Surviving the Days Leading Up to Tết in Ho Chi Minh City

Tết is the Vietnamese Lunar New year. It happens around the end of January and is based off of the lunar calendar. I specifically chose to come to Vietnam during this season to get a taste of what Tết is like. Boy was I surprised. This is what it's like and how to survive in Ho Minh City, Vietnam if you are visiting during this time.

Tết is like of Thanksgiving, Christmas, and Easter had a baby. It's packed with traditions pulled from all the cultural influence Vietnam has experienced.

One of the traditions, like the American Thanksgiving, is to be home for Tết. The thing is, a sizable portion of Ho Chi Minh City's population is not from Ho Chi Minh City. Most businesses will close during the week of Tết so that employees can travel and spend time with family.

Since businesses are closed during Tết, the days leading up to Tết is chaos. Everyone is crowding markets, through all hours of the day and night, to buy gifts and groceries for the upcoming week long festivities. Imagine the pre Thanksgiving grocery and pre Christmas gift buying rush. It's so crowded that walking traffic becomes deadlocked.

I experienced this firsthand. I was told that the there was a delicious and cheap Banh Mi shop in the market near where I lived so I decided to head over there there "early". I guess 7:30AM on a Wednesday wasn't early enough. The market is a few hundred feet from where I live. On the days before Tết, it took me 10 minutes to shuffle through the packed sidewalks. I had to dodge vicious old ladies lugging giant bags of groceries, motorbikes forcing their way through the sidewalks, and the street vendors themselves.

When I arrived at the Banh Mi shop, which has a 10 feet wide store front, I discovered a crowd. This place was sold out on bread and there was still a crowd trying to preorder. I was told to return in 30 minutes when they would receive a fresh delivery of baguettes. By the time I returned home with the delicious meat, pate, and pickled veggies packed baguettes, it was 9AM. It took me one and a half hours to buy Banh Mi from a shop that was only a few hundred feet from my residence.

Would I buy the sandwich again? Hell yes. Would I do it during the days leading to Tết? Hell no.

I've learned that during the days leading up to Tết:

  1. Stay away from the local markets. I love visiting the the markets that locals visit to absorb the atmosphere and culture, but I'm not going get that during the days leading up to Tết. All I'm going to get is claustrophobia and and chaos. If that's what you want, then go for it.
  2. Go to the foreigner friendly districts. This is one of the few times that I would recommend hanging out at the foreigner friendly areas. This is because the locals are busy going to the local markets to shop and prepare for the Tết. As such, the foreigner places aren't as packed. Furthermore, the the businesses in those areas are more likely to be open. Businesses usually start closing as you get close to Tết since the owners and employees are starting to travel out of the city for Tết.
  3. Ask the businesses if they are open during the Tết week. This is an important one. Like I've stated, a lot of businesses close during the days leading up to and during Tết week. I made a list of places that I know will be open during that week so I can fall back to them if any of my new destinations are closed.