Tết – Vietnam’s New Year

Festive Season

A few more days and it is Tết! My family has already begun Tết preparation since last week.

For foreigners it is important to understand and respect the importance of Tết in Vietnamese culture. 

First day of spring

Tết is the lunar new year which is also celebrated by some in other Asian countries. It is the first day of spring and it is the most important festive season of the Vietnamese. It is the equivalent of Christmas holidays.

Although the first day of Tết is seen as the new year day, the eve of Tết is even more significant. For thousands of years, people need to work and live in other cities or countries and they only return to their home once every year, just for Tết. No matter how far one has to work they have the unstoppable desire to return and unite with their family.

The importance of re-union dinner

In ancient times, travelling vast distance can be a deadly journey. There were pirates, bandits, robbers, and natural disasters along one’s journey. Especially so when one is travelling with a year’s worth of savings for the family, where by remitting money is not possible.

One may never know if it will be the last time they see their family again.

Travelling alone too early or too late from Tết could only mean that you would almost certainly be targeted. As such, travelling en masse in hordes provided safety in numbers and security. 

The practice of returning home for lunar new year has now become one of the greatest human migration. In 2016, it was estimated that 2.9 billion people travelled home for reunion in the Asian region! [source: Wikipedia]

Therefore it is the utmost importance that one made it home to re-unite with their family and love ones, to have a re-union dinner on the eve of the new year. It is a day of celebration of their love ones returning home after a long year, and usually along with their return were plenty of savings from the entire year from their remuneration.

Fathers who left home with their wives pregnant returned home to meet their baby for the first time. Sons who left home to find work may return home to find their parents had past.

So the re-union dinner is BIG TIME. Nothing is bigger. Even troops deployed in combat got to return home for re-union dinner!

I think you get the picture by now.

However, the preparation and festivity atmosphere will already begun weeks or even months before Tết. 

Banh for Tet

Weeks of preparation

Preparation starts weeks or months before the 30th of the 12th month where the re-union dinner is set to take place every year. Your love ones are returning home and there is nothing more exciting.

Traditionally, it was the men who will head out to work and bring home money. So the wives, sisters, and daughters will be busy decorating the home with bright flowers and doing a major cleaning. When I said major cleaning it is the mother of all house cleaning of the year! Everybody from the youngest to the oldest will chip in to help clean up the home.

Nobody wants to return home to see a sombre looking home. (My wife has already bought pots of lovely yellow flowers two weeks before!)

Everybody will get to wear new clothes from head to toe, from socks to underwear – NEW! And the shopping for new clothes starts even earlier!

It is also a time to pay off any debts one owed so they can have money to spend as well. It is considered extremely bad luck to have owe people debts after the Tết.

Companies will advance workers’ salary and for some companies it is a time to hand out bonuses payout.

When you roll all these into a few days up to Tết you get chaos! It is chaos with a good atmosphere! As the days approached Tết the atmosphere gets from chaotic to an eerie calm immediately on the even of Tết.

Nation shuts down

As the date draws closer to Tết businesses will start to close for the holiday as their employees also needs to travel home to do home cleaning. This adds to a flux of people trying to finish their last minute shopping before the entire country SHUTS DOWN for Tết.

In the past, you cities became ghost towns as people headed to the villages to celebrate Tết. A huge portion of Saigon’s residents will go back home to their home town. 

The road becomes grid locked every single year! So please avoid travelling during this period of the year if you have nothing better to do.

If you are in Vietnam, the best place to be will be in the country, not in the cities. The cities are left with minor critical services running. The police and fire department with a skeleton crew will usually be overwhelmed. Busses frequency are long. Not many restaurants will be opened.

Try to request to tag along with some Vietnamese friends to visit them in the country side if possible. It will be a once in a life time experience. They will be the most welcoming! There is nothing more welcoming than to have a foreigner friend sitting with them during re-union dinner and for the entire Tết!

Note: Re-union and first day of Tết are usually reserved for the immediate family. They do not usually invite distant family members of friends to visit them on the eve and the first day of Tết. HOWEVER! They will still welcome you, a foreigner, if you request!

Bao lì xì

Bao lì xì is a little red envelop stuffed with money, and is given out to family members and friends during Tết.

In ancient times, most people are poor and had very little money at home throughout the year, EXCEPT during Tết!

After returning home with a year’s of savings, it is time to give out money to the young and old family members. But handing money outright is unsightly, and variation in money amount given to different people can be embarrassing.

As such, an envelop, a RED envelop is used to conceal the money. This way it will be less embarrassing when the money you hand out is less than your relatives’. RED also signifies luck and auspicious.

So should you give Bao lì xì?

Well it depends on your age. If you an adult, then you are expected to give Bao lì xì. If you are retired but is not frail and has the financial means then you should give Bao lì xì.

Who to give?

As a foreigner, you are expected to give out Bao lì xì to EVERY SINGLE PERSON YOU MEET during Tết!

No, I’m not joking. You ARE expected to.

Arrival of Spring

When you dine in a restaurant, the waiter or waitresses serving you will deserver a Bao lì xì. The taxi or xe om that drives you also deserve a Bao lì xì. They sacrifice the biggest holiday in the year to ensure that foreigners and tourists have basic service during Tết, most of the time against their will!

Company pays no less than 3 times their salary for Tết! And still most people are not even tempted by the 3 times increase in salary. Most are forced to work. In the past, there were no business operating during Tết. NONE. ZIP! It’s that BIG during Tết. It is also considered extremely bad luck if you have to work during Tết.

So please, in appreciation of their sacrifice, give them a token of appreciation in the form of a Bao lì xì.

The next question to ask is, 

How much should I give?

There is so far, no guide on how much to give as a foreigner. So here’s my personal guide I used throughout the years.

Family members
Girlfriends/BoyfriendsVND2 million
Parents of girlfriends/boyfriendsVND1 million
Grandparents of girlfriends/boyfriendsVND1 million
Nephew/Niece of girlfriends/boyfriendsVND500,000
Distant relativesVND200,000
Immediate neighboursVND200,000
Children in the neighbourhoodVND50,000
Elderly in the neighbourhoodVND100,000
Taxi drivers/Xe omsVND50,000
Hotel receptionists/staffsVND50,000
Pub/Bar/Club waitersVND100,000
Pub/Bar/Club waitressesVND200,000

By now, you can see that the Bao lì xì giving exercise CAN be a taxing experience to your wallet. 

A trip to have lunch and return to your hotel can easily set you back a few million dong!

You can choose to stay in your hotel and have instant noodles and save the money, or you can join in the festivities by giving out Bao lì xì and make people happy! Your choice!