Tet: The Craziness of Lunar New Year in Vietnam

In the weeks leading up to Vietnam’s lunar new year, Tet, Ho Chi Minh City underwent a gradual transformation. At first I only noticed it as a feeling, an additional layer of frenzy that was not manifested in the streets, but in the air around me. People walked a bit faster, their smiles slightly strained and their thoughts turned inward, visible even to a new visitor like me. After a few days of this palpable change in the air, the streets of the city got even busier than usual, and more impatient. The new normal was a customary chaos coupled with an undercurrent of impatience rarely seen in HCMC.

While the city is fast-paced and extraordinarily fluid, just under that layer it often feels the opposite, with people taking time to eat with friends or stroll around the many parks that dot the grid of the city. But as the Year of the Snake approached, a pre-Tet madness shifted the aura of frenzy to a peak, a harder edge to everyone’s movements and glances. In my months in Vietnam I also hadn’t witnessed one motorbike accident, but in the weeks leading up to the new year, I saw four separate collisions, each followed by a screaming match and, in one case, an angry swing of a motorcycle helmet at the other man’s head.

Tet decorations

Tet decorations in an alley near my apartment.

As the streets got more busy, the maze of traffic multiplying in speed and frenzy, the energy shifted once more. Small roadside stands selling red envelopes embossed with gold snakes popped up at almost every street corner, and the family-owned shops around town stocked red bags, red envelopes and boxes of Danish cookies and other delicacies.[1]  Wooden baskets with wine, cookies and other treats were wrapped in cellophane and displayed with their prices at shops big and small, and banners popped up around town boasting pre-Tet sales. I started seeing motorbikes with those big baskets strapped on the back or clutched between the driver’s arms, shuttling new year gifts around town.

Banh Tet for sale on the streets of SAigon

Banh Tet for sale on the streets of HCMC.

New Year Cards Tet

New year cards in shops around town.

firecrackers for sale for tet

Firecrackers for sale for Tet

Next up was the renewals and home improvements on shopfronts, houses and restaurants. My Vietnamese friends insisted that everyone needed to try and fully clean their places before new year’s eve, including any repairs that needed to be made. In addition, all debts should be paid off to the extent possible. [2]  The aim being, of course, to welcome in the new year with as clean a slate as you can, to fully embrace the newness of the animal that guides it. Almost every storefront near my alleyway began to rip down its signage or paint its walls. The pho shop down the street had a giant banner delivered to replace their faded yellow sign, installed a week before Tet began.

As the cleaning and improvements went on, about three days before Tet kumquat trees appeared on the backs of motorbikes everywhere, a dutiful delivery of good fortune to families around town. I will never tire of the memory, smiling at the image of motorbike after motorbike, each with a huge, unwieldy tree perched precariously on the seat and tied in with bungee cords and twine. It’s customary to carry everything from fridges to animals to giant boxes of produce by motorbike but seeing the trees on the back (and so frequently too) raised the spectacle to the absurd for me, in the best possible way. [3]

Tet tree

Tet tree at Lado Cafe, Binh Tanh District

To feed the demand for blooms and trees,  pop-up flower markets started to appear around town. Extremely popular picks were those of red or yellow, colours of the new year. Cockscomb celosia, my favourite flower, featured prominently. I had no idea that it was a popular choice for the new year, but I was thrilled to stop around town and squee; carpets of the flowers were installed near Notre-Dame cathedral, and the cafes near my house all had a smaller version of the flower outside for Tet. Downtown, Nguyen Du shut out traffic and the city began to weave together a huge flower display, a snake moulded out of branches; happy new year spelled out in yellow blooms.

In my house, my landlady came home with a huge kumquat tree, an orchid tree and more, flowers taking over the small living room area downstairs. Chairs were moved out of the way, the home’s entrance rearranged for the new plants. Red lanterns were hung in the gated motorbike parking area and a large Vietnamese flag was installed just outside my room. Every day I’d come home to a newfound something – a gift basket, a box of cookies, flowers – on the living room table.

Vietnam flag outside my apartment

Vietnam flag outside my apartment.

I already felt that I was accepted into this family despite merely being a tenant in their building. Every time I would return home during the day, the grandfather of the house would ask me in Vietnamese about my meals. I showed him photos from this site, of the food from around the world and the things I had tried in Hanoi and the fabulous tamarind crab in Mui Ne. He began to try and feed me in the evenings, gesturing that I should join at the table with the rest of my landlady’s husband’s family. (In keeping with Vietnamese tradition, the woman usually moves in with the husband’s family, and since my landlord is the eldest in his family, that means living with his parents too.) My landlady herself was a pleasure, the only one of the group to speak English (and she speaks quite well!), answering my food questions patiently and smiling indulgently as I waxed poetic about a crab soup or streetside snack. Thus, I wanted to do something for the family for Tet – but it begged the question: what was appropriate? And would they think I was slightly insane for participating?

Luckily for me, I started to think about this while visiting my friend Cameron and his family in Hanoi, and they provided me with some guidance for gifts: small red envelopes with money for the kids, a small red envelope with money for my cleaning lady and a gift of sweets and wine for my landlady and her husband. I recruited James from Nomadic Notes (who also rents an apartment in the same building) to join my Tet-funsies and we set off one morning to procure our gifts for the family, stopping in the lobby of the grocery store to take an on-the-ground shot of our purchases, happy as we were to have added flowers and found envelopes perfect for welcoming the year of the Snake. The security guard outside the building thought we were absolutely nuts, two foreigners sprawled facedown on the marble floor, taking photos of Tet gifts.

Tet presents

Tet presents from the weird foreigners in Apartments 3 and 4 ;)

We presented the flowers to our landlady first, her jaw dropping as the grandma of the house cackled uncontrollably. “The crazies upstairs got us Tet gifts – imagine that!” was the most literal of translations. We handed over the basket and the envelopes for her kids. She was a bit flabbergasted; apparently no tenants had given her Tet gifts before. It made sense, we told her, as she had accepted us and adopted us into the house more as family than paying guests, so the least we could do was contribute as a family member would. Plus, it was fun to participate in the Tet rush.

As Tet loomed, I wandered downstairs to my landlady to ask if she’d be comfortable with my learning about the food from her and her family. Beaming, she invited me to help make banh chung and banh Tet, a steamed sticky rice cake wrapped in banana leaves. The difference between the two is shape: banh chung is a square shape, and banh Tet a long, heavy log of sticky rice. She also asked James and I to join for the big festivities, as the family was celebrating not only the new year, but also the one-month anniversary of the newest member of their family. In Vietnamese tradition, the one month event was a huge one, the baby paraded around for the whole extended family to see, and a pig was to be killed in his honour. Given the proximity to Tet, the family held the festivities together and a few days before the actual new year I was ordered to come downstairs for the killing of the pig (right in the middle of my alleyway in central Saigon, no less!) and then to return later for a feast of epic proportions.

Grandpa with my house's newest addition

Grandpa with the newest member of the family.

For the big dinner, the remaining furniture was dragged out of the living room and tables set up in the small courtyard that normally served as a motorcycle parking lot. The lobby of the building was packed with rented tables and pink tableclothes; the pig was roasted in the alleyway right outside. At least 50 people were stuffed into this tiny space, drinking copious amounts of beer and whiskey, yelling over each other’s drunken revelry. [4] 

The dinner began with salads – pig’s ears, shrimp and bamboo – and progressed to the cooked pig meat (made in the “fake dogmeat” style, as though it were dog but instead made from pig), to cooked shrimp, to hotpot and bun noodles. Fresh fruit was served for dessert, as is the Vietnamese way. The kids’ table in the corner was different from the one where I grew up; instead of playing games to entertain themselves, they were too busy fixing up the hotpot to boil up their eats. Food is taken quite seriously, regardless of age.

Roasted pig with herbs and mushrooms

Roasted pig with herbs and mushrooms

Shrimp

Shrimp as the next course.

Shrimp, bamboo and pig's ear salad

Shrimp, bamboo and pig’s ear salad

My landlady sat James and I at the family table, with grandpa and grandma and the few people we knew since they actually lived in the house. The courtyard held the many extended cousins, yelling louder and louder as they drank, echoes of mot, hai, ba, yoooooo! bouncing off the building’s walls. (Translation: One, two, three, DOWN THE GLASS!, the typical cheers for drinking in Vietnam.)

Eventually, one of the cousins came and sat at our table and in broken English started asking James and I where we were from, how old we were and why we were not dating. (Vietnamese people all think we are dating since we hang out often, but male-female friendship is understandably less common in Southeast Asia. I find myself introducing him as my brother instead, despite his Aussie accent, to explain things…to which the Vietnamese person’s response is usually “oooooooh!” and then, turning to James “so, are you married?!” Of course, the fact that I have quite a few guy friends in HCMC has given everyone pause. Walking down the street I can almost hear them thinking “but which one is she with?). The conversation led to singing and eventually James and I both took our turns at singing our respective national anthems, quieting down the rowdy rooms as the partygoers turned to look at us incredulously, shocked that we were participating so thoroughly in the fun. We were rewarded for our efforts; what followed was a rousing Vietnamese anthem, glasses raised, heartfelt singing for all.

Tet feast

Some of the tables in my building for the Tet meal.

Other friends in the building, John and Brooke, came back into the house to find a big feast waiting for them.  They had just arrived in Vietnam but to do so during Tet meant that they were dumped ceremoniously into the cultural fire-pit during new year. They sat down at the table and found their plates piled up in seconds, plenty of leftover food and beer to go around.

We all finally excused ourself around 11pm, creeping upstairs to let the family finish their party, smiling so hard our cheeks hurt. All of us stopped at the top of the stairs to marvel at the evening. When I think about travel and experiencing local culture in a natural way, this is what I think of – dinners and celebrations and weddings and funerals, a small snapshot into a life I’ll never truly be a part of, but am honoured to join in when invited.

Tet detritus

Perfect snapshot of Tet detritus: flipflops, straws and beer.

* * *

Given that the big dinner occurred days before Tet proper (February 10th was new year’s eve this year), I had a chance to also join the family for the big banh Tet-making assembly line. The kitchen floor was washed and all of the supplies were laid out – cooked mung beans, banana leaves, pork, sticky rice and bamboo twine.

Banh tet Vietnam

The grandmother of the house showing me how it’s done.

I sat on a tiny stool watching to partake in the Tet preparations, watching as the family methodically built their new year’s food. Once cooked for at least 12 hours, the dense sticky rice and pork cakes were eaten with the main new year’s meal. Inevitably there were leftovers, so they were fried up with eggs in the days that followed, changing the taste somewhat. No short supply of banh Tet around town after February 10th!

Banh tet Vietnam

Grandpa showing off his banh tet-making skills. He was in charge of wrapping them up before putting them in the pot to cook.

Many families do not make their own but rather buy them pre-made at markets (thus, the photo above from a market in Binh Thanh district). Luckily, my family was not one of them – it was a huge treat to be a part of these preparations, the afternoon spent laughing with the grandparents and their grandkids, translations lacking but humour intact.

Banh tet Vietnam

Break in banh tet making festivities, to hang with my 2-year old housemate.

Banh tet Vietnam

Finished product!

After the cooking lesson, I left the house to watch the fireworks exploding over the city at midnight with a group of fellow revelers. We took a wrong turn and ended up 30 minutes out of the way from our destination, meaning that we needed to walk the length of the river, over one of the bridges and down the riverbank until we made it to my friend’s apartment around 10pm. The walk over was itself a perfect end to the overwhelming newness of the holiday in Vietnam. Thousands of locals lined the bridges and edges of the water, waiting for the pyrotechnics to begin. Traffic was at a standstill and for the streets blocked off from cars, food vendors all congregated instead, selling everything you would find around town but in a few kilometers of space, snacks and drinks at the edge of the Saigon river.

Climbing up to the roof at close to midnight, we joined dozens of locals who were also there to see the show. I tripped on a piece of rusty metal and sliced open my toe (requiring a tetanus shot and some serious bandaging for the next week), but instead of checking on the damage, I stared at the lights and explosions flashing over a sprawling city I now loved.

Ringing in the new year from a rooftop in HCMC

Ringing in the new year with friends from a rooftop in HCMC

It has taken me a few weeks to put together my thoughts on Tet, in part because I wanted to get the photos edited, but also because I was trying to figure out a way to synthesize the breadth of experiences here. I’ve left out some of the more interesting quirks too – the fact that many families require the first person to enter the house after midnight to be of an astrological sign compatible with the incoming animal year (so, goats and monkeys for 2013), how people burn small offerings for their ancestors, including paper pyjamas (we all need to wear pyjamas in the afterlife), paper money, and more. But I wanted to focus on the food and the family, since for me the memories I’ve got will be tied to those two things, lucky as I am to live in a house that decided to adopt me as one of their own.

Many tourists do leave town during the weeklong Tet holiday, but I would recommend staying. Yes, 95% of the restaurants are closed for the first few days – many for a full week. But the contrast in the city is well worth seeing firsthand: the streets are almost devoid of any life, the Tet flowers and trees paper the sidewalks and the city folds in on itself as it focuses on its own families and relatives, blooming anew once the holidays are over.

-Jodi

[1] The whole Danish cookies thing was a big surprise, but no joke the entire city was carpeted in blue and white boxes, a customary gift for the new year. The Danisa brand has cornered the market of cookie funsies in HCMC and I’d love to know how that came to be. They even have special bags that match the boxes, piles and piles of blue and white lining the edge of shops in town.

[2] Unfortunately, the city also enters into what is locally known as “stealing season” – a proliferation of petty crimes like phone and purse theft, with the money used toward paying for these Tet gifts. In the weeks leading up to Tet and shortly thereafter, locals would come up to me on the street mimicking someone making off with my bag, a warning to keep an eye on belongings. Several friends found their phones snatched out of their hands in mid-conversation during this time, though no one had any more significant issues (e.g. there were no violence or armed muggings) to report.

[3] For a great read about motorcycles and their utility in carrying things around Vietnam, see the fabulous Bikes of Burden photo book.

[4] As a lawyer, all I could think of with a room of drinking Vietnamese people and a fire burning right outside in the centre of town was – LIABILITY! Once a lawyer, always a lawyer….