Tet in Vietnam: A Foreigner Point of View

Discomfort, weird food, too much alcohol, relentless mosquitoes and….love and family. This is my Tet Holiday, traveling with my wife and kids. And in a few weeks, we’ll do it all over again.

Most foreigners associate Tet in Vietnam with red envelopes, lucky money and quiet streets.

My experience is a little different. For me, after a decade of surviving the wild countryside with my in-laws, the Lunar New Year, to me, means: zero comfort, cramped rooms, weird dishes, waterfalls of alcohol and too many damn mosquitoes.

Traveling with my wife and kids, I am dragging heavy bags full of luggage with an assortment of nuts and fruits from the South. Apparently, I am going to risk my life for 10 days in a tiny Northern Vietnamese town. Surrounded by nothing but bamboo trees, rice fields and, of course, their ancestor’s graves.

Anything can happen during these Tet celebrations. The time I painfully fell TWICE onto dirty, greasy tiles three years ago remains fresh in my mind as I arrive. I wonder what will occur this year?

1) Welcoming Tet again

Tet in Vietnam Here we settle

The landscape changed significantly during the hour-and-a-half trip from the airport to my in-laws’ place in the Vietnamese countryside. Large roads slowly switched to wild trails. The muddy ground waits to trap our rolling suitcases. Same every year.

My mother-in-law welcomes us with a big smile. It’s 4pm, but the dinner is already displayed on a mat covering the ground. I typically don’t have an appetite after taxi-plane-taxi, but my opinion matters little here. And I’m herded inside anyway.

Like Hobbits, we are going to eat five times a day on the floor. I forget the tables, sit on the ground, and prepare for cramped legs. In my head, a countdown appears with 9 1/2 days displayed.

There’s no place like home

My wife’s mother invites us to start eating right away.

For the moment I have a good excuse to avoid the table (read: the floor). First, I must drag the luggage into our room. A good 10 minutes of work. Because, of course, the bedroom is not on the ground floor. I must carry our big bags through narrow circular stairs. Luggage marks from previous years are still here.

Two liters of sweat later, our belongings are safe in the room. Through the small window, I can see the hens and chickens that will inevitably start singing at around 4am every morning, like always. I know we will be eating tons of chicken during our wonderful holiday. Too bad these won’t be on the menu.

Dorothy had it so right…

Put your hands down on the floor

It seems like it’s always time to eat during Tet.

Even in poorer communities, Vietnamese people never lack for food during the Tet holidays. Especially when foreigners are sharing the meal. They are determined to fill your stomach so you better not be a picky eater.

With all due respect to Vietnamese who sit on the floor to share food, I recognize that I personally have lost that ability since my childhood. Big bodies and long legs cannot sit in such a position for long.

There are plenty of plates and bowls to pick from: mostly pork (it’s cheap), chicken (they love it) and rice cakes (a must for Tet). Plus a few specialties from the countryside.

This year, my first meal is tiet canh (blood pudding). What better way to start the holidays than with a dish that even your wife begs you not to touch due to sanitary reasons. Well, nothing forces me to eat that stuff but… since at least 10 people are staring at me…

Another piece of chicken?

My in-laws have a sense of hospitality. They place the food directly into my bowl, a Vietnamese custom that shows you care. I return the favor going around the room, putting food in everyone’s bowls.

The food itself is somewhat clean. At least it has been washed. In the countryside, the concept of hygiene is quite different from cities, which itself is way lower than in developed countries.

Whatever you eat, even if it’s the best food of your life, after 10 days of the same dishes over and over again, you won’t look at it the same way.

2) Countryside: The lost world

Tet in Vietnam Trying to take a shower

After my first few years of coming to my wife’s hometown for Tet in Vietnam, I have learned a few things.

Bring your own soap. Do not share your towel with anyone. Don’t try to lock the broken bathroom door and don’t hang your clothes anywhere unless you’re ok with them ending up on a dirty floor. Learn the phrase Co nguoi (‘Someone in here’) as people try to open the unlocked door. Be prepared for curious kids to look in on you through the broken window, which only has a newspaper for a curtain.

Oh, and bring slippers for the shower, to protect your feet.

Sometimes there’s hot water, sometimes not. I am still not clear if the tap actually works, or if 20 people used the bathroom before me. It doesn’t matter too much as you’ll need another shower as soon as you step outside anyway.

Good night honey. And kids. And other kids. And dogs. And chickens.

At home, my kids usually go to sleep at a reasonable hour. However, during the Vietnamese New Year, this isn’t a rule that can be enforced.

Between the neighbors and cousins, they have plenty of reasons to play, run, disappear, yell, laugh, sleepover. The noise continues late into the night.

We resign ourselves to unpacking. As we open the luggage, insects I can’t even name jump out. They were definitely not here when we packed at home. Never mind.

Sleeping on the floor on such a thin mattress might seem cozy, but I quickly changed my mind the first time I woke up with tick marks.

It didn’t matter much as the barking dogs and singing roosters never let me sleep anyway. Cute.

My dear friends the mosquitoes

As warmly as my in-laws welcomed us, so do the mosquitoes.

Unlike the small insects populating Hanoi or Ho Chi Minh City, repellent doesn’t work with the big rural bugs when expats are on the menu.

“Have you been in a motorbike accident?” people inquired when they saw the dozens of red itchy scars on my skin.

“Just mosquitoes.”

3) Chuc mung nam moi!

Tet in Vietnam Lunar New Year countdown

Before the big night, following the Vietnamese calendar, my in-laws prepare the food and the house. It’s important for everything to be perfect for Tet in Vietnam.

My wife’s mother crafts dozens of banh chung. Vietnamese love to cook them in a pot over fire during the night. It’s the best time for my spouse to socialize with her relatives. Meanwhile, I take this opportunity to get some sleep.

In the living room, peanuts, seeds, and other sweets must always be available for the guests who will visit the family right after Tet. Kids usually raid the candies, of course, so when they cannot eat anymore, it’s up to the adults to finish the rest of the meat. Remember we eat five times a day here. Sometimes more.

The rules may change after Tet. But before the new year comes, the house must be clean and spotless to bring good fortune.

Tet in Vietnam: Here we go

At midnight, I gather with all the kids to watch the fireworks. For such a small town, they have pretty nice ones. It lasts around a full 15 minutes and no one is disappointed.

There are plenty of people everywhere: families, young couples, groups of friends. The place around the lake is crowded, noisy and filled with communal spirit.

Once the fireworks end, I see young Vietnamese coming to me. I am probably the only foreigner within miles, so I have a target on my forehead. They want to sell me lucky salt in small red bags.

My brother-in-law asked me to bring 1 kg for his family. No problem, it’s cheap, and I know how much Vietnamese are happy to start the year in such salty-tasty conditions.

Superstitions are commonplace across the whole country: vendors believe having a good deal at the beginning of the year will guarantee them luck until the next Tet.

It’s the same logic for the first client of the day. This is a good tip if you are looking for an early morning bargain in Vietnam. In France, we say: The future belongs to those who get up early. Totally true in Vietnam too.

Time for li xi

From this point, kids and young adults receive the famous Asian tradition of red envelopes filled with lucky money.

Traditionally, the older people give them to children, wishing them a good year, to learn a lot at school, and to be nice to the family. For grown-ups, it’s success, luck and health.

What’s inside the red envelopes? Usually 10,000 to 20,000 VND for kids and 50,000 to 100,000 for teens and young adults. It can even be a 500,000 VND note for very close family. Jackpot!

The li xi delivery is a very important tradition. Lots of respect and cheers for the new year.

I don’t know you but I will visit you and I will cheer you

Like most people on the first day after Tet, my in-laws stay home.

The place quickly becomes dirty with so many relatives visiting and kids playing. Plus, it is common to just leave trash on the floor (something I will never get used to).

When my wife attempts to clean the place, she is scolded by her mother: “LEAVE IT AS IT IS!” Yes, after the Vietnamese New Year, you must keep everything dirty. The purpose is to keep the joy and luck as long as possible, or something like that. Even my wife is not clear with that tradition.

Day 2: Neighbors, cousins, uncles, relatives, lots of extended family I don’t know come by. Apparently, I meet them every year during this period, but it’s difficult to keep track of so many names.

They eat. They drink. They socialize. They cheer. And they play cards such as tien len to test their luck for the rest of the year.

Day 3: We go out to the village and visit an even larger circle of acquaintances, old teachers, students and neighbors who I know even less. In Vietnam, they keep these relationships for life!

Water dreams

I always have something to drink here: beer, vodka and rice wine poured from a plastic bag bought from the street.

I never see anyone with a glass of water. How can those kids run so much without drinking? They must be very far from their recommended daily liters.

Since tap water is a bad idea here, I decide to buy some from a shop.

But during Tet in Vietnam, they close. Everything is closed. Do not expect merchants to open for three or four days after the Vietnamese New Year.

Luckily, perhaps due to the lucky salt I bought, I find a small stall where I manage to barter for some bottles of water.

4) Eventually back to normal

Tet in Vietnam Friendship never ends

After about five days, activity slowly comes back, with most shops starting to open.

This time, we meet my wife’s childhood friend’s sister. We barely know her, but we still spend around 2 hours in her house, which is also a shop for cheap handmade clothes.

Vietnamese people are extremely curious about foreigners. Within the first few minutes, I had already answered:

  • Where am I from? France
  • Did I buy a house for my wife? Hmm, not yet, I apologize
  • How much do you earn a month? Just enough to live (my wife told me to answer this way)

And then, she proudly explains how she has land investments exceeding 10 billion VND, which I wondered about as we sat in the cramped shop. Locals are very open with their lives and expect you to be the same.

Visiting the pagoda

During the first month after Tet, it’s recommended (rather mandatory according to my mother-in-law) to pray at the pagoda and bring luck to the family.

After so many years I know the ritual by heart.

As we arrive, there are plenty of street vendors and games for the kids, who don’t care about the prayers. All in all, it’s good business. Printed ads for phone companies are handed out alongside the scriptures. Viettel, Vinaphone, and pagoda: the perfect mix of modernity and tradition.

While inside, we make offerings of money, fruits, eggs and drinks for the spirits to bring us good fortune as incense burns all around. A similar thing happens at home with the ancestor shrine.

Besides the prayers, monks write inscriptions for each family member. These messages are burnt along with some fake money in order to communicate with the spirits. That’s how people apply Confucianism, which is about tradition and is separate from Buddhism, an actual religion.

We step outside to more alters and spirits. My kids wash their faces in the well for one of their favorites — the Spirit of Water. Meanwhile, switched-on street vendors try to sell bottled water spirits for you to take home. It’s good business, I told you!

Before we leave, we stay to snack on some eggs, drink tea and enjoy the well-deserved serenity for a little while.

Going out

Luckily there was no karaoke this year.

Instead, we pile around 20 family members into a bus and head to a distant uncle’s new fruit plantation three hours away.

We arrive at his farm for lunch. There are no other buildings for miles around. After eating, drinking and celebrating at the farm, we get back into the bus. Now, we head for another three hours down the road to a famous mud bath as I watch cousins pass the time with more card games.

We arrive to find the mud bath place doesn’t exist anymore. It’s still advertised online, it just closed down a few years ago.

So not wanting the trip to be for nothing, we instead spent time at the local pool and had a big meal with the family before heading home.

5) Saying goodbye

Tet in Vietnam

And that’s it: 10 days, and Tet in Vietnam is already over.

From this testimony, you may think spending Vietnamese New Year with your local family is a nightmare. Not at all. There are plenty of good things during Tet. You fully realize how kind the Vietnamese people are. The connection between people, their ancestors, the spirits and nature are truly inspiring.

Their friendship and comradery is also boundless. Locals might ask, “How many girlfriends do you have besides your wife?” They’re doing it out of jest. The Tet spirit enhances it all as it’s a chance to share time with loved ones.