Almost as soon as we arrived in Vietnam in late December with our 90-day visas in hand, we were warned by locals and expats alike to find a place to park ourselves for Tet. Rumors had it that prices for everything, from trains and airlines to hotels and taxis would go up around the holiday, as all of Vietnam would be on the move to return home to celebrate with close family. We were told that during the week of Tet, everything would be closed: museums, monuments, stores, restaurants. Whole cities would shut down.
After much deliberation, we decided (last minute!) to visit the capital city of Hanoi during the Tet holiday, betting that as a large city, they would still have options open and available for visitors. This turned out to be more than true. In fact, Hanoi is the perfect place to hang during this period, and let yourself get swept into the spirit of the festivities.
We arrived the week before Tet by air from Phu Quoc, and even last minute, tickets were cheap with Vietnam Airlines. We lucked out as our gorgeous, modern two-bedroom apartment, an Airbnb rental, was in a great location: down an alley right behind the buzzing Quang An flower market in the upscale, relatively serene neighborhood of West Lake (Tay Ho district). We loved it! (Here is more about this district.)
At the flower market
Although our apartment offered us a blissful sanctuary, we still had to walk though the outdoor flower market and across the main road to get to the lake, restaurants, and the public bus that goes downtown. I can only describe doing so the week before Tet as a ruckus adventure.
Everyone in all of Hanoi, it seemed, was at the flower market. The two lengthy aisles were filled with shoppers and motorbikes (their riders also shopping), all vying for the same space. The Vietnamese are not shy. They’re open, friendly, and assertive, and just insert themselves wherever thy need to be, without aggression or apology. Walking through the market is one thing, but crossing the main road in front of the market proved to be a death-defying act, one we would perform every day of our stay. Lucky for us, we’d been in the country for six weeks already and had the rhythm and method for doing this down.
So let me explain why flowers are so important to the Vietnamese during Tet. People adorn their homes with them and give them as gifts. Most important, however, are the branches with the unopened pink buds of the peach tree (in the north) and the yellow ones of the apricot tree (in the south). People buy these for their homes and businesses, letting the buds open and blossom, along with new leaves, during and after Tet for good luck. Another good luck tradition, especially in north Vietnam, is the placement of bountiful kumquat trees.
Peach branches for Tet, being driven to a home
We loved seeing all manner of tree branches and kumquat trees strapped to the backs of motorbikes throughout the city all week long, everyone rushing about to bring good luck into their homes. Many hang red envelopes filled with money from these branches, for added good luck in the new year. Even our local grocery store had a tree with red envelopes, from which card members (like us, we joined!) could select a coupon for a free product. How fun!
Another Tet Tradition: Food!
Almost every market sold huge tins of Danish butter cookies, coffees, teas, candies, and nuts as well as pre-assembled, cellophane-wrapped baskets of such items. People bought loads of these to give to various members of their communities. I watched one woman and her daughter stash over 20 huge round tins of Danish butter cookies into their carts at the grocery store. They have a lot of people to be grateful for, I thought.
Our intimate, six-story, eight unit apartment complex welcomed us with such a gift, and soon after, we created two simple bags with Swiss chocolate and butter cookies to give to the two families who live here and rented our place to us. They are two sisters, plus husbands and kids, and along with a brother who lives with his family elsewhere, they designed, built, and own our building, along with two other buildings in the neighborhood. (Their kids come play with ours all the time, saying they need to practice their English. Our kids are thrilled!)
Another Tet food you’ll find here at this time: Banh Chung, a rice cake made of dense sticky rice, mung beans and pork, tightly wrapped in banana leaves like a neat parcel. It can last up to a week outside the refrigerator. Both families in our building gifted us with one of these cakes.
Other traditional Tet foods include these (see link). Phuong, the architect and university professor who officially rented us our place, invited us up to her place for coffee a few days before Tet, and served some of these foods, most notably the candied fruits, which were delicious. We felt so privileged to be a part of her family’s festivities. She amazes me with the overwhelming love and support she gives her 11-year-old son, who is autistic and also an extremely talented artist. And her five-year-old daughter is fluent in French. During this evening, we also hung out with her husband, who designed the building, her father-in-law, a former professor, and his wife (who both live in the apartment across from us), along with two poodles, a chameleon, and a parrot. The kids stayed up until 10 p.m. making cookies!
The day before Tet, a Sunday this year, things started to slow down in the late afternoon. Stores closed early and the roads miraculously cleared, as promised.
Hanoi advertised 31 locations for fireworks set for the eve of Tet, six of which were “high” ones. We had our kids take a nap so that they could stay up long enough to see the midnight fireworks. Counting on less traffic during Tet week, Pierre rented a motorbike (yes, for the four of us) and planned to take us to one of the many cafes along the West Lake shore that opened just for the occasion.
Tet decorations for sale
But in the parking garage, we ran into our friends from upstairs, the ones whose kids come to play with ours all the time, and they invited us to the rooftop of their other building, which is right on the lake. We ended up sharing a fabulous evening with them, eating snacks, drinking champagne, and having a spectacular view of the fireworks.
As tradition predicated, they burned money and other fancy papers on the roof to protect their building and bring them good luck in the new year. In the coming week, we found many merchants and cafe owners doing the same out in the streets of Hanoi.
On the day of Tet, the flower market was completely empty, with not a person or flower pedal in sight. A great day for a motorbike tour of Hanoi, we thought. But as it turned out, certain parts of Hanoi were packed with others who had the same idea. Vietnamese families, all dressed up and scrunched onto motorbikes, cruising the streets and enjoying the sun.