incredible fortune to be able to take this trip to witness these celebrations foreign to us.  I have a feeling that the year of the cat is going to be a good one.


Be aware that Tet is not an exciting holiday for foreigners and much of the preparaton, celebration and post-Tet activities happen in the home.  So, if you have the opportunity to stay with a local family this could be a very special experience.  Otherwise you might just find Tet to be an inconvenience.  The following tips will help to make the experience more fun and less stressful:

  1. Book transportation well in advance before, during and after Tet.  It can be very difficult to get bus or train tickets around Tet as many Vietnamese are traveling back home.  If you need a taxi during Tet also plan ahead, for example if you need to get the airport arrange ahead of time rather than relying on getting one on the street.
  2. Stock up on food as most things will be closed during Tet.
  3. Don’t be shy about asking questions at markets and other places, locals are happy to answer your inquiries and give you some insight into this holiday.
  4. Bring your camera to the markets and celebrations in the streets to capture the commotion.
  5. Stay in a centrally located hotel so that you can get items if needed as more stores are closed on the outskirts of town.  You also want to be close to the action where the entertainment stages are in the Old Quarter and near Hoan Kiem Lake where the fireworks are if you are  in Hanoi.
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» dad :
Feb 18, 2011

good for you once again, to live and report the life of the locals……celebrating and learning diversity is critical to future world harmony….very little here in states, as we are experiencing a union uprising in Madison with 1,000’s of public employees and teachers storming the capitol…nick is right in the middle of it with his apartment 1 block away….off for weekend with the boys….be safe……love you dad

» Tim Morrison :
Feb 19, 2011

Hey – speaking of new year’s celebrations…I say we meet up for Chinese New Year’s in Hong Kong next year…its supposed to be a good time. Plus I am going to be in australia and new zealand around the same time you guys are…Jan 2012!! :-)

» Mom A :
Feb 20, 2011

The year of the cat is said to be stress free! I think you both will have a very good year of travels!

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About the Author

LOCAVORista: A curious adventurer exploring the culinary delights and local traditions around the world. Currently on a 3 year round-the-world trip discovering amazing cultures, must-eats and off-the-beaten-track destinations.

About the Author
LOCAVORista: A curious adventurer exploring the culinary delights and local traditions around the world. Currently on a 3 year round-the-world trip discovering amazing cultures, must-eats and off-the-beaten-track destinations.


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