For better or worse, Jürgen and I arrived in Saigon just as the country was preparing for Tet – the Vietnamese Lunar New Year. This is by far the most important holiday on the Vietnamese calendar; regular life grinds to a halt, while families gather from near and far for a week of flowers, feasts and celebrations.
Tet is a time of traditions. Before the New Year, families clean their houses thoroughly. Doing so afterwards is discouraged, because you don’t want sweep the luck away. Traditional meals are prepared, such as the delicious rice-and-pork “cake” called bánh ch?ng. And after the clock strikes midnight, it’s important that you don’t enter a house unless invited. The first person to step inside determines the household’s luck for the entire year. If you’ve recently experienced a death in the family, you shouldn’t enter other people’s houses at all.
For Tet, children are given “lucky money”, which they’re encouraged to spend however they see fit. Families return to their ancestral homes and visit cemeteries to honor deceased relatives. The first of the year is considered a lucky time to open a new business. And practically every house in the country is decorated with elaborate displays of fruit and flowers. One day of Tet is specifically set aside to hang out with your friends, and another to honor your teachers.
We had read some warnings that, during Tet, Saigon would be a ghost town, and that it might be hard to find places to eat, or things to do. But that wasn’t been the case, at all. Instead, we found a city in full-on celebration mode. Parades at temples and dances in front of hotels. Wild, private karaoke parties that last well into the night. People burning fake money over small bonfires, and lucky playing cards strewn about everywhere. And while most were closed, plenty of cafes and restaurants were open for business. Finding dinner was never a problem.
One of the main arteries for Tet festivities in Saigon is along the broad avenue of Nguyên Hu?. The road is shut off to traffic, and the center of the boulevard filled with flower sculptures and monuments. We visited on the actual day of the New Year (Jan 28th) and were immediately swept up in the street’s celebratory buzz. In the evening, thousands of people were crammed onto the street, and everyone seemed to be having fun.
It’s interesting to be introduced to a culture during its biggest holiday. Parties, music, traditions and fun? You couldn’t ask for a better first impression.