I must admit, I have never been a fan of Christmas. The idea of spending time with a family that I don’t particularly like, and only see once a year, fills me with dread. Dealing with that one drunken uncle who always picks a fight with me makes me want to run a million miles away.

So, when I think of Tet, Vietnam’s Lunar New Year festival, I often compare it to Christmas back in my home country and immediately develop a negative and defensive view of the season. But am I being fair to say that Tet is the worst time of the year in Vietnam?

We are just days away from that time of year when Vietnam slows down, and the usually bustling cities become serene ghost towns. But while Tet brings peace and quiet to the streets, it also comes with a lot of stress and concerns for expats. Their lives are turned upside down for one to two weeks while local families come together to celebrate this most special time of the year in Vietnamese culture.

I will never forget my first experience of Tet in Vietnam. It was 2014, and I was at my girlfriend’s home in Go Vap District, Ho Chi Minh City. She pulled out a deck of playing cards, and we spent the next six hours sitting on the floor, playing cards with her friends and family. At first, I couldn’t understand how anyone could sit there for so long just playing cards, but I soon realized that this was the spirit of Tet – sitting around and enjoying the company of loved ones.

But what is Tet? They say that Tet is like Christmas, Easter, Thanksgiving, and your birthday all rolled into one. It is the time of year when families come together to celebrate the start of the New Year according to the lunar calendar.

Tet brings with it many customs and traditions. From the Kitchen Gods who go to heaven to send good wishes for a family’s prosperity in the coming year, to the vibrant red and yellow flowers, new clothes, and special traditional foods that are only seen during this time. Tet truly is unique to Vietnam.

Unlike Christmas, which for me was one of the happiest days because I spent it in Ho Chi Minh City, where people went to work as usual and didn’t have to deal with the pain of unpleasant family members or spend large amounts of money on people they didn’t even like.

Then Tet arrived and reminded me of my negative thoughts. Tet is truly the Christmas of the Orient because family and spending time with loved ones are at the core of this season.

This comparison led me to dislike Tet for many years. As Tet approached, I would make plans to avoid people because I felt uncomfortable with their friendliness and generosity. With limited funds, giving money to children and elderly people just because it was customary wasn’t something I enjoyed. Additionally, schools closed, and there were no opportunities to earn money. Most of the places I liked to visit were closed as well, leaving me cooped up at home with nothing to do except make obligatory visits to friends’ homes to celebrate Tet.

Foreigners visit the spring flower festival at Binh Dong Wharf along Tau Hu Canal in District 8, Ho Chi Minh City, February 6, 2021. Photo: Ngoc Phuong / Tuoi Tre

For most expats, escaping the city during Tet is not even an option. Part of the Tet tradition is for people to travel back to their hometowns. This means that a large percentage of the nearly 100 million citizens of this country choose to buy bus, train, and plane tickets all at the same time. The roads and highways become congested with cars and motorbikes filled with family members eager to reach their homes before the Tet celebrations begin. There are simply no words to accurately describe the nightmare of being on a highway surrounded by thousands of motorbikes, each carrying a full family and half a truckload of food and luggage.

After learning the hard way, I quickly realized that self-imposed lockdown was the best option for me during Tet. It is safer to stay home and focus on writing, studying, making videos, or taking photos. Trying to embrace the Tet season seemed pointless to me.

This image shows holiday-goers returning to their hometowns for Tet from Ho Chi Minh City, January 27, 2022. Photo: Tuoi Tre

Tet and the Beauty of Giving

Now, with time, knowledge, and wisdom, I have gained a new level of understanding and appreciation for Tet.

After a decade of observing others play cards, give money, and indulge in food, while visiting family and friends, I have come to understand the true beauty of this season. I now realize that I never disliked Tet itself; I was more discontented with my past, and Tet reminded me of the unpleasant Christmas experiences in Australia.

This year, I have decided to share money with the security guards at my apartment. They have always greeted me with smiles and open arms throughout the year, and bringing them a little joy brings happiness to my heart. Similarly, at my workplace, as one of the few foreigners in a 30-story building, the cleaners and security staff go out of their way to bring a smile to my face every day. Tet is the perfect time to show my gratitude with a small gesture. I now truly understand the meaning of Tet.

Rather than getting angry at my Vietnamese wife for spending too much money, this year, I am supporting her and encouraging her to buy everything that will bring joy to the less fortunate members of our family.

I take delight in bringing imported beer and wine to our family home, so my family can share them with visitors. I find joy in witnessing the pride on my wife’s parents’ faces as they welcome their friends into their home and have something special to share. I am delighted to see the smiles on the faces of the hardworking individuals who earn so little, as their eyes light up when I give them a small red envelope filled with a bit of money.

In the past, Tet was the worst time of the year. But now, as the Year of the Dragon approaches, it has become the best time of the year. I now appreciate the traditions and customs, as well as the connections I have with family and friends. I also appreciate those who make my life better.

But what truly makes this the most amazing time of the year are the small things, like when I have the opportunity to stop and talk to a frail old man on the street. This man, with a large lump on his back, spends his days walking the streets of Binh Thanh District, selling lottery tickets. This year, what will make Tet special for me is the moment I get to say hello, hand him some lucky money, smile, and wish him a Happy New Year before driving off, knowing that he will be the happiest man in Vietnam for a few hours. That, to me, is the genuine spirit of Tet.

So when someone asks me, “Do you love or hate Tet?” I must say, there are many aspects of Tet that I, as a foreigner living in Vietnam, can dislike. But with a different perspective, there are also many aspects to love.

What will you do for Tet this year? If your answer is “Nothing,” then go out and make a difference. Say hello to a person in need, share some food, or slip a few thousand dong into the hand of a homeless person to brighten their day. I promise you, whatever you give will be returned to you tenfold. That is the true spirit and culture of Tet in Vietnam.

Chúc Mừng Năm Mới to everyone, and let’s welcome the Year of the Dragon with all the power and strength that this mythical creature symbolizes. It is going to be a great year for me, and I wish you all success and power in the year ahead.