A Foreigner in Vietnam During Tet

Submitted by tomo on February 1, 2013 - 1:52pm

A Quiet American in a Quiet Vietnam

About two weeks after I first arrived in Saigon, it began: Tet. What a horrible mistake, being in Vietnam right at that time! Tet, being the single Vietnamese holiday that is equivalent to Thanksgiving, Christmas, and New Year in one long week that often stretches to a month for many students as well as laborours. While pre-Tet is a time of high commercial activity, it all comes to a full stop at midnight of the Lunar New Year. Vietnamese people go home. And for Saigon's 10 million or so population, this mostly means going back to places far from metropolitan Ho Chi Minh City. Vietnamese cities are full of economic migrants, young people coming as students or looking for jobs so they can earn money to send home. And Tet is the time of the year, for most economic migrants it's the one and only time of the year, when they return home to their families.

As a company or factory, you don't expect anyone to work during the days of Tet. It doesn't matter if you're a foreign company with orders from foreign countries that need to be filled, by customers that neither know nor care that a "Tet" is happening. If you're lucky, your employees will come back to work after a week, after you've paid them a "13th month" Tet bonus, often equivalent to one month's salary.

And so there's nobody to run the stores or restaurants. Sole restaurateurs either don't feel like working or go back to their home towns, their "countryside", or "que".

What this means for you: There's nobody to make and sell you food or drinks or even coffee. And you can't even go to the supermarket to buy some ingredients to cook at home. Even the local wetmarkets, not that you would shop there.

As you walk around post-apocalyptic Saigon, occasionally sighting other (white) zombies, strolling past pulled down shop front doors, experiencing the rare spectacle of traffic-less Saigon streets, you'll eventually find someplace that's open. You'll, of course, pay for the privilege of being a Tet-time consumer. Price gouging? Just unfettered capitalism!

Of course KFC and some other Western fast food chains will be open. Anyplace that's open during Tet will make a point of being open during Tet.

So what's a foreigner to do in Vietnam during Tet? You have a few options:

  1. Leave. Go to Cambodia or somewhere nearby which doesn't celebrate the Chinese New Year (so avoid places like China, Singapore, Hong Kong, but Cambodia is safe). Be warned: Flights back to Vietnam right before Tet and flights out of Vietnam at the end of Tet will be expensive.
  2. Stay, go home with a friend. If you have Vietnamese friends, they will invite you to their home towns. If you go with them, you'll probably stay at their home although hotels will be open, and you'll get to eat traditional Vietnamese Tet dishes like pickled garlic/leeks, Vietnamese ham (cha lua), banh tet (not the same as Tet), reddened watermelon seeds,
  3. Stay in the city and just relax. Enjoy the quiet, empty streets. Catch up on things.
  4. Travel within Vietnam. Unfortunately, you'll be competing with the entire country's population for transportation. And since people have many days off work some of them will, after spending time with their families, go to a holiday spot with friends.

After living through many Tets and trying each of the above I now prefer the third option, to just stay home and enjoy some down time. And that's why I now look forward to the Vietnamese Lunar New Year.

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