Cycling in Mai Chau, Vietnam


Tet is Christmas, New Year, and the Fourth of July all rolled into one. It's also the day of celebration for everyone's birthday (individual birthdays are not celebrated in Vietnam; everyone is simply a year older at Tet). Tet Eve marks a special celebration that is followed by four or five days of festivities. Just before Tet roads are bottlenecked, but once Tet starts the roads are quiet. Most businesses close and railways shut down for four days, but a few buses operate. There's lots of activity at the pagodas and temples, and special water-puppet shows for children. Tet is best in the north, where festivities are more traditional. Other traditional sites include Hué and Hoi An.

Coming from the word Tiet, meaning festival, Tet marks the first days of the Lunar New Year and the start of spring. It's a time to pay debts, forgive others, correct one's faults, and start the new year with a clean slate. In common with the Western Christmas celebration, the Vietnamese buy a tree, exchange greeting cards, wish each other Happy New Year (chuc mung nam moi!), and eat themselves silly. Women buy peach or apricot branches and bunches of flowers several days before Tet. It's auspicious if the branches bloom on the first morning of Tet: apricot and peach blossoms are reputed to keep demons out of the homes at this time. Some families buy an entire apricot tree and display it like a Christmas tree, decorated with greeting cards from well-wishers. Another popular choice in the south is a fruit tree with miniature oranges. It can stand up to several meters tall, bearing more than a hundred oranges.

To drive evil spirits away you have to make a lot of noise. That's where firecrackers come in. In 1995 the government placed a ban on the manufacture of fireworks due to the deaths of 71 revelers and injuries to 765 others during Tet in 1994. The ban appears to be enforced strictly, although tape-recordings of fireworks are permitted. Prior to the ban, massive strings of fireworks were attached to the front of a residence and ignited--and the louder the fireworks, the better.

Countdown To Tet
The countdown to Tet begins up to a month before the festival starts. Two weeks before Tet there is a noticeable increase in the number of shoppers. People buy clothes and presents for family and friends, and stock up on food for guests over the five-day holiday. Public and private buildings may get a new coat of paint. Stalls are set up to sell New Year greeting cards, candied fruit, decorations, and firecrackers. Exactly a week before Tet, in a simple household ceremony, offerings of fresh fruit, cooked food, and paper models are made to the Ong Tao, the Spirit of the Hearth. Ong Tao must leave the hearth to report household events from the old year to the Jade Emperor. The departure of the Spirit leaves the home unprotected for a week, until New Year comes. Houses are decorated in red and gold. Bright woodcut prints announcing the upcoming year and its featured zodiac animal adorn the walls, and people take down the print from the previous year. Everyone must wear new clothes, so clothes vendors are out in force. Families begin choosing Tet trees. Office parties are held, and Tet bonuses distributed.

Two days before Tet, people are busy cleaning their houses and decorating their Tet trees, and rushing about doing last-minute shopping. Traditionally, no cooking, cleaning, sewing, digging, or drawing of water is done during the Tet festival--everything must be arranged in advance. Some families still make traditional banh chung, a cake of sticky rice filled with bean paste and pork, symbolizing the earth.

On Tet Eve, everything closes early as families head home to celebrate the first dinner of Tet. Huge balloons appear on the streets, eagerly bought by homeward-bound shoppers. Elaborate offerings of chicken and glutinous rice are made to ancestors as everyone awaits the magic hour of midnight. Catholics attend pre-midnight mass. Just before midnight, some fireworks may be set off. Families and friends meet to exchange greetings. Just after midnight, Buddhists go to their favorite pagoda to pray for a good year. Many families eat a simple meal after midnight, perhaps with some rice wine or champagne. In Hanoi, droves of young people patrol the streets on motorcycles (later there is unofficial daredevil racing).

The first person to cross the home threshold after midnight must be a person of good character or misfortune can follow for the entire year. Not leaving anything to chance, some folks discreetly arrange their first visitor ahead of time. Elders present packets of lucky money to children.

The first day of Tet, people dress in their finest new clothes and visit relatives. Village festivities may include singing competitions, cockfighting, and Chinese chess competitions with real people as the pieces. Gambling is popular. Parks are full of holiday celebrants.

The second day of Tet involves visits to special guests and close friends. Young people looking for partners stroll to the nearest lake to make a wish that the person of their dreams will appear before them.

The third day of Tet is reserved for visits to teachers, friends, and business associates. Visitors are served candied fruit, banh chung, spring rolls, sausage, and drinks. Negative talk is taboo. The attitude of the first days of the New Year sets the tone for the remainder of the year. When leaving the house, elaborate wishes are exchanged, "I hope that your business may prosper and that money may flow into your house like water."

On the fourth day of Tet, people are supposed to return to work, but seldom do. In the city, people go back to their offices to wish co-workers happy New Year. It is not until the sixth day of Tet that people get serious about work again, and Vietnam returns to normal.

Come join our annual Tet cycling tour and experience this wonderful period from two wheels.

by Michael Buckley
(excerpted from the Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos Handbook by Moon Publications).

Michael Buckley is author of the newly-published Heartlands. He has also written the
Tibet Travel Adventure Guide, Moon's Vietnam, Cambodia, and Laos Travel Handbook, Cycling to Xian , Tibet,
and has guided VeloAsia tours in Sumatra and Vietnam.