What is Tet?
Tet, or New Year in Vietnam, is 16 February in 2018. On that date we leave the Year of the Rooster behind and usher in the Year of the Dog.
‘Tet’ is short for ‘Tet Nguyen Dan’ – literally ‘First Day of the Year’. It’s all about family and testimony to that are the many planes and trains that are booked out way ahead as everyone scrambles to ensure they make it to their ancestral homes across the country.
It’s also about the coming of Spring and renewal. For more about what traditionally happens at Tet see our very own Spring into the New Year: Tet in Hoi An 2018 and The First Timer’s Guide To TET in this newsletter.
The First Person Across the Threshold
One important tradition is that the First Person to enter on the First Day is a harbinger of all that will follow for the year. It’s common to encourage someone who is both very wealthy and morally sound to be the first to enter your home.
Some, worried inauspicious characters may stumble in, leave their own homes just before midnight and return just after the clock strikes twelve to guard against this. But their signs must be compatible with Dogs in 2018 or they likely damn themselves. Dragons, Water Buffalo and Cats would be wise to organize someone else as the first one in this year.
Which brings us to another subject that is too vast to deal with here. The Vietnamese Horoscope is taken very seriously by many and the fact that Year of the Dog is approaching may affect many actions and preparations in countless time-honored ways.
For 2018 one interpretation is: Rats will expect reasonable fortune but health worries, Water Buffalo need to lay low, Tigers will expect financial gain, Cats will succeed if they work for it, Dragons will expect to feel blocked, Snakes should go for everything, Horses may find true love, Goats should shift all plans to next year, Monkeys will probably mark time, for Roosters the sky’s the limit, Dogs should expect a year of challenges and Pigs will cruise higher in all things.
For a lighthearted exploration of the Vietnamese Horoscope see Vietnamese Horoscope: The Dark Side
Tet Kicks Off Early
One view is that as the Vietnamese universally retreat to family at Tet there’s nothing to see or do. Will visitors really be adversely affected?
The first thing to bear in mind is that Tet really kicks off at least two or three weeks before the official First Day – in 2018 around the beginning of February. A festive atmosphere builds and builds and builds – Vietnamese people genuinely look forward to Tet and their joyous anticipation hangs in the air as palpably as that of a small child with Santa coming tomorrow.
Raucous parties turn up intermittently a couple of weeks out and sprout exponentially until by New Year’s Eve the town is awash with them. The traffic becomes wilder and a crazy cacophony reigns over the scattered festivities.
In everyday life the streets are lined with banners and flags and flowers of all shapes and sizes for long stretches and there’s an undercurrent of excitement everywhere that’s infectious, even away from the parties. It’s a great pleasure just to be out amongst it all. Everything and everyone is spruced up. New haircuts and new clothes accompany a frenzy of sweeping and cleaning. Meanwhile, kumquat trees and chrysanthemums, spirit guardians and emblems of renewal, adorn every entrance.
Should Visitors Come at Tet?
Some expats who have seen a few Tets come and go leave the country for a while as the new year approaches. The massed drinking chants of ‘Mot, hai, ba, dzo! Mot, hai, ba, dzo!’ exploding at regular intervals all over town and the inescapable karaoke bellowings get to them.
So, should visitors come to Hoi An during the Tet holidays? The traditional answer of ‘No’ is thinking of the official days – the First Day of the New Year and those days immediately following as well as the noise and wild traffic that is its prelude. Yes, lots of places are closed and amenities like banks and doctors cease to operate, just like they used to at Christmas and Easter in the West when traditionally everyone retreated to family.
But these days there’s actually plenty open in tourist towns like Hoi An and, although you can expect inflated prices during the holiday period, Hoi An is nowhere near the ghost town it once was. See ‘What’s Open at Tet’.
The Long Prelude Makes It
There is another consideration, however. The two weeks immediately prior to New Year are fascinating. As mentioned already, the decorated, flower-lined streets all over town become a colorful, public exhibition that can stretch for miles and there are also festive parties galore on every corner.
But in Hoi An, as in all of Vietnam, it’s the spiritual aspect of Tet that is of greatest interest. Vietnam is regarded primarily as a Buddhist country with a sizable Catholic minority. But both Catholics and Buddhists are deeply involved in something else they have in common in full measure – ancestor veneration.
This ancient practice, introduced by the Chinese over 2 millennia ago, is the most potent spiritual element of all it seems. The key focus of New Year preparations is that it’s a time of renewal; just as Spring is in Nature. Importantly, it’s a time when one’s fortune – in every sense of that word – is determined for the next 12 months.
Now, I’m not interested in the veracity of ancestor worship. But I am interested in the affect it has my Vietnamese neighbors, particularly leading up to Tet. There is a pervasive optimism in the air and a truly joyous spirit wherever you go. The misfortunes of the past can be reversed by revering ancestors and attending to their needs. Buoyant with hope of a better life, especially in terms of prosperity, there is a strong confidence good fortune will follow.
And around Tet, while families are particularly attentive to the household shrine, almost child-like in their innocence, people party and party unselfconsciously with co-workers, friends and finally family as the New Year beckons.
Do Not Go Quietly
I’m writing this eight days before the First Day of Year of the Dog. Every night for the last week different parts of the street have taken it in turns to party with music, some solid drinking and tons of food. While many of the aforementioned expats complain bitterly about this, I like it, I like it a lot. It never goes super late, rarely past 10pm, but it might kick off late morning and keep running all day. Soon breakfast parties will begin.
Often, the amateur singing is amplified to very uncomfortable levels (if you’re actually there) and no matter how tunelessly delivered the performers are always received tumultuously. Generosity and encouragement rule the day.
Youthful in Many Ways
Vietnam is literally a very young country these days, over 40 per cent of the population is under 25. But people of all ages appear youthful around Tet holiday and optimism and hope permeates the spirit of the nation. The country is witnessing unprecedented economic growth and the middle class is growing rapidly. It’s boom time in Vietnam just now and when the people are at their most optimistic and selfless, as they are at Tet, it’s a great place to be.
It should not be forgotten also that Tet is the only extended holiday in Vietnam. All other holidays are isolated public holidays and so from this simple perspective it’s little wonder everyone wants to make the most of it.
Anyone For Fun?
In contrast, the world I left behind in Australia feels old, tired, cynical, self-centred, over-regulated, painfully sober, infected with mindless consumption and weary. It wasn’t always so. Now it feels like a mature sun that has exhausted its fuel, destined to the internal collapse of a black hole.
The grumbling expats that flee Vietnam at Tet often fled their home country in the past for these very reasons. Now they feel their new neighbours at Tet are noisy, boisterous and childish and they flee once more, for a while. I stick around. Instead of discomforting me the Tet ‘intrusion’ enlivens me with its optimism, positivity and refreshing exuberance.
Seeing the world afresh with the eyes of a child, convinced a fresh beginning is at hand, can be wondrous.