One time of the year

While cities empty out during Tet, places like Vung Tau take on a new life.

By Don Wills on February 26,2015 08:09 AM

One time of the year

Photo: Dinh Hang

The Muslim world has its Eid, India has its Holi Festival, Christendom has its Christmas, and Vietnam has its Tet. And if you haven’t experienced a Tet before, you’re in for a treat. This will be my eighth Tet in Vietnam, and I’m beginning to know what to expect.

The timing of Tet is dictated by the lunar calendar. This year it starts on February 18. In the first few days many shops and companies close their doors and business grinds to a halt. In the few days before Tet, householders clean their homes (cleaning is frowned upon once Tet has started) and decorate them with kumquat trees two or three feet tall. These trees have to be chosen carefully: they must be symmetrical and the fruit must be bright orange in colour. In northern Vietnam, the preference is for peach flowers or peach trees. Trees can be expensive but it’s also possible to lease them from farmers for the duration of Tet. A few live carp are put into the bathtub. This makes for awkward bathing, but brings bounteous good luck to the family. The eve of Tet is spent burning incense, praying, and burning votive paper money, and on the next day the family visits their ancestors’ graves to pay homage.

And then, once the traditional obligations have been observed, there’s just one thing left to do. Party.

I now live in Vung Tau, one hour’s drive from HCMC. From Monday to Thursday, Vung Tau is semi-deserted; the traffic is sparse, the footpaths are free of vendors, and hotels and restaurants have only a handful of guests. On Friday evening, though, everything changes. Holidaymakers begin to stream in. Some come by bus, many come by motorbike. Most are from HCMC, and all are hell-bent on having a weekend full of swimming, partying and fun. At Tet, you can multiply this by ten.

Two days after the beginning of Tet the coaches start rolling in. Some are battered and worn but most are gleaming new 40-seaters. All are packed with excited revellers, itching to alight and begin celebrating. The hotels fill up, street vendors throng the footpaths, restaurants bring out extra tables, and the roads are clogged with cruising motorcyclists. Tour buses park bumper to bumper on the narrow streets outside the hotels, effectively reducing traffic to one lane. The beaches are full of happy, shrieking tourists, deck chairs are at a premium, and the seafood vendors make a mint.

At night, it’s time for some serious partying. The location of choice is on the footpaths outside the hotels. Plastic tables and chairs are trotted out, along with a crate or two of Ba Ba beer and plastic bags full of ice. Passing vendors are hailed, and plates full of grilled octopus and squid are ordered. Then it’s time for ‘Mot, hai, ba, Yo!’ as glasses are clinked together and the first of many beers are knocked back. Some of the hotels will have karaoke sessions in full swing, so the sound of music fills the air. Now, Vietnamese on the whole have pretty good singing voices. Alas, it’s rarely one of them who reaches for the mike during street-side karaoke sessions. It’s those who, while not short on gusto and enthusiasm, are a trifle short on timing and staying in tune. But, what the heck, the singer and the audience are having a rollicking good time so who’s complaining?

On the beach, the scene is slightly different. Groups of revellers sit on the sand around small campfires. They have no karaoke systems, but they do have a guitar or two and inexhaustible supplies of beer, plastic cups and ice. Seafood vendors buzz around them; they’ll make more money during Tet than they do over the rest of the year.

And so on the beaches and sidewalks the mot-hai-ba-yoing goes on, from late afternoon to far into the night. If your house or hotel is within earshot of the street, don’t expect too much sleep. (If it all gets too much for you, you can always flee to Cambodia, which funnily enough observes Tet a month or so later than Vietnam.)

A few years ago I resolved to escape the frenetic hub-bub of Vung Tau by spending a day in Long Hai. This idyllic, sleepy beach resort is a 30-minute drive from Vung Tau. The broad sweep of the bay is usually deserted save for a few fishermen, the cafes mostly devoid of customers, and a pleasant torpor hangs over the township. And so, one day during Tet I climbed onto my motorbike for a day’s pleasant respite from the madding crowd. When I got to Long Hai there were tour buses parked bumper to bumper, the restaurants were full, and it was standing room only on the beach. Oh me, oh my, welcome to Vietnam!

Surprisingly, the few places that aren’t thronged with people at Tet are the big cities. The streets of HCMC, for example, are strangely quiet, the swarms of motorcycles reduced to a trickle. Half the population has left to go to places like Vung Tau and Nha Trang.

And then, after eight days of partying, it’s all over. The tour buses stream out, the hotels empty, and the restaurants are once again facing a dearth of customers. It’s all back to business as usual. Until this time next year.

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