The holiday known as Tet, which usually falls in late January or February, is the most important holiday in Vietnamese culture. The traditional thing to do during the Tet season is to return to your hometown to spend the day (and the days or even weeks surrounding it) with family, and the vast majority of Vietnamese abide by this tradition.Since most Saigonese are immigrants to the city from rural areas, this means a huge portion of Saigon’s population funnels out of the metropolis during Tet. Because their audience is out of town and because Vietnamese business owners want to take off Tet season too, most of the city’s establishments, open during the rest of the year, close their doors in observance of the occasion.
The result is that the city is completely changed. Someone who has experienced Saigon during the non-Tet season would hardly recognize it as the same place during the holiday, because new vendors replace the old ones and a whole new set of opportunities present themselves to both tourists and expats during the holiday period. Below, we’ve listed nine of the most notable Tet-exclusive activities you shouldn’t miss if you will be in Saigon.
1. Check out Nguyen Hue’s massive flower exhibition
Perhaps Saigon’s most popular public attraction during Tet is the Nguyen Hue flower display. For those not familiar with Saigon’s urban sprawl, Nguyen Hue is the city’s upscale walking street, a classier alternative to the hedonistic and exciting Bui Vien backpacker street. During Tet, hundreds of creative, brightly-colored, and expertly-curated flower displays dot the wide pedestrian avenue in the center of the street, creating a spectacle too marvelous to be described in words. Seriously, do a quick Google Images search for “Nguyen Hue flower exhibition” and you’ll be sold.
2. Visit Pagodas for a glimpse into Vietnamese life
Visiting pagodas and praying to ancestors is a huge part of the Tet tradition for the Vietnamese. Paying a visit to a pagoda or two is a great way to catch an insight into the spiritual lives of Vietnamese, and it may even get you into the Tet spirit yourself.
3. Sampling traditional Tet foods
Just as food is a huge part of Western holiday traditions, there are lots of “Tet foods” that help give the season its flavor. Even though the street food vendors in most parts of the city will have left for Tet, there is still one hub where Tet foods are easy to come by: Cho Lon, the large market located at the heart of District 5. The District is, for all intents and purposes, Saigon’s Chinatown. Many of the locals are either first- or second-generation Chinese immigrants, and they do not feel the strong urge to return to their hometowns that most Vietnamese do. So, they take the opportunity to continue their work and profit off both a seasonal product and a sharply decreased amount of competition. This benefits those in Saigon during Tet, who get to try traditional Tet foods like banh tet (a cake made of sticky rice, mung bean, and pork) and mut tet (fresh fruit jam).
4. A photography excursion
Walking around the city is both gorgeous and surreal during Tet, because the streets of the city, which are obviously very well lived-in because of their appearance, are so strangely empty. Unless you’re walking down a main thoroughfare, you can walk in the street and the main activity you’ll see is families of local Saigonese sharing meals or lounging in front of their houses. Bringing a camera along on a walk in order to photodocument this rare urban tranquility is highly advisable, as it’s unlikely you’ll ever experience something like this outside of Tet in Saigon.
5. A floating flower market
Lots of sights not present during most of the year pop up in Saigon during Tet, and one of them is the floating flower market that takes place on the Tau Hu Canal running alongside Ben Binh Dong Street in District 8. Boats displaying bright flowers and ripe fruits bob up and down on the waters of the canal, and several vendors sell Vietnamese street food to the throngs of visitors, both locals and tourists. It’s highly recommended to bring a camera if you are to visit the floating flower market.
6. A book festival
Mac Thi Buoi Street is a stretch that, all year round, is lined with outdoor book stores and reading cafes. During Tet, the street (along with neighboring streets Nguyen Hue and Ngo Duc Ke) becomes the site of the city’s annual book festival. Literally tens of thousands of Vietnamese books are introduced at the festival, and a good number of English titles are available as well. Books range from novels to photo documentations of Saigon’s evolution during the 20th century. The festival’s primary purpose is to get locals more interested in reading, but it is also a great way to spend the afternoon for those spending the Tet holiday in Saigon.
7. Watch the fireworks
The Saigonese love their fireworks displays, and there were six of them held at midnight in different parts of the city for Tet this past year. You can catch either high-altitude or low-altitude displays at locations near the city center, or you can take the opportunity to travel to a suburb and catch a low-altitude display there. The precise locations for this coming year are not yet set in stone, but rest assured that the fireworks will be making several reappearances.
8. Take in some door shows
Hotels realize that much of Saigon quiets down during Tet, and they want to provide their guests with fun diversions. So most big hotel chains will host a variety of shows, from beauty pageants to flamenco dancing to magic shows, out in front of their establishments. Whether you are staying at the hotel or not, feel free to buy a drink at the hotel’s bar, kick back, and take in the sights.
9. Visit Tao Dan Park’s flower festival
As you’ve probably noticed by now, flowers are a big part of the Tet season. displaying flowers at one’s home is a Tet tradition, and there are lots of big flowers displays in Saigon. One of the biggest is housed at Tao Dan Park in District 1. What sets this apart from the huge flower exhibition on Nguyen Hue Street is that, in addition to the flowers, it has music shows and games. It’s an excellent way for couples and families alike to spend the day. Be aware that there is an entrance fee for this flower festival, but it is only a dollar or two.
We hope that this list will make your time spent during Tet in Saigon more enjoyable. Remember that these events do not all take place every day of the holiday season, so you should check beforehand to make sure the event you are going to will be running.