The Tet Lunar New Year holiday in Vietnam is like our American Thanksgiving, Christmas/ Hanukkah, and New Year holidays all wrapped into one—a perfect collision of tradition, culture, and celebration. There’s an explosion of pre-holiday activity and preparations, followed by week-long festivities that involve lots of close family gatherings, food and gifts, visits to the pagoda, and an outpouring of numerous, long-held traditions.
Almost as soon as we arrived in Vietnam in late December with our 90-day visas in hand, we were warned by locals and expats alike to find a place to park ourselves for Tet. Rumors had it that prices for everything, from trains and airlines to hotels and taxis would go up around the holiday, as all of Vietnam would be on the move to return home to celebrate with close family. We were told that during the week of Tet, everything would be closed: museums, monuments, stores, restaurants. Whole cities would shut down.
After much deliberation, we decided (last minute!) to visit the capital city of Hanoi during the Tet holiday, betting that as a large city, they would still have options open and available for visitors. This turned out to be more than true. In fact, Hanoi is the perfect place to hang during this period, and let yourself get swept into the spirit of the festivities.
NOTE: To skip our cultural adventures in Hanoi and get right to the practical information of what’s open and what’s not around Tet, please scroll down to the heading, “A Breakdown of What Is Open During Tet Week.”
We arrived the week before Tet by air from Phu Quoc, and even last minute, tickets were cheap with Vietnam Airlines. We lucked out as our gorgeous, modern two-bedroom apartment, an Airbnb rental, was in a great location: down an alley right behind the buzzing Quang An flower market in the upscale, relatively serene neighborhood of West Lake (Tay Ho district). We loved it! (Here is more about this district.)
Although our apartment offered us a blissful sanctuary, we still had to walk though the outdoor flower market and across the main road to get to the lake, restaurants, and the public bus that goes downtown. I can only describe doing so the week before Tet as a ruckus adventure.
Everyone in all of Hanoi, it seemed, was at the flower market. The two lengthy aisles were filled with shoppers and motorbikes (their riders also shopping), all vying for the same space. The Vietnamese are not shy. They’re open, friendly, and assertive, and just insert themselves wherever thy need to be, without aggression or apology. Walking through the market is one thing, but crossing the main road in front of the market proved to be a death-defying act, one we would perform every day of our stay. Lucky for us, we’d been in the country for six weeks already and had the rhythm and method for doing this down.
The Tradition of Flowers on Tet
So let me explain why flowers are so important to the Vietnamese during Tet. People adorn their homes with them and give them as gifts. Most important, however, are the branches with the unopened pink buds of the peach tree (in the north) and the yellow ones of the apricot tree (in the south). People buy these for their homes and businesses, letting the buds open and blossom, along with new leaves, during and after Tet for good luck. Another good luck tradition, especially in north Vietnam, is the placement of bountiful kumquat trees.
We loved seeing all manner of tree branches and kumquat trees strapped to the backs of motorbikes throughout the city all week long, everyone rushing about to bring good luck into their homes. Many hang red envelopes filled with money from these branches, for added good luck in the new year. Even our local grocery store had a tree with red envelopes, from which card members (like us, we joined!) could select a coupon for a free product. How fun!
Another Tet Tradition: Food!
Almost every market sold huge tins of Danish butter cookies, coffees, teas, candies, and nuts as well as pre-assembled, cellophane-wrapped baskets of such items. People bought loads of these to give to various members of their communities. I watched one woman and her daughter stash over 20 huge round tins of Danish butter cookies into their carts at the grocery store. They have a lot of people to be grateful for, I thought.
Our intimate, six-story, eight unit apartment complex welcomed us with such a gift, and soon after, we created two simple bags with Swiss chocolate and butter cookies to give to the two families who live here and rented our place to us. They are two sisters, plus husbands and kids, and along with a brother who lives with his family elsewhere, they designed, built, and own our building, along with two other buildings in the neighborhood. (Their kids come play with ours all the time, saying they need to practice their English. Our kids are thrilled!)
Another Tet food you’ll find here at this time: Banh Chung, a rice cake made of dense sticky rice, mung beans and pork, tightly wrapped in banana leaves like a neat parcel. It can last up to a week outside the refrigerator. Both families in our building gifted us with one of these cakes.
Other traditional Tet foods include these (see link). Phuong, the architect and university professor who officially rented us our place, invited us up to her place for coffee a few days before Tet, and served some of these foods, most notably the candied fruits, which were delicious. We felt so privileged to be a part of her family’s festivities. She amazes me with the overwhelming love and support she gives her 11-year-old son, who is autistic and also an extremely talented artist. And her five-year-old daughter is fluent in French. During this evening, we also hung out with her husband, who designed the building, her father-in-law, a former professor, and his wife (who both live in the apartment across from us), along with two poodles, a chameleon, and a parrot. The kids stayed up until 10 p.m. making cookies!
The day before Tet, a Sunday this year, things started to slow down in the late afternoon. Stores closed early and the roads miraculously cleared, as promised.
Hanoi advertised 31 locations for fireworks set for the eve of Tet, six of which were “high” ones. We had our kids take a nap so that they could stay up long enough to see the midnight fireworks. Counting on less traffic during Tet week, Pierre rented a motorbike (yes, for the four of us) and planned to take us to one of the many cafes along the West Lake shore that opened just for the occasion.
But in the parking garage, we ran into our friends from upstairs, the ones whose kids come to play with ours all the time, and they invited us to the rooftop of their other building, which is right on the lake. We ended up sharing a fabulous evening with them, eating snacks, drinking champagne, and having a spectacular view of the fireworks.
As tradition predicated, they burned money and other fancy papers on the roof to protect their building and bring them good luck in the new year. In the coming week, we found many merchants and cafe owners doing the same out in the streets of Hanoi.
On the day of Tet, the flower market was completely empty, with not a person or flower pedal in sight. A great day for a motorbike tour of Hanoi, we thought. But as it turned out, certain parts of Hanoi were packed with others who had the same idea. Vietnamese families, all dressed up and scrunched onto motorbikes, cruising the streets and enjoying the sun.
A Breakdown of What Is Open During Tet Week
So here’s a blow by blow of what is open and what is not in the days leading up to Tet, and after Tet in the city of Hanoi, so that you might better plan your visit.
The Days Leading to Tet
There is an increase in traffic and people rushing to stores and markets to buy foods, gifts, and flowers for the holiday. It is exciting and easy to get swept up in the spirit of the holiday yourself. Until the day before Tet, everything is open as usual! Stores, markets, restaurants, cafes, museums, monuments, vendors, everything.
This is your chance to see top sights, such as the Ho Chi Minh mausoleum, the Hoa Lo prison, and the Temple of Literature. Shop at the big markets, such as Dong Xuan and the Hanoi night market. Definitely take a walk around the Old Quarter and Hoan Kiem Lake to see all the holiday decorations, flower arrangements, and locals in traditional Vietnamese outfits taking pictures by the lake.
The Day Before Tet
Some businesses will close already the day before Tet, or otherwise, close early. If you have any last minute groceries to buy do it early in the day. It will be at least two days before they open again.
You can still grab dinner and a coffee in the Old Quarter, but you’ll notice people and traffic start to clear. Find a spot next to Hoan Kiem Lake or at one of the other locations to watch the midnight fireworks.
The Day of Tet
All museums, monuments, and public buildings will be closed for the entire week, so plan accordingly. Most street markets, like Dong Xuan market, will also be closed for the whole week. Tourist-specific events, such as the Water Puppet Show, however, will remain open for business! Grocery stores and mini-marts will be closed on this day, and at least one day after.
Most businesses will be closed, but not everything. You will be able to find some restaurants and food stalls open in the Old Quarter, around Hoan Kiem Lake, and around parts of West Lake, to name a few. We found a fabulous Vietnamese restaurant open down the street from us and ate lunch alongside a well-dressed Vietnamese family and a Western couple. We also saw that the American Club and its restaurant, The Moose & Roo Smokehouse, was also open.
So you definitely won’t starve! And all the public buses remain open! There won’t be as many taxis though. But just walk!
Note that the roads around the southeast portion of West Lake, near the botanical gardens may be filled with scooters, just out cruising and getting ice cream at KFM Ho Tay. We ended up at the park at Bay Mau Lake, which has some old, slow, rusty amusement rides, and found others there as well. Afterwards, we went for drinks at the Western-style Al Fresco restaurant on West Lake (we loved that it had a play area for the kids). On that same stretch, the Republic and the French bistro were also open.
The Day After Tet
Again, all museums, monuments, and public buildings, and most street markets will remain closed for the entire week.
But on this day, we noticed that about 25% of restaurants and shops in the Old Quarter opened up again, with mostly Westerners wandering around, except at the temple, which filled with locals. This is a great day to explore the Old Quarter! Because you can actually walk leisurely without fear of being run down by a scooter or having to squish by vendors and other street wanderers.
Two Days After Tet
Grocery stores and mini-marts open back up, along with another 10% more businesses than the day before. The crowds have not yet returned, so you can still wander the streets, maybe see the French Quarter, walk by Hoan Kiem Lake.
Our favorite neighborhood restaurant, Spicy Pho Bay, re-opened their doors, so we ate lunch there. When we left we were reminded of another tradition. We paid our usual sum but we were asked for an additional 40K VND, ($ 2), “for Happy New Year,” we were told. Oh yes, businesses may charge a little more than usual just after Tet, for good luck in the new year. We gave him the money and told him that his Pho is the best of all the places we’ve been to (the truth!). He said thank you and gave us a bag full of small, green apples, “from my home place,” he told us. So sweet!
Three Days After Tet
About 80 percent of businesses are back up and running, along with the traffic and the crowds. You can find many Vietnamese around Hoan Kiem Lake, getting their pictures drawn from artists, buying balloons, eating ice cream, enjoying what’s left of their holiday, right along with tourists. This was today for us! There were a lot of Chinese tourists and huge bright pink tour buses parked around.
One Week After Tet
Everything is back in business! Museums, monuments, markets, and all. Enjoy this gorgeous, lively city. The Happy New Year signs may remain up a little longer, so enjoy that too.
I admit that we have fallen in love with Hanoi. It is a big, beautiful city with plenty of amenities and things to do, not to mention, beautiful lakes where you can find serenity.