Lunar New Year or Tết Nguyên Đán, is Vietnam’s most important celebration. Throughout Vietnam, families gather during this time and honor their ancestors, praying for good luck, prosperity and health in the new year. The holiday may only last a week, but in reality Tết celebrations last much longer.
If you visit Vietnam around the Lunar New Year, here’s what to expect.
A new beginning
Tết marks the first day of the Lunar New Year and the beginning of spring in northern Vietnam. The holiday dates back to the early days of Vietnamese settlement in the Red River Delta, when Tết marked a new cycle of wet rice cultivation. Today, the meaning of the holiday goes much deeper than its agricultural roots: Vietnamese culture emphasizes the importance of an accidental fresh start, surrounded by family and loved ones.
Across Vietnam, preparations for Tết begin weeks in advance, as cleaning, decorating, and redecorating is a big part of the holiday tradition. Vietnamese buy new clothes, get haircuts, cook special dishes, buy flowers and even wash their motorcycles. Every home and office will be decorated with signs of ‘Chúc Mừng Năm Mới’, and kumquat trees or peach blossoms will be placed in a place of honor. The bigger the kumquat trees, the more prosperity and health the family will receive in the new year. Streets burst with color as these trees are transported on the back of motorcycles. In anticipation of the long holiday, there is a festive mood in the country.
TIP: Tết celebrations start three days before the Lunar New Year and last a few days after that. Do not attempt to travel around Vietnam at this time as the transportation hubs will be overcrowded and tickets may sell out. In 2021, the first day of the Lunar New Year is Friday, February 12.
In the days before Tết, markets and streets are packed with shoppers. Busy housewives pick up foil, paper streamers and auspicious red and gold decorations in the form of fish, coins, fireworks and blossoms. Each lunar year is represented by a zodiac animal, as reflected in glossy stickers or on paper lanterns. Locals take home piles of red bao lì xì – lucky money envelopes – which are usually given to younger members of the family by elders or by managers to employees. It is a sign of maturity for young Vietnamese to stop receiving lì xì and start giving it instead.
Food – especially the Tết cake bánh chưng – is an important part of the celebrations. According to folklore, the last Hùng king could not decide which of his sons would ascend the throne, so he held a competition to find out which son could bring him the best dish in the world. One son stood out when he presented these two savory rice cakes representing heaven and earth. These simple dishes impressed the king, who then awarded him the throne. Throughout Vietnam, families will celebrate for a day and present candied fruits in beautiful boxes for guests to enjoy.
TIP: In Hanoi, you can buy bánh chưng at the Quốc Hương Shop on Hàng Bông Street, which has been selling these cakes for 200 years.
A traditional Tết dinner is an important occasion for family members to gather and talk about the past year. Each region has its own version of the meal. In the north, nem (fried spring rolls), bánh chưng (glutinous rice cake) and whole boiled chicken are some essential dishes. A Southern Tết meal includes caramelized pork, bitter melon soup, and chicken salad. Many dishes symbolize the passing of hardships, as well as new hopes for the new year.
Tat in Hanoi
A walk through the Quảng Bá flower market at West Lake is unforgettable in the week before Tết. Shoppers bundled up against the cold buy the prettiest pink peach branches they can afford to bring good luck in the new year. Tết Eve is best seen in the alleys of the Old Quarter, where hundreds of makeshift altars appear on the curbs, encrusted with offerings of fruit and boiled chicken.
TIP: On Tết Eve (February 11, 2021), major cities in Vietnam will set off fireworks, so find a spot outside and watch the sky light up at midnight.
Tết in Ho Chi Minh City
In the South, yellow ochna flowers represent the Lunar New Year. Tết in Hồ Chí Minh City is no less colorful than in the north. Nguyễn Huệ Street in District 1 hosts the largest flower show in the country. Join the crowds – families in new clothes and young women in áo dàis wielding selfie sticks – to admire the impressive display of flowers.
Tết tips for travelers
- People from all over the country will return to their hometowns for the Tết holiday, creating a high demand for bus, train and plane tickets as well as hotel rooms. If you need to travel during this time, try to book transport and accommodation well in advance.
- With many staff going home, businesses and restaurants usually close for the first few days of Tết. Expect the towns to be quiet during this time, as well as limited dining and shopping options.
- The first few days of Tết are a rare opportunity to see Vietnam’s major cities empty of noise and traffic. Take advantage of the tranquility and discover by bike, scooter or on foot.
- You can be invited to a family’s house for Tết, which is a great honor. During Tết, it is important not to pass by a Vietnamese house without an invitation, as the first guests of the year are specially chosen to bring good luck to every household.
- Warm wishes are much appreciated around and during Tết. On the first days of the new year, smile and say “Chúc Mừng Năm Mới” (Happy New Year) to everyone you see!