Tips for the holidays in Vietnam  

Long term expats and savvy locals know exactly what I’m talking about

Tet gifts are on display at supermarket in Ho Chi Minh City. Photo: Tuoi Tre

You need a plan for Vietnam’s extended holiday season! If you don’t… well, look forward to boredom, frustration, delays and other debacles.

Long term expats and savvy locals know exactly what I’m talking about. The next eight to twelve weeks has unexpected twists and obstacles that we often forget from last year – or simply are not aware of. So in the Christmas spirit of giving something good to everyone, here are a few tips. The list is neither exhaustive nor comprehensive – I’ll bet someone in the pub will say, “Ah…Stivi forgot to mention about…”  Probably, but then again I’m more accurate than Donald Trump’s tweets.

There are lots of tell-tale signs that the holidays will affect you. It starts off innocently enough when your English students or company staff begrudgingly admit that they didn’t do the homework or turn up for work on time because of a “__________ (name of holiday) party”, accompanied by some very insincere groveling and unconvincing apologies. Saying sorry while you’re grinning from ear to ear doesn’t cut it with the teacher or boss, kids.

Other signs including your housekeeper, best friend or partner disappearing at all times of the day, usually to help out the family raise money for Tet (Vietnam’s Lunar New Year holiday – the 16th to the 20th of February, 2018) or cover another family member’s job while they do the holiday shopping. This slowly translates into an economic slow-down that starts cutting into your life – and your sanity – as no one really warns you in advance; a Western idea that has no meaning here.

So it’s up to you to think ahead. Make a plan, get it done early and you’ll be able to weather the chaos like a seasoned pro, like me. I’m the Stephen Hawking of this kind of stuff.

Travel: Book early! Even with the period between Christmas and New Year – flights can be difficult to get for the right day and time you’re after. This is doubly true for Tet (see dates above) when millions will be returning to their hometowns to celebrate with family and friends.

Avoid the budget carriers as they are often overbooked and offer more travel times than actually occur. If you have the money, avoid the buses – accidents are frequent over the holiday periods (check your travel insurance!) – and fly. If you have to go by bus – book through an agency as the main bus terminals don’t do announcements in English. The trains are ok, if you’re willing to bunk together with strange Vietnamese who have no idea of social politeness.

Bus stations will be much more crowded than this ahead of Tet. Photo: Tuoi Tre
Bus stations will be much more crowded than this ahead of Tet. Photo: Tuoi Tre

Banks: Open over the Chrissy period. Most banks will have their opening times listed on the front doors. The big problem will be Tet when the ATMs are less frequently topped with cash and it’s quite common for many to be empty within the first days of Tet. Overseas transfers into Vietnamese accounts can take a few days so top up the account well before the 15th.

Home safety: Foreigners are often targets during the holidays and thieves will roam around noting locations. Organize someone to check the house, put on the lights at night, or better yet, someone to house-sit for a while. Dogs should stay with people you trust, along with any tech gear you value and a backed-up hard drive. If your landlord is reliable, let them know early your travel plans and contact them during your time away to remind them.

Stocking up: The local shops are open throughout most of the holidays, however you might find many of your favorite bars or cafés shut or on limited trading hours. Bakeries particularly can be a pain. Medicine can be tricky to get too, depending on your location. Power cuts still occur too, so extra candles, cooking gas and backing up your work should also be considered.

Getting a job: Plenty of part-time teaching work around to cover for teachers taking their holidays however you will find a lot of ‘schools’ (academies and learning centers are private -- ‘schools’ are official and by law must also offer the Vietnamese curriculum) advertising jobs but in reality they are collecting résumés (CVs). By February, government offices will start to slow down before Tet so doing paperwork for working visas and permits becomes a small nightmare. If you are offered full-time work check that you are working over the school summer holidays; June, July and August.

Underestimating chaos: Christmas Eve, New Year’s Eve and Tet are traffic chaos in the big cities so you have been warned! Airports are madhouses so add an extra hour to get through security and ticket lines. Buying presents for Vietnamese friends should be done early as the best gift baskets are snapped up fast! Be careful with cash, phones and cameras in large crowds. If you have local travel insurance, check which hospitals accept your insurance card and obviously, give out emergency numbers.

Now…you’re not dumb…and yes, you do this but a checklist of sorts is good to be thinking about early. Checking with your social networks for things you haven’t thought about yet is handy too.

And remember, ‘The best-laid plans of mice and men often go awry’ does apply, so be adaptable, don’t get angry and deal with problems quickly instead of wasting time.

My plan? I’m staying home!


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