Tet Nguyen Dan, or, Tet Holiday, is the largest public holiday in Vietnam. It is also called Vietnamese New Year and is by far the most popular holiday and marks the beginning of Spring. The Year of the Tiger, 2022, will end and make way for the Year of the Cat, 2023.
By the time we get to November, everyone starts to think about Tet. Yes, get over it, Christmas is not a thing here in Vietnam. You may see decorations and some hotels might have Christmas Lunch Buffets, but the vast majority of Vietnamese people are focussing on their biggest national holiday.
What is Tet?
Well, simply put, Tet is New Year. It is a festival to celebrate the coming of Spring. As such, there is much symbolism of new life, new beginnings attached to it and a great deal of tradition that seeks to give the best luck to families at this time. At this time of year people try extra hard to avoid offending or bringing bad luck to others as well as seek ways to increase the fortune that falls their way.
Many people worldwide will refer to the celebration as ‘Chinese New Year’ but that is seen as slightly ignorant or offensive here in Vietnam and the term ‘Tet’, ‘Lunar new New Year’ or ‘Vietnamese New Year’ are preferred.
When is Tet Holiday in 2023?
Now, Tet is held on the 1st day of the 1st month of the Lunar Calendar. This day will shift on the Solar Calendar (the one used all over the world and that you are used to) from late January to mid February depending on how the two calendars align.
This next Tet will be on the 22nd January, 2023 (solar calendar). It is a Sunday. The Saturday night before will be New Year’s Eve (Dem Giao Thua). Sunday, and the next four days, until 26th January (solar calendar) will be New Year’s Day and New Year’s holiday and are collectively called Tet Nguyen Dan.
Note that in 2023 New Year’s Eve and New Year’s Day fall on a Saturday and Sunday respectively. Therefore, the 25th and 26th of January have been added to the usual 3 day holiday.
There is a great deal of preparation that takes place in the run up to Tet. This will generally start in earnest around 1 month before the New Year.
Friends and colleagues will start to meet up for end of year celebrations and shopping for decorations (trees and flowers) will begin shortly after. Next will come the food preparation as many specialty dishes have certain ingredients and take some time to prepare.
In the days leading up to Tet people will clean their houses and buy new clothes to wear. Other costumes such as worshipping ancestors, visiting people’s houses, gifting lucky money and opening business on an auspicious date take place.
Similarly, to other Asian countries, the colours of red and yellow are believed to bring good fortune so you will see them everywhere imaginable. Trees, walls, houses and streets will be covered with red and gold symbols of good luck. People will be on their best behaviour and will refrain from any negative comments or actions, particularly on the 1st, 2nd and 3rd days of Tet,which are seen to be the most important. All of this is aimed at inviting as much good luck as possible to spill over into the coming year. What happens on these 3 days is believed to indicate the family’s fate for the coming year.
Many people will travel to be at home to visit relatives hence it can be hard to book transportation at this time. If they are not doing that, then they are likely to be shopping or visiting temples so traffic congestion is the norm.
This is also a time for some people to worship at family graves. Interestingly, each region and religion in Vietnam will have slightly different variations on these customs.
Things to be Aware of
Flights and hotels will get booked up and become more expensive. Someone has to offer an incentive to those workers who choose not to visit family and carry on working.
Projects will be put on hold; new projects will be stalled. There is a general air of malaise that pervades the country and getting things done becomes extremely hard.
Another great concern is the appearance of more and more traffic cops at this time. Whilst everyone is thinking about Tet, their main concern is how to get together enough money to buy everything they need to really enjoy the festival.
Travelling becomes a serious issue. The supply of transportation reduces as workers takes holidays but the demand increases from all those who need to return to their home towns to visit family. This includes flights from overseas as well as domestic ones. There are plenty of students whose parents insist on them returning to celebrate Tet with family.
Most public offices will have long holidays and some will, unofficially, take two weeks off or at least be on the abovementioned go slow. Don’t expect to get anything done or done quickly over this time and make sure to plan in advance.
Tourist sites will be closed for at least 4 days so there will be little in the way of entertainment for visitors. However, it does also mean that most large cities will be relatively tranquil and you will get to see them in a different light.
A lot of restaurants and cafes will be closed because they are often small family run businesses. The owners / workers will not want to take time away from their families as they may seem to be desperate and not financially secure enough to fully enjoy Tet. Face saving alert !! Those that are open could well have limited options as they are unable to get supplies or enough staff to offer full service. Be understanding.
A great tradition that you can easily muscle in on is giving lucky money to children. It is easy enough to buy the lucky money envelopes and prepare them to give to children. You will be held in high regard if you hand out these to children and be repaid with great hospitality from their parents. There is no need to put in a lot of money; it is more symbolic than financial. You can learn more about lucky money in this blog we wrote.
Shopping is a nightmare at this time. Not only are all shopping areas extremely crowded just prior to Tet, the vendors are likely to increase prices and not be willing to barter at all. Post Tet, you may find shops that open early are happy to sell goods but you should be polite about bartering as this could bring bad luck to the vendor. If they think so, then there will be no sale.
Temples and pagodas will be full and so will the areas around them. There will be huge pile ups of cars, motorbikes and foot traffic all around popular places of worship as people enter to pray for good luck and health as well as give offerings to the Gods. you can expect to be held up unless you plan your route very carefully.
The First Footer tradition still lives strong in Vietnam since it is still believed that the first person to cross the family threshold will determine the households good fortune, or lack of, for the year to come. Each family will endeavour to find a first footer who is successful, even tempered and well respected in society to be the first to enter the home. They may also consider the lunar zodiac sign the person was born under in order to make their choice.
During Tet, sweeping is a no no. This will symbolise the sweeping away of good luck. This is why all houses are swept, of bad luck, prior to Tet so that there is no need to do so during the holiday.
Tet Greetings and Wishes
There are many ways and thing to wish people luck, health and prosperity for the upcoming year and a simple Happy New Year – Chuc Mung Nam Moi could become a bit stale once you have uttered it a thousand times. A lot will depend on the age and personal situation of the person you are talking to.
Why not try things like:
Be ngoan nhe, theo loi ong ba / bo me – be good, listen to (grand) parents.
Hay an cho lon – Eat up and grow big.
Cham ngoan hoc gioi – be good and study hard
Do dat dang khoa – be successful in exams
Van su nhu y – may all your wishes come true
An khang thing vuong – have good health
Song lau, mot tram nam – live long, 100 years old
Tien vao nhu nuoc (ra nhu giot ca phe) – may money flow to you like a river (and leave slowly by the drop)
The Three Days of Tet
Generally speaking, New Year’s Eve and the first 3 days of Tet are the most important time and can be allocated to different relationship groups.
Before Tet and up to New Year’s eve a lot of emphasis is placed on friends and colleagues. People will have celebratory meals to reaffirm their tight bonds with coworkers and partners. It is at these times that lavish gifts may be given out. The more expensive the gift, the more important the relationship. These celebrations can begin up to 1 month before Tet.
New Year’s Eve
This means different things for different families as some will insist on it being a close family celebration, whilst others (usually younger) will see it as a time for being with good friends.
The first day of Tet
New Year’s Day is a time for family. Many people will eat at home with their close family and then, in the afternoon, go to visit other close family members. These are brothers, sisters, cousins etc… It is highly irregular for friends to visit each other on this day.
The second day of Tet
The 2nd day of Tet is generally reserved for those close family members that people were unable to visit (due to distance/time constraints) on the 1st day. Again, uncles, aunts, cousins etc…
The third day of Tet
The 3rd day of Tet is a little more flexible and will see people meeting their good friends. This will often be the same people that they met on New Year’s Eve and it is often a time for them to relax a little after having to be on their best behaviour for the last few days.
Often, groups of students will get together and visit their former teacher, which allows them to be a little more relaxed and have more fun.
Most of these decorations will be coloured red or gold to symbolise good luck or good finances and they will also have symbols of chinese characters that are words for good luck. A lot of decorations will have the animal of the zodiac for the forthcoming year. 2023 is the Year of the Cat in Vietnam.
Trees with flowering buds are symbolic of new life and new beginnings so every family will buy a tree to decorate their house. Traditionally, in the North this is usually a peach blossom tree or a kumquat tree (chosen as it is laden with fruit), whereas in the South it will be a Mai flower or Yellow Apricot Blossom. All of these trees have stories behind why they are chosen. Here we tell more about the Flowers and Trees of Tet.
Another interesting custom is that of giving lucky money which we talk about in this blog.
In a Nutshell
Tet is a very interesting time to be in Vietnam. If you can avoid or alleviate any of the little nuisances that are associated with this time of year, it is a great place to be. You will experience a completely new culture in its most intense carnation and it will leave you with lasting memories. So, get over here and enjoy.