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Hate it or love it: Is Tet the best or worst time in Vietnam?

Hate it or love it: Is Tet the best or worst time in Vietnam?

Tuesday, January 30, 2024, 09:54 GMT+7
Hate it or love it: Is Tet the best or worst time in Vietnam?
People visit the 2022 Tet Festival at the Youth Culture House in District 1, Ho Chi Minh City, January 16, 2022. Photo: Hoang An / Tuoi Tre

I will be upfront and totally honest with you. I hate Christmas! The thought of a suffering family that you see once a year, and have hated most of your life, makes me cringe. Having to struggle with that one uncle that gets drunk and picks a fight with you makes me want to run a million miles. 

So, when I think of Tet (Vietnam's Lunar New Year festival), I often compare it to Christmas back in my home country and, immediately, take a negative and defensive view of the season. But am I being fair to say that Tet is the worst time of the year in Vietnam?

'The shutdown time'

We are just days away from that time of year when Vietnam shuts down and the usual hustle and bustle of the cities becomes a quiet, pleasurable ghost town. But whilst Tet brings peace and quiet to the city streets, it also comes with a lot of stress and concerns for expats as their lives are turned upside down for one to two weeks whilst local families come together to celebrate this most special time of the year in Vietnamese culture.

I will never forget my first experience of Tet in Vietnam. It was 2014 and I was at my girlfriend's home in Go Vap District, Ho Chi Minh City. She pulled out a pack of playing cards and for the next six hours sat on the floor playing cards with her friends and family. I could not understand how a person could sit there for so long just playing cards, but I soon found out this was the spirit of Tet, sitting around playing cards and being with loved ones.

But what is Tet? They say that Tet is like Christmas, Easter, Thanksgiving, and your birthday all rolled into one. It is the time of year when families come together to celebrate the start of the New Year under the lunar calendar. 

Tet brings with it many customs and traditions. From the Kitchen Gods that go to heaven to send good wishes so a family will have good fortune in the coming year, to red and yellow flowers, new clothes, not sweeping the floor for three days and all kinds of traditional food that is not seen at any other time of the year. It really is uniquely Vietnam. 

As opposed to every Christmas, one of the happiest days of my life was Christmas Day 2013 when I spent it the same as people in Ho Chi Minh City and went to work as normal. I thought I had found heaven. People went to work and didn’t suffer the pain of repulsive family members or spend enormous amounts of money on people they don’t like. 

Then, Tet arrived and got me back for my bad thoughts. Tet really is the Christmas of the Orient because family and sharing time with loved ones constitute the very core of this season. 

The comparison led me to really dislike Tet for many years. As Tet would approach, I would set up things to do in order to avoid people because I really felt uncomfortable with their friendliness and generosity. And, with not much money in the bank, handing out money to children and old people wasn’t in my scope of enjoyable things to do, just because it was customary. In addition, schools closed and there was no opportunity to make a wage, plus most of the places I like to visit were closed and I found myself pacing the floor at home with nothing to do. This was, of course, only broken by the demands of friends to visit them at their homes to celebrate Tet. 

Foreigners visit the spring flower festival at Binh Dong Wharf along Tau Hu Canal in District 8, Ho Chi Minh City, February 6, 2021. Photo: Ngoc Phuong / Tuoi Tre

Foreigners visit the spring flower festival at Binh Dong Wharf along Tau Hu Canal in District 8, Ho Chi Minh City, February 6, 2021. Photo: Ngoc Phuong / Tuoi Tre

Escaping the city is not even an option for most expats. Part of the tradition of Tet is for people to travel back to their hometowns. This means, in logical terms, that a large percentage of the almost 100 million citizens of this country all choose to buy bus, train, and plane tickets at the same time. Similarly, the roads and highways around the country are packed with cars and motorbikes full of family members wanting to reach their home before the Tet celebrations start. No words can accurately describe the nightmare of being on a highway with a thousand motorbikes around you, all carrying a full family and half a truck load of food and luggage. 

After learning the hard way, I quickly chose self-imposed lockdown as the best option for Tet. It was safer to stay home and write, study or make videos and take photos. Trying to embrace the Tet season seemed to be pointless for me. 

This images show holiday-goers on the way back to their hometowns for Tet from Ho Chi Minh City on January 27, 2022. Photo: Tuoi Tre

This images show holiday-goers on the way back to their hometowns for Tet from Ho Chi Minh City, January 27, 2022. Photo: Tuoi Tre

Tet and the beauty of giving

Now, time, knowledge, and wisdom have brought a new level of understanding of Tet for me. 

After a decade of watching others play cards, give money, eat too much food, and visit family and friends, I have a greater understanding of the beauty of this season. And with this comes the honest conclusion that I never disliked Tet, it was more that I disliked my past and Tet, for me, was too close to the bad days of Christmas in Australia. 

This year I have planned to share money with the security guards at my apartment. All year they have smiled and welcomed me with open arms and sharing just a little joy brings me happiness. Likewise at my work, as one of only a few foreigners in the 30-floor tower, the cleaners and security go out of their way to bring a smile to my face every day and this is the season to be able to say thank you in such a small way. I now get the meaning of Tet. 

Rather than getting angry with my Vietnamese wife for spending too much money, this year I have supported her and told her to make sure she buys everything to make the poorer members of our family really happy. 

I rejoice in taking some imported beer and wine to the family home so my family can share them with visitors. I rejoice in being able to see the pride in my wife's parents when they are able to welcome their friends to their home and have something special to share. I rejoice in seeing the smiles on the faces of those hard workers that earn so little, and see their eyes light up when you hand them a small red envelope with a little bit of money in it. 

It used to be the worst time of the year but as the Year of the Dragon approaches, it has now become the best time of the year. Whilst I now appreciate the traditions and customs, I can also appreciate the connection to family and friends, and I now appreciate those who make my life better. 

But, for me, what makes this the most amazing time of year are the small things like when I have the opportunity to stop and talk to a small old man on the street. He has a big lump on his back and spends his whole waking life walking the streets of Binh Thanh District selling lottery tickets. This year, what will make it good for me is the moment I get to say hello and give him some li xi (lucky money), then smile, say Chúc Mừng Năm Mới (Happy New Year), and drive off knowing he will be the happiest man in Vietnam for a few hours. That, to me, is the real spirit of Tet. 

When it comes to the question 'Do you love Tet or hate it?' there are so many things to dislike about Tet as a foreigner living in Vietnam. But, with a different perspective, there are also many things to love about it. 

What will you do for Tet this year? If the answer is 'Nothing,' then get out and make a difference. Say hello to a poor person, share some food, or sneak a few thousand dong into the hand of a street person to brighten their day. I promise you, what you give will be returned to you tenfold, which is the very spirit and culture of Tet in Vietnam. 

Chúc Mừng Năm Mới everyone and let’s welcome the Year of the Dragon with all the might and power that this mythical creature brings. It is going to be a great year for me and I wish you all the success and power that the dragon will bring. 

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Ray Kuschert / Tuoi Tre News Contributor


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