Chúc mừng năm mới (Happy New Year)

A business in Mui Ne has a traditional apricot tree in blossom decorated to celebrate Tet.

A business in Mui Ne has a traditional apricot tree in blossom decorated to celebrate Tet.

I had no clue about Tet when I started to plan my route through Southeast Asia. The lunar new year – also known as the Chinese New Year – happens in January or February – the time when most of us Westerners leave our snow-torn countries for the warmth of tropical and cheap locations. In 2013 it occurs on February 10th. The year of the dragon ends and we usher in the year of the snake.

When I learned that Tet would be occurring around the same time I wanted to be in Vietnam I wasn’t sure what to expect. What I know now is that the hype for a traveller is over-stated and over-played.

Tet is a time for family and a time for new beginnings. It’s basically equivalent to the West’s version of Christmas and new years and Hallowe’en. Children get presents, people buy new clothes, hope for a prosperous new year and there’s ceremonies to ward off evil spirits. It was a cultural experience to be in Vietnam for Tet, but one that I didn’t fully understand, and, sadly, didn’t dive deep enough into.

The first thing you’re told as a traveller is that it will be impossible to get anywhere over Tet. This is not true. Some destinations are more difficult, like leaving Saigon (to almost anywhere) or trying to get into Hanoi. But travel throughout the rest of the country should be okay. The only thing you need to worry about is that travel costs are double and sometimes triple over this time. Buses will always be easiest if you’re booking last minute. Trains will often be sold out, or the travel agents will tell you they’re sold out. Planes will be over-priced and often full. If there’s no buses one can hire a taxi to make some trips – often at less than the price of a bus ticket in Canada. The day of Tet will be the hardest day to travel last minute – as this is akin to New Years Day and many businesses will be closed.

You’re also told there will be no where to stay. This isn’t entirely true either. Many hotels and guest houses in Vietnam are not listed on any kind of Internet site. Often there is plenty of accommodation, but if you’re more accustomed to fancy things you probably should book ahead.

The third thing I was told was that nothing would be open. This was not true. Yes, a lot of places were closed on the morning of Feb. 10, but not everything. I still got an omelette for breakfast and found some pho for lunch.

People leave offerings at a 300-year-old temple in China Town, Saigon.

People leave offerings at a 300-year-old temple in China Town, Saigon.

Tet starts weeks in advance. Towns will decorate streets, shops will decorate their doorways and windows and even many homes will be adorned with the yellow flowers (Hoa Mai) synonymous with spring. Red banners will be hung over doorway – meant to ward of evil spirits. Most people will go home to spend time with their families over the holiday which can last anywhere form three to eight days. This year it runs until Feb. 13th. Tet is also a time to be spent with ancestors. Families will visit cemeteries and plant flowers. They’ll also light incense to welcome home past relatives for the celebrations. Pagodas and temples are busy with people hoping for more prosperity and happiness in the new year.

A shop sells many traditional decorations used to celebrate and have a prosperous new year.

A shop sells many traditional decorations used to celebrate and have a prosperous new year.

While in Mui Ne we went to a BBQ at Jibe’s, a wind/kite-surfer joint next to the hostel. For about $16 we got all-you-can eat traditional Vietnamese Tet fare. Prawns, squid, pork soup over rice, scallops, crab, fish and chicken all done up in any number of ways. For dessert we had coconut cake wrapped in bamboo leaves and fresh fruit and peanut brittle. It was the most I’ve spent for any  kind of meal in Southeast Asia, but it was worth it.

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That evening after some drinks we rang in the new year with a performance from local children who ushered in the year of the snake by doing some traditional dances of the dragon, lion and Mua Lan (a unicorn that looks like a furry dragon.) There was also a comical monk – folklore stating it is the last monk standing, a happy monk. These dances included drums, gongs and other noise makers, all ways of repelling evil spirits, plus a martial arts performance. Towards the end the Lan climbs a pole and dances  top the pole to claim his “food” and unravels a banner with writing that proclaims the new year.

The kids group performing. They were quite good.

The kids group performing. They were quite good.

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Once atop the pole we were showered in glitter and confetti.

While many places have fireworks and parades, the little seaside resort town of Mui Ne had little in that form, quite possibly due to it being a tourist place. Phan Thiet nearby, however, was bustling. I wish I had gone to check it out. If you find yourself in Vietnam over Tet, do yourself a favour and go somewhere where the locals will be celebrating in a big way. Chúc mừng năm mới!

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