TET in Vietnam
Lonely Planet describes Vietnamese TET as “Christmas, New Years and everyone’s Birthday, all rolled into one.” But really, TET celebrates the beginning of the new year on the lunar calendar, and the beginning of “spring” in Vietnam.
Though the actually holiday lasts only three days; for nearly nine days (with weeks of anticipation leading up) the entire city is held hostage by the festivities.
It begins with frantic selling and buying of goodies and gifts. Dutch cookies, gift baskets filled with imported delicacies and sweets, imported fruits, watermelons, ornate red cards, kitchy-looking mobiles featuring gold fish, red chinese lanterns, firecrackers, ribbons and tassels; horses (to welcome the year of the horse), kumquat trees; plus flowers, flowers and more flowers. Yellow flowers, in particular, are a symbol of TET and can be seen throughout the city. All of these goods are to be bought and given as gifts to friends and family, or used to decorate homes.
This year, TET began on January 31, ending on the 3rd of February, though not really ending until the 7th or so. During this time, schools, banks, government offices and most businesses shut down and everyone takes a holiday. For Vietnamese, visiting family is most common–fiests are eaten, booze is drunk. TET is a time for excess. For expats, this is an ideal time for a trip to Thailand or Indonesia or for a visa run.
For financially poor expats who have only just begun working–i.e. for me–TET is neat and all, but a bit of an inconvenience and an unwanted vacation. I never knew there could be an “unwanted vacation,” until I ended up broke, living in Saigon. In that case it’s less of a vacation and more of involuntary unpaid leave. Nonetheless, I decided to try to make the best of this free time.
For the first week, my roommates and I explored the city. With many Vietnamese off visiting family in other parts of the country, the empty streets made for a much more enjoyable motorbike driving experience. We spent one day driving around the city in search of a public swimming pool that was not closed for the holidays. We never ended up finding a pool, but we did find Binh Quoi (see post). Another day, one of my roommates and I spent the whole day walking around the city, checking out one of the cities main parks which was decked out with flower displays, handicrafts venders and fish tanks displaying strange and exotic underwater creatures.
Other days, I simply enjoyed my new house. Spending hours hanging out, reading, cooking in our large kitchen. One night the girls and I went out for the infamous Ladies Night at Lush. Ladies drink free cocktails, beer and wine until midnight. It was a fun night–for a girl with no money. However I paid for it by spending the entire next day in bed with a wicked hangover. It was on this day we discovered VietNommm–an online delivery service, in which hundreds of restaurants around the city offer food delivery.
On New Years evening the roommates and I, strangely, make BLTs (I was very excited to have found bacon for sale in a nearby shop) and drink almost incredibly bad wine. We then wander down our street to the river where thousands of Vietnamese are crowded, waiting for the skies to ignite in fire, color and smoke–for the annual fireworks display.
Generally low prices in Vietnam mean I can be broke and still afford at least a small vacation; spending $8 on bus fare, $8-10/night on accommodations and $3-4 on a nice meal. So, In need of a few days away from the city we took a 6-hour sleeper bus to the windy coastal city of Mui Ne. Due to some unique geographical conditions, Mui Ne is not only warm and fairly dry year round but it is an ideal location for wind surfing.
The area attracts a bizarre collection of Russian and Chinese tourists. Walking along the beach, one can’t help but notice a high number of pot-bellied, stick-legged, speedo-clad men and round, leather-brown middle aged women. At night, the open-air seafood stands fill with Chinese men drinking copuous amounts of booze, while sharing hotpots–and the bars fill with skimpy blondes alongside red-faced men.
However, we spend much of our days in Mui Ne lazily reading/napping on the beach as wind surfers jump and float above the choppy waters; and eating cheap and delicious seafood–green onion scallops, lemongrass clams, coocnut prawns and grilled squid. One afternoon, we take an $8 tour that hits all the area’s major attractions–fairy stream, the sand dunes, the fishing village. It’s worthwhile, though somewhat disappointing due to large crowds and loads of litter scattered throughout. The highlight of the tour is the end, when we watch the sunset over the red dunes; laughing and playing in the sand.
However the town seemed to swell with more tourists every day–and along with more tourists, came higher prices. When I try to book bus tickets home, few times were available and for prices inflated 3-4 times higher than usual. Though I’m ready to head back, I stay a night longer than planned in order to get a fairly priced ticket home.
We spend our last night eating decent pizza and listening to live music at a popular beachside bar. The only place we can find to stay is a $15/night (which was likely $5/night any other time of the year) second-thought guesthouse behind a restaurant with a squeaky bed. We seem to be the only guests. Angtsy teenage 90’s alt rock blares from a bar nearby into the wee hours of the morning.
Needing my passport back, I literally have to shake the night watchman awake early the next morning when I need to catch my bus back to Saigon. My bus is crammed with Vietnamese families–crying babies, snoring men and pungent packed lunches.
I decide next TET, this may be perfect time for a trip to Myanmar …