Tet in Saigon
We arrived in Saigon by train from Danang on the eve of Tet. All the guidebooks say that this is not a good time to visit because everything closes down for three days or more while the owners are visiting their family. This is true. We had been somewhat disappointed in Danang, when we discovered a cafe where we had previously been served ice cream and green tea by a very friendly woman was all locked up when we returned two days before Tet. If you can accept that "such is life!" for a few days, Tet is a fascinating time to be in Vietnam.
Tet, the Lunar New Year, falls in late January or early February. It is more important to the Vietnamese than Christmas and New Year celebrations combined are to most westerners. Everyone must return to their families and the ancestral graves are attended to and offerings made to the ancestors and the spirits. Homes are cleaned and painted and decorated with peach blossom and kumquat trees, and Christmas decorations! When I first saw the Christmas trees and decorations, I thought they were a bit slow in taking down the decorations from December, but after while, I realized that some Vietnamese have adopted Christmas decorations as Tet decorations. I even saw several Santa Clauses! Some homes and businesses also patriotically sported new Vietnamese flags.
We stayed in a backpackers hotel in the area allocated for western tourist accommodation. Nearby we discovered the best Italian restaurant owned by Vietnamese and it served the best pasta I have ever tasted! I had garlic bread, fettuccini with tomatoes and cream basil sauce, fresh orange juice and creme caramel, all for about $3.00 US! It was open for breakfast too. In the streets behind our hotel, the shops and restaurants were geared for the western tourist with lots of cheap souvenirs, clothes, books etc. And they stayed open throughout Tet.
We were intrigued by the bulldozer cleaning up a mountain of rubbish outside Ben Thanh Market that had closed down for the holiday. The market is in a large building occupying a whole city block. Quite a few shops in surrounding streets were open to catch last- minute shoppers. They mostly sold clothes, shoes, accessories, jewelry and some household goods and electrical appliances. Some sidewalk sellers were offering the last of their fruit and vegetables at artificially high prices.
On the morning of Tet, we were privileged to be invited to the home of a Vietnamese family to share a traditional meal. The first visitors to enter your house on Tet are very important as they set the tone for the rest of the year. To have wealthy, happy visitors is considered good luck. Our hosts were very pleased that we had learned to say "Chuc mung nam moi." (Happy New Year) We were treated to a meal of sticky rice cake, fatty beef, hard-boiled eggs, salad, dried and pickled onions, followed by pink and yellow varieties of watermelon. The sticky rice cake was surprisingly delicious. I even had seconds at the urging of our hosts.
We left by taxi and were intrigued by all the families out on their motorbikes and bicycles, cruising off to visit friends and relatives for Tet; complete families of Mum, Dad and up to three children, all dressed in their best clothes, sitting as comfortably on their bike as we would sit in a car, and none of them wearing helmets! Many of the young women wearing ao dais, perched elegantly on motorbikes - very graceful.
We spent the afternoon walking around the center of the city, although the only shops open were ones catering for tourists and a few sidewalk stalls. We walked to the river, not that we could see much from the banks, as there were too many large floating restaurants moored, including the deserted Saigon Floating Hotel, which used to be on the Barrier Reef in Australia. Insistent young men tried to sell us a trip on a small boat up the river. We sat in the shade of the park by the river for awhile. There was a gentle breeze blowing off the river. I had lemonade from a bottle, poured into a plastic bag with a straw and a rubber band for 400 dong - like drinking from a gold fish bag! While we were sitting there, some children gathered around. They wanted to sell us things, but soon were just sitting enjoying our company. A photographer also joined us. He had been very busy photographing Vietnamese families on their day out and was tired and wanting a rest.
We wandered through the famous Rex Hotel, posh and expensive - where the journalists used to stay during the war. We walked through the coffee shop and reception area and rode the lift to the rooftop. Looked into the banquet room and walked around the open-air roof top restaurant with its sculptured potted plants, life size statues of animals, aquariums, white iron tables and chairs. The lavish Tet decorations in the foyer were something else to behold. There were two large kumquat trees, covered in yellow flowers, fairy lights and Tet cards. Between them was a life-size model of men doing the lion dance.
Firecrackers are no longer used as the government banned them in 1995. Instead, we frequently heard drums and gongs. After listening to the spirited noise almost constantly since our arrival in Saigon, two truckloads of drummers and lion dancers pulled up outside out hotel. The lion dance is supposed to ward off evil spirits and bring good luck. People pay the dancers and drummer to perform at their businesses and homes. It was very colorful and exciting to watch.
We reluctantly left Vietnam the next day. We dragged our feet somewhat and were the last passengers to board the plane. I have left a part of my heart in Vietnam. I am still trying to figure out what is it about this country that gets into the hearts of westerners and draws them back so strongly. Maybe it is the friendly people, the stoic history, optimism in the face of incredible hardships, the rich and varied culture blending Asian and European influences to create something uniquely Vietnamese. Whatever it is, I will return to experience more of this amazing country. Maybe I'll celebrate Tet in Vietnam again!
Published on 3/1/99