TET Vietnam – The Travellers Guide

What is TET?

Tet Nguyen Dan or Tet for short, is by far the most significant holiday and season in the Vietnam Calendar. It is the Vietnamese New Year, based on the Lunar calendar, a lunisolar calendar. It also marks the coming of Spring.

The name Tet Nguyen Dan is Sino-Vietnamese for “Feast of the very First Morning.” This will make more sense once you appreciate the importance of Vietnamese traditions. Who and what happens on the first day of the New Year can set the tone for the rest of year so it is a day to be treated with respect.

Scene of Tet in Ho Chi Minh City

TET – Dates

TET takes place from the first day of the first month of the Lunar calendar (around late January or early February) until at least the third day. So it varies from year to year. See below for a calendar of the next 5 years for TET.

Note: TET is known to Vietnamese as NEW YEARS DAY, and the day prior being New Years Eve.

YearTet New YearHoliday
2020Sat – 25 Jan National
2021 Fri – 12 FebNational
2022 Tue – 1st FebNational
2023 Sun  – 22 JanNational
2024 Sat  – 10 FebNational
2025 Wed – 29 JanNational

It is important to reiterate the fact that TET is not just a day, it can consume up to 9 days. It becomes an attitude. Everything either happens before TET or after, but not much during. By that, no big decisions will be made during TET. It is mainly about paying respects and just about “being” with the people you love.

Many Vietnamese start preparing for TET well in advance. This is why you will note it is one of the busiest times in the markets and in homes as roughly a week or two before people start cooking special holiday foods and cleaning their house.

There are a lot of customs practiced during TET such as visiting a person’s house on the first day of the new year (“xông nhà”), ancestral worship, wishing New Year’s greetings, giving lucky money to children and elderly people and opening a shop.

TET celebrations – Setting the tone for the New year

The Vietnamese are big on the importance of giving. Specially during this time. People make time to visit their friends and family and offer gifts. Even people who they don’t normally see very often, they will travel many miles to see and thank them for their friendship, with no expectation of receiving anything in return.

Flowers are in abundance. You will see them everywhere. Money trees: small envelopes of money and personal gift giving is an integral part of this celebration. It says a lot about the Vietnamese and their values. Family and friends are everything. Gift giving is their way of giving back.

Flower market in Hanoi

However not everyone celebrates the same way. The less traditional Vietnamese still use the time to celebrate with family and friends but they do not conform strictly to the traditions of their ancestors.

A lot of cleaning, refurbishing and redecorating goes on prior to TET as people believe the way they finish the previous year will influence the next year.

As you walk around town you can see shops, homes and streets being cleared away to make room for flowers and altars.

It seems the tradition of TET varies by location in Vietnam. In speaking to one young woman from Hanoi she wasn’t aware that wearing white on TET was not considered proper as white meant death, and this could bring bad luck to the family if worn into the house that day. Of course, if this is not your belief, then this tradition is lost on you. This is why trying to get any consistency about this event is difficult for westerners, because there just isn’t any!

The main meal of the day also can vary. Most families will stick to family favorites with some older dishes added in and made specially for this occasion. But once again it varies by household, city, and personal favorites. Food is a big feature of the celebrations of the day, so if you do get to experience TET with a family you can expect more than one meal in the day. More like several!

TET Traditional dishes

The following list of foods are considered the more traditional dishes you can expect to see at a dinner table.

  1.   Banh ChungBanh Tet
  2. Pickled onions
  3. Boiled chicken
  4. Mung bean pudding
  5. Vietnamese sausage – giò chả
  6. Xôi Gấc – Red Sticky Rice
  7. Roasted nuts and seeds

When you are travelling in Vietnam around this time you will soon get a sense of TET as a “Vibe” in the air, rather than just a day, as in the minds of most people there is only, “before TET” or “after TET”.  During, is just time to “be”.

You may be warned “Everything will be closed”. This is technically incorrect. Because as we have discussed here, not all Vietnamese celebrate the New Year period the same way. You will find more and more places staying open to take advantage of the tourist dollar. For a tourist though, watch out for higher prices and the quality of produce as meats and fish may be old, and the tailors they use not as high quality as they are away with family and not doing the tailors normal work. It can be a trap for the uninitiated. The same goes for Taxis. They will be around, but maybe not as many, and they may charge more. The staff at your hotel or homestay will advise you. Watch the meter! And yes, it will be quieter on the streets.

Celebrating can include a lot more drinking of rice wine and beer than normal. This can cause some havoc during this period. Vietnamese are not normally known for being big drinkers, so it’s a time to be “super” aware of people on bikes and walking around during this period as things can get a bit crazier than normal.

As a tourist you shouldn’t have to worry about finding a few local establishment’s open serving up delicious Vietnamese cuisine and western foods. However, the best  advice is local advice, so check with your hotel or homestay prior to the actual day to get recommendations.

In summary it is a season to embrace. Talk to the locals you meet about what it means to them. Ask them what they will do to celebrate? Buy some flowers. Give someone a small gift of thanks. It is a season where the feeling of joy and giving becomes contagious.

5 tips for Travelers in Vietnam during TET

  1. Buy your travel tickets for travel during the TET season well in advance ( 3 days before New Year and 3 days after). For 2020 this would be for the period 20th January – 3rd February, roughly.
  2. Be early at the airport, bus station or train as this is the busiest travel period for Vietnamese who travel long distances to visit family and friends and carry lots of luggage.
  3. Make sure you bring all your travel documents confirming all your travel arrangements, tickets, and emergency contact details.
  4. Don’t expect to do too much activity wise on the actual National Holidays as many tourist attractions will be closed or at a minimum their hours will be reduced, and they may even charge an extra TAX. Be prepared to just chill out!
  5. Check with your hotel or homestay about what services will be operating for meals and what are the closest alternative eateries open.