Tet is the most important holiday on the Vietnamese calendar and a very festive time of the year. The city of Hanoi, which can otherwise be somewhat drab, comes alive with color. Multiple parks are outfitted with freshly planted flowers. Brightly colored banners are hung. Displays are set up to celebrate the next animal on the Lunar New Year calendar. Locals dress in fancy attire and take family pictures by the lakes. And like every other new year celebration across the globe, there are booming firework shows.
Last year we visited Hanoi right after Tet, as part of our first trip to Asia and last official vacation. We were able to enjoy a lot of the displays celebrating the year of the pig, but we missed out on the festivities leading up to it. Since we happened to be in the neighborhood already, we decided to remedy that. This year we stayed in Hanoi throughout Tet and experienced the entire holiday season firsthand.
2020 is the year of the rat, so the pigs are gone and rats dominate the current landscape. Rat statues are set up around the popular Hoan Kiem lake. Roaming vendors sell helium-filled rat balloons and rat toys for children. Local malls and banks erect their own colorful displays too. All over the city, people are getting their picture taken with rats. Naturally, all of these displays tend to make the rats look really cute, since no one wants to pose with a filthy plague-carrying rodent.
It’s not only rats though. Aside from the yearly Zodiac sign, the two main traditional symbols of Tet are the blossoming peach tree and kumquat tree. We saw these for sale everywhere around the city leading up to the holiday. The peach blossoms were being sold both as a whole peach tree in a pot and also as individual branches similar to fresh cut flowers. These trees were also planted among the public flower displays and gardens throughout the city. Their abundant pink blossoms add a nice touch of bright color.
Wherever we saw peach blossoms for sale, it was likely we’d find the small citrus kumquat tree for sale too. While the peach blossoms were often sold as just a couple of branches, the kumquats were only offered in whole tree form. Pretty much everyone we saw buying one tied the whole tree to the back of their scooter to transport it home. After seeing many of these bright orange citrus trees cruising down the road through the middle of traffic, Katie and I expected to find a bunch of stray kumquats in the streets while walking about. Surprisingly, that was not the case. We only saw two sad little gutter kumquats over the course of a week. It was quite impressive how they all managed to stay attached.
The largest market selling festive Tet items was in Hanoi’s Old Quarter. This one spanned multiple blocks and while it definitely had all of the balloons, toys, peach blossoms, and kumquats, there was a lot more. We found tons of cardboard wall hangings and plenty of fireworks. There were lots of trinkets and other souvenirs too. A few booths were set up as full on antique shops. I never did figure out how those fit into the overall theme. Maybe Tet just makes people nostalgic.
While the lead up to Tet is very festive, Hanoi definitely changes afterwards. While the official celebration is observed on one day, this is a week long holiday in practice. The main focus is to spend time with family, and most Vietnamese people take that seriously. Because of this, there is a lower volume of traffic and many businesses are closed. Even in the prime tourist area in the Old Quarter, many of the smaller local restaurants and shops are closed for the whole week. Some even take two weeks off according to posted signs. Outside of the tourist areas, nearly everything is closed for at least a few days. Even the convenience stores were closed in the neighborhood we stayed in a little south of the Old Quarter.
Visiting during Tet means that choices of shops and restaurants will definitely be limited compared to other times of the year. As an example, there’s a small Banh Mi franchise on the street we’re staying on. It closed for 3 days around Tet. When it opened back up, it had a limited menu for a couple of days, since their suppliers all take days off too. Our local grocery store also closed for a few days. We were prepared for this having read about it, so we stocked up on groceries and produce ahead of time. I can imagine it would be more difficult if we were shorter term travelers or had stayed in a hotel.
Travelers won’t starve without planning ahead, but it wouldn’t be surprising to get stuck with either a bad or expensive meal. Chain restaurants like McDonald’s and KFC were always open. Although the line was out the door to McDonald’s on the official Tet holiday when most everything else was closed. It also seemed like nearly every fancy French bistro stayed open as well, for those wanting to ring in the new year gourmet style.
For 2020, the week-long holiday began on Thursday 1/23, with the official observance taking place Saturday 1/25. This meant that at midnight on Friday night, there was a fireworks show to ring in the new year. Unfortunately for us, we didn’t realize this ahead of time, but we figured it out pretty quickly once the booms of the fireworks started rattling our windows. We threw on some warm clothes and ran out to the end of our block to witness the last 10 minutes of the 15 minute show.
We weren’t the only ones taking in the scene from the road. There was a decent sized crowd gathered down there to witness the spectacle. The most entertaining thing to me was that all traffic had stopped to watch the show. Each of the four lanes of the one way street had parked cars as travelers collectively pressed pause on their journeys to watch the explosions light up the sky. Parents with fancy cars opened their sunroofs to let the kids stand up and watch. As crazy as traffic is in Hanoi, it was an interesting sight to see everyone calmly stopped in their cars to watch fireworks for 15 minutes.
Overall, it’s still a decent time to visit if you know what you’re getting into. Hanging out around people in a festive holiday mood makes for a fun atmosphere. The extra markets and holiday decorations are definitely entertaining. If you’re not too picky, or willing to feed yourself for a few days, the restaurant closures are not too much of an issue. It’s not business as usual around Hanoi, but that’s part of the holiday charm.