Tet: The Craziness of Lunar New Year in Vietnam

Fireworks over Saigon for Tet

In the weeks leading up to Lunar New Year, called Tet in Vietnam, Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon) 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 the city.

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 Vietnamese 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.

Celebrating Tet in Vietnam's HCMC
Tet decorations in an alley near my apartment.

Changes a week before Tet in Vietnam

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 gifts around town for Vietnamese New Year.

Banh Tet for sale on the streets during Tet in Vietnam
Banh Tet for sale on the streets of HCMC.
Vietnamese new year cards for Tet
New Year cards for Tet, everywhere around town.
firecrackers for sale for tet in Vietnam
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.

And then, the real Tet craziness begins

Many tourists do leave town during the weeklong Tet holiday, but I would recommend staying. Yes, many of the restaurants are closed for the first few days – some for a full week. But it was always possible to find food to eat, especially in the backpacker (Pham Ngu Lao) area. And after the first few days grocery stores are also open with a reduced holiday schedule. My fave 24 hour chicken pho place stayed open throughout.

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.

Tet in Vietnam includes almost all of the buildings hanging a Vietnamese Flag
Vietnam flag outside my apartment, hung for Vietnamese New Year

Vietnamese hospitality for the Lunar New Year

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?

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.

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. 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.

food during Tet: Roasted pig with herbs and mushrooms
Roasted pig with herbs and mushrooms
food during Tet: steamed shrimp salad
Shrimp as the next course.
Shrimp, bamboo and pig's ear salad for Vietnamese New Year
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.

Celebrating Tet with a Vietnamese family
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.

Making Banh Tet with my host family

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!

Fireworks on the river to end the night

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. [5]

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.

 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.


[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….

[5] In the end, the superstition of ringing in the New Year setting the tone for the coming year was not untrue. My slicing my toe just as the year began bode badly for me, and it ended up being one of the worst years health-wise when I got dengue.

32 thoughts on “Tet: The Craziness of Lunar New Year in Vietnam”

  1. Danisa has done a good job of marketing. However, sad to hear about the petty crime for gifts during Tet. At least it isn’t violent.

  2. when you give gift to the family you are staying with, you show them respect, and more importantly, you care. i will do the same thing next time i visit vietnam.
    thanks for another great article jodi.

  3. As a Baby Boomer U.S. citizen, it was great to read about the family celebration of Tet and your landlord’s family’s warm inclusion of you and your fellow tenant. For so many years, the only reason most of us in the West had heard of Tet is in connection with the infamous “Tet Offensive” of 1968. Your images are so much better.

  4. Thank you for sharing this!It reminded me of many of my favorite moments from traveling/living abroad… they almost always involve food and family gatherings!

  5. Hi Jodi!
    What a wonderful writeup and experience on Vietnam’s Tet celebrations, in particular all the activities leading up to TET!! Great pics, and food looks delicious….YUM! I have enjoyed everybit of our story and experience. Thanks for sharing! keep up the great work!!

  6. I too have memories of Tet in Vietnam, only from 42 years ago. How times change and I’m very thankful for that. I’ve become a world traveler since my days there, having traveled to over 60 countries, including several trips around Southeast Asia. But, I have not returned to Vietnam, yet. I’ve been thinking a lot about it lately and I think it’s time.
    I happened onto one of my best friends from grammar school, some 20 years after leaving Vietnam, while visiting my family in my old home town. As it turned out, he was a marine and was part of the Tet offensive of ’68 and I ended up being in the same place, Dong Ha on the DMZ for Tet of ’71. I was part of an Army helicopter gunship company, quite different than being in the infantry like my friend. We just had to smile and give each other a huge hug. Little did we know when we were kids that our paths would almost cross years later in such an out of the way place and circumstance.
    My dad was in Germany during WWII but never wanted to go back to Europe. Maybe I’m just more of a traveler than he was but I think it will be a much needed experience for me to return.
    I liked the way you ‘painted’ your story of Tet in HCMC. It was Saigon when I was there but from your description, not much has changed. Cookies, flowers, family and food were all part of your experience. Mine were more of the “pyrotechnics and fireworks”. Even with that said, I still loved the country and it’s people.
    I’m hoping you will be writing more of your adventures there. I also hope more of my generation will be reading your blog. A lot of water has passed under the bridge. And it’s a good thing! Time heals.

    1. Hi Steve, thank you for an incredibly thoughtful comment and for sharing your story. I’m very glad that you liked the post. If you do return to Vietnam please do reach out and I would be happy to meet if I am here and show you some soup places I love, or put you in good hands with friends in town if I am not still in the city.

  7. Hey Jodi, wonderful post – I can see how much time you must have spent getting it just right! It’s beautifully crafted, every single word. What a beautiful snapshot of a celebratory evening!

    Glad to see you’ve settled in so well in Vietnam! :D Really really admire your ability to connect with locals so well on all your travels! I need to learn from you!

  8. Lovely post!
    How wanderful your landlord and -lady welcomed you so. I can only imagine their faces when you handed them their TET gifts.
    It sounds like you might have had the perfect way of spending TET: emerged in the local culture, enjoying the local food, sharing customs and traditions.
    Thanks for letting us kind of join in as well:-)

  9. You really nailed the build-up in the first few paragraphs of this – the shift from half-glimpsed, half-felt impressions to everything publicly going nuts. A great piece of storytelling and, as always, magical photos.

    If you were pushed to do so (say, by some other travel blogger asking in a comment on your blog, *whistles*), what differences would you highlight between new year celebrations in Vietnam and the ones you grew up with in Canada & elsewhere? I’m struck by the communal attitude and the openness to strangers in your piece – not to say England is at the other end of the scale, but generally it feels far more guarded, less open by default here…

    1. Thanks Mike. To be honest, it feels a lot more like Christmas than NYE in terms of comparisons to the West, and other expats/travelers have said they felt the same way. The emphasis on family & gifts and celebratory traditions definitely puts it more in that camp than the new year’s celebrations I’m used to at home.

  10. What a cool experience! I love feeling welcomed by locals. I remember Taipei turned into a ghost town during lunar new year as well. It’s pretty amazing to see such a bustling place quiet down for a while.

  11. Oh wow, this was so amazingly well written that I literally could not read fast enough to see what was next! Such great pictures, especially the one of the fireworks, oh and the shrimp…and grampa holding the banh tet. I love following along with your blog and your experiences in Vietnam are giving me slightly less trepidation at visiting this fall/winter.

  12. Great post as always. And thanks for the link to your “brother’s” blog. Stumbled on some unexpected and valuable info there.

  13. Pingback: Saigon's Xe Om: Motorcycle Taxi Drivers That Made Me Smile

  14. Pingback: A Temporary Calm after Tet in Saigon

  15. Hi Jodi,
    I’m inspired by having found your blog! Whilst I love the idea of just taking off and doing what you have done, I’m not sure I’m quite ready for it yet. ;) When I was in Vietnam last year, I went to a cooking school in Hanoi. Loved the experience. I was wondering if you could recommend a good Vietnamese cookbook (covering both north and south cuisines) AND also share the recipe for Bahn Tet?

    Thank you! You’ve just gained a follower!
    Debra xx

    1. Hi Debra, thanks for the note. I asked a friend in Hanoi for his opinion as well and the books we’re suggestion are:
      – Into the Vietnamese Kitchen by Andrea Nguyen
      – Pleasures of the Vietnamese Table: Recipes and Reminiscences from Vietnams’ Best Market Kitchens, Street Cafes, and Home Cooks by Mai Pham (Also titled: New Flavours of the Vietnamese Table in the UK)
      – The Food of Vietnam by Luke Nguyen

      And see which of them appeals in terms of style and writing.

      For Banh Tet recipe, see http://runawayrice.com/main-dishes/sticky-rice-mung-bean-cakes-banh-tet/ (which has several explanatory videos).

  16. Fawn Sensenbach

    I was in Vietnam last year during the tet festival, it was incredible. The food, the fashion, the natives, everything was amazing. I am a chef and I really enjoyed their rice cake, each family has their own recipe. Most stores where closed but there was much to eat and drink like the were storing up somewhere for the event.

  17. Hi Jodi,
    (I do not speak English but I’ll do my best)
    I’m really really happy reading your blog. I study abroad and did not celebrate Tet with my family for 10 years. Your words, incredibly realistic and truthful and detailed, brought tears to my eyes. It’s just like I’m living the experiences again: banh Chung, banh Tet, all these foods, and the people…I miss all this. You have my thanks. The celebration of this new year is just finished last week, did you return there this year? Tet in Viet Nam, recently, has lost some vibes without firecracker but the ambiance is still there.
    I’m still living in France and only return occasionally to Viet Nam, but it would be amazing if we can meet an afternoon in Sai Gon to discuss about street food and try some new address. I’m, too, a fan of Sai Gon street food.
    Please, keep up your very good work, I’ll follow each and every entries of your blog!
    Thank you again and best regards,

  18. The Nguyen gurl

    I’m a Saigonese and thanks your post is so inspiring and makes me love Saigon more. Made me smile :)

  19. Hi Jodi,
    I started reading your blogs as someone recommended them to me as it is a great example of travel blogging. I made a friend of mine read them too as she is allergic to gluten and sugar and lot more things and i showed her your blog to show her how someone with a celiac disease is travelling the world and finding delicious tit bits to eat. You inspire many people out here you must know that. I am from India and i suggest you should travel to South India the next time you are here. It would be a treat to your eyes and taste buds as well and I am pretty sure you will really enjoy it. Also travel to the state of Punjab when you happen to be here next which is another treat for your taste buds.
    Always fun reading your blogs, keep up the great work and never stop,

  20. I’m currently in Nha Trang for Tet and I’ve thoroughly enjoyed seeing all of the holiday preparations: the yellow flowers, the red envelopes, the orange trees. And so much food! My current landlord has also asked me to participate in a ceremony tonight to be the first person to enter her home at midnight. It is always interesting to experience ceremonies in different cultures so being in Vietnam right now has been a real treat. Anyway, I loved reading about your experience :)

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