T he one question that is on everyone’s lips come January is, ‘Where are you going for Tet?’ It is automatically assumed that a trip will be taken, at the very least to another part of Vietnam, if not to another country entirely.
When faced with this question from my friends and colleagues, the answer for me is always the same: ‘Nowhere.’ This response is met with a reaction that is equal parts pity, astonishment and bewilderment.
They simply cannot fathom why, during the longest break of the year, I would choose to remain in the city. The cogs begin to whir in their minds as they attempt to evaluate the situation. Perhaps he doesn’t have enough money to go travelling this year or he’s taken on a lot of extra projects that need to get finished; there must be ‘some’ reason that is forcing him to stay in Hanoi because no rational person would ‘choose’ to do that.
The truth is, I love staying in Hanoi during the Lunar New Year and am more than happy to extoll its virtues to anyone that may wonder why.
Let’s make things clear: I’m not someone with no sense of discovery. I love travelling. Going to new places, experiencing new cultures and visiting both natural and man-made wonders around the world is one of the true joys of life.
Having said that, travelling during Tet in Vietnam is a nightmare in every way, shape and form. All the major transport hubs are packed, the airport, train station and bus stations are swarming with both locals and foreigners alike scrambling to make their way out of town.
Even if you’re willing to brave this hot, sweaty mass of humanity you still have to deal will the fact that the price of tickets to anywhere at this time of year is inflated beyond reason. Airlines seemingly think they can charge whatever they want and, judging by the queues, they are probably right.
Finally, for those who do make it out of Hanoi in one piece, if they are staying in Vietnam and heading to a place of natural beauty such as mountainous areas of Ha Giang province or Phong Nha caves in Quang Binh province they better be willing to accept an increased tourist presence that detracts from some of the peace and serenity of the location; the main reason people come to these destinations in the first place.
It seems pretty clear that travelling during Tet is no picnic, but to many it is seen as a necessary evil. It’s stressful, expensive and infuriating but is still better than the alternative in their minds. I have to ask, however, ‘Why?’ Spending the holiday in Hanoi seems to have such a bad reputation that it seems almost taboo to even think about it. The main reason I hear in support of this view is that Hanoi completely shuts down over Tet, there is nothing to do and there is no one around. This may have been somewhat true in the past but in recent years the change has been dramatic.
Not that long ago, although a little bit before my time in this city, it was so lifeless during Tet that it was not unheard of for people to play football on Hang Bai Street in the middle of the day. Given the amount of traffic on that street on a normal day, it seems absurd to suggest such a thing would be possible, yet I’ve heard several accounts of this taking place.
However, while there are still undeniably a lot of closures over the period, more and more places are choosing to either remain open or close for one or two days at most. Last year, on the first day of Tet, more than half of the cafés on Nguyen Huu Huan Street were not only open for business but packed with Vietnamese customers, laughing and joking along with their friends. Similarly, a lot of bars in town were still operating as per usual throughout the holidays, either by paying their staff a hefty bonus or shipping in temporary workers looking to make some extra cash. Some venues even offer special events for those opting to stay. The year before last, Old Quarter stalwarts Spy Bar and The Irish Wolfhound joined forces to throw a barbecue street party that went on all day and had a very decent turnout.
Although not quite as empty as it used to be, spending Tet in Hanoi still affords its residents a unique opportunity to see the capital from a whole new perspective. Gone are the traffic jams, incessant honking of horns and throngs of people shuffling along at a snail’s pace. The footpaths are relatively clear of motorbikes and can actually be used for their intended purpose. The staff at restaurants seem less pushy and less inclined to try and coax you into their establishments. The air is cleaner. The people are happier. Ironically, the peace and quiet that people travel to remote parts of Vietnam to seek out is readily available on their doorstep. Give me a somewhat deserted Hanoi over a tourist hotspot besieged by tour groups any day of the week.
For me, the best part of spending the holiday here as an expat is the way it brings people together. There’s a real group mentality when everyone is off work, looking to have fun and staying in one place together. If this sounds eerily similar to being on holiday, it’s because it is. The only difference is that you get to go back to your own home, to your comfortable bed after a night of revelry, instead of a tent, hostel or hotel. You don’t need to ask if your friend is free the next day because, by virtue of remaining in Hanoi, you more or less know that they are. During my time here, acquaintances have turned into friends and friends into close friends, all by virtue of spending a great deal of time together here during Tet.
Despite a lot of great things about Tet in Hanoi, it’s not all roses. Prices do go up slightly to offset the increased wages that businesses have to pay to keep workers in the city. Food options, especially in terms of local dishes, are severely limited on both New Year’s Eve and New Year’s Day. Though, when all is said and done, I wouldn’t dream of venturing out of the city borders over the holiday. A lot of the people who love to complain about living in this city might gain a new found appreciation for it if they did the same.