In Vietnamese culture, the lunar new year is a time when bad spirits may try to enter your home and bring bad fortune for the upcoming year. To keep these pesky wandering souls at bay, you need loud noises – and lots of them. Tết festivities always include big explosions, so figure out where they’ll be and take in the show. In Ho Chi Minh City, they’re near the Bitexco Tower. In Hanoi, they’re around Hoàn Kiếm Lake.
If you really want to get into the spirit of Tết, you’ll need some flowers for your living space. Think of Tết flowers like Christmas trees – a festive decoration to lift your mood and spread good vibes. The flower in the North is the peach flower, which blooms on wispy little trees. In the South, you can’t look anywhere without seeing a bushel of yellow Ochna flowers, sometimes called the mickey-mouse plant because of the shape of its fruit.
To go along with your flowers, you’ll definitely need some red and yellow decorations. They’re the colors of good fortune and prosperity, which is why you’ll see red banners with yellow lettering everywhere during Tết.
If you’re wondering why there are red envelopes hanging from trees, it’s because they’re filled with fake money – again, to bring good fortune. Similar to gift giving at Christmas in the West, families give children lucky money during Tết. As a foreigner, you’ll make many new friends if you bring around red envelopes and hand out lucky money to kids. It doesn’t need to be a lot: 5,000–10,000vnd ($0.22–0.44 USD) is plenty.
If you’re in a home stay, or if you’ve made some local friends, a gift is a nice gesture that will earn you a lot of respect. Don’t go overboard, though. Things like boxes of chocolates and bottles of wine are perfect.
As long as you’re in good spirits and don’t intrude too much into anyone’s private family time, you’ll be fine during Tết. Vietnamese people know foreigners aren’t aware of all the local customs and traditions, so you’ll be forgiven for any minor mistakes. And besides, everyone’s in such a good mood that nobody wants to get into a huff about anything anyway. Which leads to first things to avoid: arguments. Try not to shout or get angry during Tết, because the mood during this holiday time is an omen for the upcoming year. If you come in spreading anger and trying to fight about petty things, then you’re bringing them bad luck. This also applies to criticism. It’s considered very bad etiquette to say bad things about a person during Tết.
Try not to wear too much black as well. It’s the color of death in Vietnam, and since people are wary of evil spirits during this time of year, a person wearing black is a bad sign. The more colors you wear, the better.
This will sound cliché, but the best Tết experiences aren’t found in any guide books. You have to get out and explore if you really want to get into the festive spirit. Trust us, you won’t wander too long before a family invites you in to share a few snacks and drinks. Every year for Tết, we go for a stroll through the neighborhood to see how people are celebrating, and every year, we end up drinking ourselves silly and having an amazing time – one that we never would’ve expected beforehand. Tết is such a happy time of year in Vietnam, so get out there and feel the joy for yourself.
If you want to get an easy smile during Tết, just say these words:
Chúc Mừng Năm Mới! (Happy New Year!)
Pronounced: Chook Mung Nam Moi!