28 January marks the official beginning of unquestionably the most important holiday in Vietnam. Tet, or the Lunar New Year, coincides with the end of a cold, harsh winter in the north and the beginning of spring. Similar to our Gregorian calendar’s new year, Tet signifies new beginnings, but in stark contrast to our tradition of making resolutions and preparations in anticipation of the new year, a hibernation-like coma descends upon Vietnam and its people.
Major cities like Hanoi and HCMC find themselves desolate and barren as most people return to their ‘que’ (hometown). The ubiquitous honking of horns and the hustle and bustle of Vietnamese life comes to a complete standstill. Banks, retail stores, and small mom & pop shops alike shutdown and you’ll have trouble finding supplies. The country essentially goes into standby mode for seven official days this year but as we’ve seen in the past the lethargic effects often linger on well after.
Tet itself is an incredible experience. It’s a jovial and festive extravaganza filled with gastronomic delights, bottomless refills of beer and spirits, and, most importantly, good company. Vietnam’s ultimate holiday, however, has come under heavy criticism recently for its adverse effects, especially in regard to the economy and the country’s overall productivity.
Tradition aside (in fact the only important dates during the actual holiday is Lunar New Year’s Eve through to the third day, or 27 January to 30 January) should the Tet holiday really last the best part of a week? Below I present the argument from both sides in order for you to make your own judgement.
Given Vietnam’s growing urbanisation coupled with a less-than-stellar infrastructure and transportation network, proponents for a long Tet argue that it makes sense logistically. The long holiday allows people adequate time to travel home to the countryside and visit families, which many only get to see once a year. This argument is even more valid when you take into account the intricacies of Tet. For one, there are duties and specific tasks that Tet entails. The most significant is worshipping and praying at the family alter as well as paying respect to your to tien (ancestors) for three consecutive days during Tet.
During these days it is also customary to make visit to the noi (paternal side of family) on the first day, followed by the ngoai (maternal family) on the second day, and on the third day thay (teachers, bosses, or anyone you respect). This results in ‘Mong 1 Tet cha, Mong 2 Tet me, Mong 3 Tet thay’ (first day for your father, second day for your mother, and third day for your teacher).
Further, many argue that a lengthy holiday is necessary to help the younger generation appreciate and ultimately preserve a key feature of Vietnamese tradition and culture.
The primary argument against a long Tet break is that it is not economical. On a macro level, Vietnam’s economy is interrupted, as most businesses and shops entirely cease operations and the lethargic feeling lingers on well after Tet. Further, in the preparation leading up to Tet we see expenditure shoot through the roof for both companies and individuals alike. For companies, it is expected that they pay their employees an end of the year bonus, which typically includes an additional one, two, three, or even five months of salary. Tet also entails a fancy end-of-year party as well as bieu qua Tet, or presenting lavish and expensive gifts to officials, friends, and others who have ‘helped’ the company. The latter is also a requirement of individuals who will have to give gifts to their boss and colleagues in addition to respected family members.
Opponents of an extended holiday also point to other negative effects of Tet. Statistically, we see a significant spike in beer and alcohol consumption. The excess consumption doesn’t only take a toll on individual health but is the prime culprit in a sharp rise of traffic accidents, physical altercations, and crime. There is also an increase in gambling. These adverse effect clearly indicates that Tet isn’t all fun and games.
Nevertheless, whether you’re a proponent of a long Tet holiday or against its adverse effects, one thing is certain: Tet is a magical time for Vietnam much as it is for other Asian countries. Imagine combining the joys of Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Year’s Eve into one, and what you will have is Tet. So Happy Lunar New Year to you and your family! Chuc mung nam moi!
John Hung is the author of ‘John đi tìm Hung’ (John finding Hung), an account of his journey through Vietnam in 80 days, equipped with only the bare necessities and no money, relying on the kindness and hospitality of strangers he met along the way.