We landed in Vietnam on Tet, the first day of the new year according to this country’s lunar calendar. That wasn’t our plan, but airfares were especially cheap that day (like flying on Christmas Day back home). Tet resembles an American Thanksgiving in that people travel far to spend time with their families and do lots of cooking and eating. And as at Thanksgiving, after a couple of days cooped up with their relatives, people are eager to get out of the house and do something.
A few blocks from our hotel in Hanoi was a pretty lake, Hoan Kiem, with wide sidewalks, cool breezes, and picturesque temples. It was a favorite spot for families to stroll, take pictures, and make offerings for a happy and prosperous new year in the main temple.
With most shops and museums closed for the multiday holiday, we gravitated toward the lake for some wonderful people watching, as Vietnamese folks who are usually hard at work behind the walls of offices, stores, restaurants, and hotels were out enjoying their (or their relatives’) city.
Everyone was dressed in their best new clothing—much of it reddish, the color of Tet. People in Vietnam don’t celebrate individual birthdays throughout the year; instead, everyone turns one year older on New Year’s Day. Children get presents, people get new clothes, and family ancestors get lots of offerings at temples and household shrines. A common sight at Tet is people burning “spirit money” (fake paper bills) in special little metal stoves on the sidewalk outside their house, an offering of wealth to the spirits of their ancestors.
Tet is the biggest holiday in Vietnam—birthdays and Christmas and New Year’s and Memorial Day rolled into one. It was an unexpected pleasure to spend our first days in Vietnam amid so much nontouristy local color and festivity.
Of course, how much you enjoy the holiday depends on who or what you are. During Tet, people have traditionally refrained from digging in their gardens or drawing water from wells so that the earth and water get to rest for the holiday too. Not so if you’re a chicken, though. Every family eats two whole chickens during the holiday period, one on the first day and one on the last. In Hanoi, a city of 6 million people, that’s a lot of chickens. No wonder that for days after Tet ended, we couldn’t order chicken dishes in restaurants; the supply had run out. It takes a while to raise that many chickens again.