Tales of Tet

Tet can be an unusual experience for tourists and expats in Vietnam and for myriad reasons.

By Augustus Roe on February 08,2018 10:54 AM

Tales of Tet

Illustrator: KanTrant

Tet is by far the most important date on the Vietnamese calendar. It takes place in early spring, usually between mid-January and mid-February, in the week surrounding the final day of the lunar year. Tet is a time for celebration, bringing families and friends together, much like Christmas does in the West.

The usual pace and rhythm of life in the city tends to slow down during the holiday. While this can be problematic for tourists and expats alike, it also offers a unique opportunity to gain a closer look into Vietnamese culture. I found myself thinking back on my own experiences of Tet and wondering how others found the holiday. I spoke to tourists and expatriates, asking them the same question: ‘What is your most memorable Tet experience?’

Tales of Tet

Ann, Tourist, UK

‘My most memorable experience was when I visited Vietnam last year. The streets looked beautiful, with kumquat and cherry blossom trees on every corner and being carried around on motorbikes. I went with my Vietnamese daughter-in-law’s family to visit their relatives. Her parents both had a lot of siblings and we went on a whistle-stop tour around the city, calling in on as many as we could. Their situations varied considerably, as we visited luxurious, well-furnished apartments and small crowded homes, but the same hospitality was accorded throughout. Hardly anyone spoke English but we were welcomed enthusiastically with smiles, bows, and handshakes, and a lot of tea, nuts, sweets and dried fruit.

The ancestors featured prominently in the ceremonial side of the holiday and it’s nice for them to be included in the gathering together of families. We were also given envelopes of lucky money at every stop, which must have worked as this year went well for me!’

David, Teacher, US

‘My most memorable Tet holiday experience was a few years ago. Some friends and I travelled about an hour outside the city to a place I’d been told was ‘excellent for a gentle hike’. We walked in the mountains for a couple of hours. It was hardly gentle, but I needed the fresh air and exercise after all the eating and drinking of Tet Eve. As we approached the halfway mark - around 6 km in - we came across a small shop in the middle of nowhere, so I went to buy a bottle of water. ‘You have to come in for some tea,’ we were told by the owner. Tea turned into snacks. Snacks turned into lunch. Lunch turned into shots of rice wine. And more than three hours of eating and drinking later, we were close friends playing games and singing songs with this countryside family who just a few hours ago had been complete strangers.

As we left and faced the prospect of a further 6-km hike back, drunk and bloated, we decided to talk our friend into getting a car to come and pick us up. We ended up sleeping our meal off on our way back to the city. It was a surprise being invited into a complete stranger’s family party in this way, but it really demonstrated the sense of community associated with the holiday.’

Anna, Student, Denmark

‘The main thing I found about Tet holiday was how quiet it was in the city. I had been in Vietnam for a while and was used to the craziness of Hanoi, but for the week around Tet things completely changed.

In the afternoon on Tet Eve I was cooking lunch for my housemates and I when the gas bottle that fuels our cooker ran out. Because it was the new year, absolutely nothing was open, which gave us a bit of a shock because normally all services are just a phone call away. The only way we had to cook anything at all for the next week was on a barbecue in front of the house!

Because I lived near the university where I study, all of my friends ended up coming around and bringing snacks and fruit from home. It was kind of frustrating but definitely a memorable experience.’

Augustus, Writer, UK

‘One of my most memorable experiences was about four years ago. I was visiting an isolated village in Ha Nam province to work on a story. A local government representative named Thuy invited my colleagues and I to stay with him and his family. They put us up for four days, making sure we were always comfortable.

However, the first night we were there was a little awkward. We didn’t know each other at all and communication was difficult. Because we were in a rural area, there wasn’t much to do outside of eating and drinking. Half of the village came for dinner, and after we finished Thuy wanted to keep his guests entertained so he turned on the state-of-the-art (and blisteringly loud) karaoke machine that he kept in the living room for such occasions. The first hour was pretty fun. There were no English songs, so after the second hour things started to get a little tedious. I kept glancing at my watch wondering how long it could go on.

By the time we got to hour number three of blasting midi-backing tracks, I had to politely make my excuses and go to bed. Looking back on it, the time I spent with Thuy and his family over Tet was a great experience, and although the language barrier and cultural differences made it awkward sometimes, that was also what made it enjoyable.’

Kevin, Teacher, US

‘My most memorable experience over Tet holidays was when I was living in Nghe An province a few years ago.

I was working as a teacher in a small school, and because I was the only foreigner in town, everyone was excited to introduce me to Vietnamese culture and show me how Tet is experienced. My students started to bring me gifts of bánh chưng (a traditional Tet dish made from pork and mung beans covered in sticky rice and wrapped in banana leaves). The gifts became more and more frequent as Tet approached, until one day I arrived home with a bag full of bánh chưng and opened up the fridge to find it was completely filled. Literally wall-to-wall with bánh chưng and nothing else!

It was really generous of the students, and I was glad that everyone wanted to share their culture with me, but I could only eat so much. I had to start my classes for the week by explaining to my students, “I’m really full from eating so much bánh chưng, and I can’t handle any more.” In the end, I shared it with my neighbours and friends when we went to visit, so it was all put to good use.’ ^

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