Travel tips for Tet in Vietnam 2013

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First published 13th January, 2013

You thought you could relax with the Western new year celebrations out of the way? Think again. The whole of Vietnam is now warming up for the Tet holidays -- noticed all those police stop points and fields full of lucky trees recently? If you're heading this way February 10 to 14 this year, consider what this will mean for your trip. The whole country will be on a go-slow for at least a week either side; Vietnam becomes gridlocked, garish and glorious and contrary to most traveller stories it is in fact an amazing time to be here. That is, so long as you're armed with a little knowledge on customs, protocol and a calm smile.

One word covers it all here: DON’T! With every bus, train and plane packed with Vietnamese heading home, prices spiral and travel time at least doubles from heavy traffic. The 16-seater air-con minibuses become 40 seaters and hard seat third class on the train is like playing sardines with livestock and end of the world provisions take up every inch of floor space. Even pre-booked flights generally work on the delayed system and fellow local travellers can quite often be first-time flyers, so expect the possibilities of thigh stroking, projectile vomiting, constant texting and even motorbike helmets worn during the flight.

Perhaps your best bet for onward travel during the Tet holidays.
Perhaps your best bet for onward travel during the Tet holidays.

Tet road rules
You really shouldn’t be attempting to hit the roads on your motorbike over the Tet holidays without at least five passengers, a handful of live ducks in carrier bags hanging from your handlebars and a four-foot Tet tree in a concrete pot balanced between your thighs if you want to blend in. For the rest of us, abide by the laws of the road, which I think means don’t go through a red light, wear a helmet and make sure your bike has a working horn (obviously), at least one wing mirror and working lights, or be prepared to hand over a fortune in on-the-spot fines.

Its O.K, that's a lucky tree.
It's okay, that's a lucky tree.

Booking ahead is the way to go here. Generally in big cities and tourist spots high on hotels you'll find booking sites still have last-minute deals and hotels don’t tend to close. In smaller destinations, especially ones that only have small family-run guesthouses out in the sticks, be prepared for some difficulties. As most of these places are not available to book online, you’d be wise to go through a local booking office before you arrive at your destination and get them to secure your room in advance.

Most tour companies run throughout the Tet holidays but be aware that most sights will be mobbed by local families picnicking. It’s a great time to take off for a daytrip into the smaller villages on a motorbike, when celebrations are in full flow and hospitality is at an all-time high. Just take a reliable bike.

Marble Mountain at Tet, stiletto heels preferably sparkly ones are a must for the ladies.
Marble Mountain at Tet.

Customs/social etiquette
This is where the fun and confusion starts. On the first day of Tet it's customary to be lovely whatever is going on around you, as local belief is that your behaviour on these first few days of Tet will bring goodwill, prosperity and luck for the oncoming year. So even when you get a cab at five times the going rate you will be expected to turn that frown upside down.

Tet attire
It's customary for the Vietnamese to work through a whole new wardrobe over the Tet holidays, with splashes of high octane colour and questionable fashion logos ruling. Anything in the funeral colours of black or white are abandoned for lucky red and yellow. And if the Vietnamese news article I read about this year's luckiest Tet wear (the year of the snake) is right, brightly coloured snake print -- slinky and tightfitting to create snake-like silhouettes for the ladies and matching snakeprint ties for the gents -- will also be a good choice. If you're invited to someone's home during the Tet holiday, stick with the black and white ban for good karma to all.

Tet in Saigon
Tet in Saigon.

Tet music
Happy New Year by Abba. You will hear this at least frequently enough to know all the words by the end of January. By Tet you will be self-medicating to stop the song from going round and round in your head even in the few minutes it is not being played.

Almost every Vietnamese business will close for Tet (even if just for a day), as the business owner will go to the pagoda and seek advice from a fortune-telling monk on a lucky day and time to reopen a brand new (the same) shop where they will hold a ceremony for their ancestors at an altar and offer gifts to the gods on an elaborate table in the shop's entrance, while burning incense. If you enter a shop over Tet the protocol is to buy something, no matter how small, as if you don’t this brings very bad luck to the shop. Remember to smile as you buy that fabulous lacquered pig at three times the non-Tet price.

Hoi An... Nobody does Tet better..
Hoi An... nobody does Tet better.

Best place for Tet celebrations
Hoi An! It’s a huge lantern festival of fun and frolics and one of the top destinations during the Tet holidays for the Vietnamese. It's crazy, fun and brilliantly confusing (if you don't like crowds though, forget it). Da Lat would be the next best, while cities Hanoi, Saigon and Da Nang are tops for parties; if you want an off the beaten path Tet travelling challenge, head for the provinces.

Tet treats. Try everything you may never get the opportunity again!
Tet treats. Try everything you may never get the opportunity again!

There are simply too many Tet treats to mention. Markets close, restaurants work on limited menus or shut up shop altogether, but the real beauty of Tet is the street food: suddenly every square inch of pavement is crammed to overflowing with stalls and plastic stools rammed with raucous locals celebrating. If there ever was a time to mingle with the locals and go away with a warm feeling inside (that will of course be the rice wine), it's over Tet.

Chuc Mung Nam Moi!

About the author:
After years of camping in her back garden in the New Forest, Caroline Mills’ parents went wild and jetted her off to Morocco where her dream of becoming a traveling belly dancer was born.

Read 18 comment(s)

  • A set of good ear plugs wouldn't go astray either, VN's like their ' music ' at FULL noise, especially the bass.

    Posted by chris on 14th January, 2013

  • I love the mental image of someone wearing a motorbike helmet on an airplane. It's our family's first Tet in Vietnam; thanks for this!

    I'd also like to mention that purse snatching has been on the rise leading up to Tet and that ladies should not walk around with purses. It's best to use something concealed to carry money and to use shopping bags held in the hand rather than over the shoulder, because motorbike-riding thieves will not hesitate to knock you over (or worse) when trying to grab a bag.

    Posted by Heather on 14th January, 2013

  • We stayed in Hoi An over Tet 2012, leaving the morning-before chaos of Hanoi (very interestng to see the streets packed with pop up stalls selling rice cakes and more as well as chickens for altar offerings, composed with rose in beak) for the night celebrations in Hoi An: seemingly never ending fireworks over the river, a lantern competition on display and candles in little paper flowers floating below.

    The main reason we chose the tourist friendly town was we knew plenty of restaurants would remain open. Interestingly, it was the smaller places in the flood zone - that strip along the river that never seemed to be low on supplies, while Morning Glory had run out of tofu (horror for a vegetarian) on our visit - perhaps just a matter of popularity.

    If visiting during the first couple of days of Tet and wanting to enjoy a cooking class, the wet market will be closed, so you'll miss out on seeing all the great produce on display - everything from quail eggs to baby sharks and big woven baskets of noodles for dishes like cau Lao and mi quang. Red bridge does have its own garden though, and the tour through the varieties of herbs used in Vietnamese cooking is almost as interesting as seeing them at the markets.

    While some of the stores do remain open, hundreds of tailor stores remain closed. If visiting during Tet, you'll may miss out on the variety and breadth of the shopping experience, which, frankly, could be a good thing. You won't take home that Hermes lookalike bag made, but you also won't be frittering away your days running to and from fittings with different tailor stores.

    Though the public holidays may be just a few days, we found, like the Boxing Day period here in Australia, or the Easter break, a terrible time for travelling, simply because everyone else is leaving the big cities for their home towns and this period extends beyond the public holidays for up to two weeks. Even though we felt we had planned the initial Tet period well, my parents found themselves enduring a very long busride through the Mekong region. We should have known something was up when reputable tour company, Handspan, still had its office closed!

    All in all, it is fascinating to see celebrations in swing - especially the light displays in Saigon, the lanterns over Hoan Kiem and the shopping chaos (much like Christmas Eve) and, depending on your location, the cumquat trees laden with fat orange fruit, the gorgeous pink cherry blossoms or yellow blossoms. It's definitely a better time to settle in to a place rather than have an itinerary full of travel, especially not five hour bus rides on congested roads!

    Posted by Alyssa on 14th January, 2013

  • We fly into Hanoi on the 3rd and fly (thankfully after reading this blog!) to Da Nang on the 6th and hoping to spend most of TET in Hoi An....looks like it will be madness and fun, can't wait!

    Posted by Michelle on 15th January, 2013

  • It might be worse this year, the Govt has clamped down on overloading on Buses and people movers, this can only lead to more buses, etc , on the roads, therefore more traffic congestion.
    I found something even worse this year than Tet, Autumn festival, ( even though this year we didn't have an Autumn in Central VN , the leaves stayed on the trees, along with the new growth ), hordes of annoying kids , beating the crap out of big drums, begging for money, on the main night, the streets in the cities are worse than Tet, at least at Tet, the traffic is still trying to move, up here , people just stop anywhere on their m/b's, ( same as for traffic accidents ), and watch the annual performances on the footpaths, while the police stand there looking dumfounded, ( unless you are in a car of course, then they will part the traffic for you to get through ).

    Posted by Chris on 24th September, 2014

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