Chúc mừng năm mới! Happy lunar new year and welcome to the year of the horse!
Rather luckily, or unluckily, depending on how you see it, my visit to Vietnam and in particular Hanoi, coincided with the Chinese New Year celebrations, or Tet Nguyen Dan as they call it in Vietnam. I was a little apprehensive about visiting Vietnam at this time, as I knew that the vast majority of shops, restaurants and tourist attractions would be shut for a few days around this period. On the other hand, visiting Hanoi during Tet, the biggest holiday celebration of the year, would offer other unique sights and experiences not usually available to travellers.
The tipping point came when I was lucky enough to be hosted by a friend of a friend in Hanoi, who offered me the chance to celebrate Tet with her family. This opportunity was just too good to miss so that is how I ended up celebrating Tet in Hanoi.
I arrived back in Hanoi on the eve of the eve of Tet, after my 2 day visit to Halong Bay, so let’s start there.
The day before the eve of Tet
It was late afternoon by the time I arrived in Hanoi, so I just had enough time to walk around the Old Quarter, acquainting myself with the city whilst grabbing some dinner and drinks. As the eve of Tet is a public holiday, this was the last day before the New Year when the shops and restaurants would still be in operation.
Walking to the famous Hoan Kiem Lake and visiting the Ngoc Son Temple on the lake was a good place to start.
Tet decorations had already filled the streets by this time, and there were a number of families out and about taking photos of their little ones dressed in traditional Vietnamese costumes. How cute is this?
I was keen to make a head start on the Vietnamese street food that I have heard so many rave reviews about, but most only open in the morning and early afternoon. My host, Q, managed to squeeze us into the famous Bahn Ghoi street stall under the large banyan tree (we were the very last customers of the year!) where I tucked into some good and greasy bahn ghoi and nem ran.
After dinner, we went in search for some traditional Vietnamese coffee. The strong, sweet coffee that Vietnam is so famous for would be just the ticket after our tasty but greasy meal. Going in search for some good coffee also gave us a great excuse to walk through the lively streets of the Old Quarter.
We finally settled on Cong Caphe, a modern cafe decorated with communist memorabilia with some amazing coffee options. I settled for the classic Vietnamese filter coffee with condensed milk. Had I known how strong it would be, I would probably have passed on it as I later found myself having difficulty sleeping through the night.
Walking home, I noticed how busy the roads were, with motorbikes everywhere honking incessantly. Q told me that these were the people leaving Hanoi to visit their families in other towns and that the roads would be a lot quieter on the following day…
One day before Tet
Q was right.
The streets were significantly quieter on the eve of Tet, which was good for me as I would be riding a motorcycle for the first time in my life and I didn’t want it to be in the crazy traffic conditions that Vietnam has become so famous for.
Visitors should note that pretty much everything shuts down in Hanoi one day before Tet. One of the tourist attractions that was open however, was the not-to-be-missed Temple of Literature, a very well-preserved example of traditional Vietnamese architecture, embodying 5 courtyards set within ground walls.
Be sure to pass by the nearby Scholars’ Street where calligraphy masters set up shop along the street for a fixed period of time around the Lunar New Year.
It is traditional for Vietnamese families to get together for a reunion lunch on the eve of Tet, which Q’s family graciously invited me to join. Q’s grandmother and aunt had cooked up a big feast, with many traditional Tet dishes on offer. From chicken to pork to seafood and noodles, there was a lot for me to taste and try and it was a wonderful experience sharing this with such a large and generous family like Q’s.
The one traditional Tet food that I wanted to try but did not get the chance to was banh chung, which I saw a lot of whilst walking the streets.
Tourists looking for something else to do on this day would also do well to pay the flower and antiques market around Hang Ma a visit. The roads are filled with stalls selling Lunar New Year decorations, kumquat trees, peach blossoms and other Tet traditional items, and it’s good fun to walk the streets, joining the locals in their last minute quest to ensure they’ve got everything possible in place to ensure the luckiest and most prosperous new year they could have.
While some of the locals were busy preparing for the New Year, including for instance, the burning of ghost money for deceased relatives, for others, it seemed to be just another ordinary day as they went about their ordinary business.
The last event of the day was the fireworks display which is put on by the town around the state ministerial house building and Hanoi Opera House. I followed Q and her parents to nab a good spot by the centre of town and joined the throngs of Hanoians with the same idea. Parking is a huge hassle here, so try to come by walk if possible as it will save you a lot of grief!
Upon our entry back at Q’s house, we were given our first “lucky money” packets of the year from Q’s father. I haven’t received one of these in a long long time! 🙂
First day of Tet
Most of the city remains closed on the first day of Tet with one major exception – the temples and pagodas. These places of worship are filled to the brim with Vietnamese folk all coming to give their donations and say their prayers for a happy, healthy and prosperous new year. As Q and her folks were going to be out and about visiting various family members and being visited themselves, I decided to head out on my own to check out the West Lake and the pagodas in that area.
From the lake, it was a short walk in the glorious sun to the Presidential Palace and the Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum Complex. The former is not open to the public and the latter was not open on this particular day. It was still worth a walk by just to see the exterior and feel the atmosphere of what seems to be a very important site for the Vietnamese.
The Ho Chi Minh Museum is located right next door to the mausoleum and I was pleased to discover that it was open to visitors. It isn’t the most well-curated museum in the world, but it does contain some very old and interesting photos of Ho Chi Minh which is worth the less than USD2 entrance fee (if only to kill some time when everything else is shut!).
If you haven’t had your fill of temples and pagodas by this time, the entrance to the famous One Pillar Pagoda is located just below the stairs leading to the entrance of the Ho Chi Minh Museum. Literally built on a single pillar, the pagoda was designed to represent the lotus blossom, a symbol of purity in a sea of sorrow.
After a walk around the walls that make up the Imperial Citadel, it was time for me to depart Hanoi. This is not the last I will see of this city however, as I will be returning in just over a week to continue exploring the rest of Vietnam. I can’t wait!
Been to Hanoi? What did you think? Any recommendations for my next visit there? Have you perhaps experienced the Lunar New Year celebrations in a foreign country before?