We had been warned: Everything would be more expensive over the Tet holiday (Chinese New Year) in Vietnam, from transport and hotel rooms down to food and household items. And everything would be closed anyway. Tet, a term we vaguely connected with the 1968 Tet Offensive during the Vietnam War, brings the whole country to a standstill for one to three weeks, depending on whom you ask. The kitchen gods travel to heaven to report, and everyone else travels to their family in the countryside or in some other – invariably distant – part of the country, thus snatching up every available bus or train ticket.
For the days surrounding the main New Year’s holiday we have therefore decided to stay put in Hoi An, a cute and fairly touristy town in the centre of Vietnam. Arriving early in the morning, we find the streets of the old town decked out in silk lanterns, for which Hoi An is famous. In the alleys old women sell bunches of yellow flowers and mandarin trees. In between the odd stall is selling vases for all these flowers.
Everything is closed during tet holiday
On the last day of the old year, most shops do in fact close early and everybody goes home for last preparations. Only the tourists linger in the handful of open restaurants and wait for midnight. But then, around 11 pm, the Vietnamese come back into the city centre, heading to the riverside, the stage for the midnight firework. We too settle down on the riverbank between the Lantern Competition and the annual Tet Bonsai Exhibition and watch the New Year’s floating candles set out on the river pass by. At 3 minutes to 12, rain sets in (the first rain we’ve had since arriving in Vietnam), not just a drizzle but a downpour, lasting exactly half an hour, all through the spectacular fireworks display. “Oh!! Ah!! Wow!” – Groups of revellers huddle under rain ponchos. Others share jackets, the occasional umbrella, and many just get wet. But for once everyone seems to be enjoying the evening. When we walk back later through the quiet streets, incense is wafting up from altars standing in every doorway.
Sticky rice wrapped in banana leafs
The next day, we are treated to a special Tet holiday rice dish that has been cooked for long hours over a wood fire: Banh Tay, a roll of sticky rice wrapped in banana leafs. „We eat this for every meal on New Year’s Day“ the Home-stay Owner explains (maybe that’s because the kitchen gods went away?). The taste is a bit bland, and to enliven it, sweet pickled onions and sugar lumps are added to the menu, but at least it’s very filling. Which is convenient because now every shop and restaurant is indeed closed.