Photo: Burning incense at a Cholon pagoda.

Tet in Saigon

Now that Christmas and New Year are all wrapped up most of the world tidies up and gets on with their lives. This isn’t quite the case in HCMC, where the start of a New Year on the Gregorian calendar signifies a soon-to-come even bigger celebration: Tet, the Lunar New Year, celebrated this year between January 22 and 26.

Last year it was the year of the weird looking cat!

Last year it was the year of the weird looking cat!

Tet is a completely different creature when it comes to holiday celebrations because unlike New Year’s Eve, where the city centre is a choke-point for human bodies and activity, the city closes up and becomes deserted. But never fear, if your visit happens to fall across Tet, things aren’t all that bad; with the city abandoned, you get to see a side of Saigon that few get to experience — an empty one.

Tet is more about relaxing with your family than partying on the streets, with most locals returning to their home towns or villages to spend time with loved ones. The city starts to empty and businesses begin to close a few days before the official start of the holiday. Your bun bo hue lady, who has been outside every morning without fail: gone. The cafe you visit to surf the web: closed.

Due to everyone leaving at the same time the week on which Tet falls is the most expensive to travel in country the entire year. Prices can jump as much as four times the normal rate and most every plane, train and bus out of town is full to capacity. If you’re travelling through during Tet, do your best to book inland travel ahead of time or you might be stranded in your Pham Ngu Lao guesthouse.

If you do get stuck in the city though, things could be worse. Plenty of places do weather the storm of departing staff, especially Western-oriented establishments; many business shutter just for a day or two. In the meantime, you have the city to yourself. You can get a good deal on accommodation, if you are up for bargaining, because it is a light week for tourist traffic. Streets are clear and not as frightening to cross. It’s a great time to learn how to drive a motorbike! If not, you can still get a taxi.

It smells so much fresher when it's flowers instead of motorbikes filling the street!

Flowers instead of motorbikes filling the street.

The best part is that the city is clean and beautifully decorated. The city spends weeks getting ready for the big day. People clean their houses, make repairs, buy new clothes, and go wild with yellow flower-decorating — temporary flower markets pop up all over. As for New Year’s Eve, Nguyen Hue is closed and filled with decorations, but instead of lights you get mountains of flowers.

Flowers everywhere!

Flowers everywhere!

Is Tet the best time to visit Saigon? I’d say that it probably isn’t, but it’s not a terrible time to visit either. It might be the most relaxing time to visit and it is most definitely is a unique time. How often do you get to see a city of eight million people shrink to a fraction of that in just a few short days? If you’re in Saigon during Tet, enjoy yourself and breath in that quiet air, you’re seeing something that even some locals never get to see.

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Last updated on 19th September, 2014.

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