When I mentioned Tet to the father of one of my friends, he winced. A Vietnam War vet, the word Tet was synonymous with the Tet offensive.
“One year was particularly bad,” was all he said.
Having now been in Vietnam during two Tet holidays, I understand why an attack during that time was such a shock. For the Vietnamese, Tet is like Thanksgiving + Christmas + the New Year for Christian Americans. Businesses close down for anywhere from three days to two weeks and everyone—I mean everyone—goes home to be with their families.
A young Vietnamese woman who works at a restaurant that caters to expats told Phil and me that her boss offered to pay her a substantially increased wage to work through the Tet holiday. This woman called her mom to discuss the option of staying in Da Nang to earn extra money rather than traveling the six hours north to go home. She said her mom didn’t skip a beat with her response: “OK, that’s fine, and don’t bother coming home next year either.” The woman turned down the money and booked her train ticket home the next day. The restaurant closed down for two weeks.
The Vietnamese have many superstitions surrounding Tet. For those who want to know more, this illustrated guide explains things wonderfully.
Da Nang, a young city of more than a million people, feels particularly quiet during Tet. Because Phil’s family was in town and wanted to celebrate a delayed Christmas, we enjoyed a made-up holiday of Tetmas during which we opened presents (I can’t believe how many presents they packed) and munched on traditional Tet snacks gathered by Phil’s sister, Angie. Our feast included dried coconut and ginger, cashews, sweet and spicy dried meat (roughly Vietnamese jerky), and Tet cakes, called bánh chưng, which are more savory than sweet and are made of rice, mung beans, and pork. We also had some Sayklly's fudge from the UP courtesy of Phil's mom and a traditional Polish dessert, a giant circular wafer dipped in chocolate that we cut up like a pie, a nod to the culture of Phil's brother-in-law, Piotr. We celebrated a couple of days early, but we even went so far as to barely leave Angie and Piotr's house, which is also the Vietnamese way. It was a perfect day for nesting, gray and dreary. I’m not sure if this is the Vietnamese way, but our transplanted group of eight watched three movies…some people watched four.
Next year, we will likely skip town during Phil’s Tet holiday break, but it’s been nice to stay in Vietnam for Tet, too. Without having this experience, we’d be missing out on a big part of Vietnamese culture.
Similar to other expats living outside of either Hanoi or Ho Chi Minh City, Phil and I have begun to master the art of the layover—in our case, in HCMC.
District 1 is where we’ve found ourselves on both of our extended-but-not-overnight layovers in HCMC and, on our most recent venture, it struck me that our two experiences could be combined into one incredibly well spent pass through. You’ll want at least a few hours to make these trips worth it. For reference, our first layover was eight hours long and our second was about five and a half. We aren’t the type of travelers to rush through a massive to-do list, but I could see all of these things being tackled in a similarly long layover.
You’ll want to arrange your own itinerary depending on the time of day of your layover and, of course, its duration. But these are my suggestions, in priority order.
1) Pasteur Street Brewing Co. First of all, the cab ride from the airport to the tasting room should take you past the Independence Palace (aka Reunification Palace—like the city it calls home, it has two names). We didn’t go inside. To me, it was enough to see such an iconic building from the outside, and traffic was thick enough for us to get a good look from the cab. The building is commonly associated with images of the Vietnam/American War, but in fact today felt quite peaceful, with tall trees surrounding the large lawn that leads to the front steps.
But the point of this item on the list is tasting some beer brewed by Americans using both local ingredients and those imported from the States (i.e., hops). What was more remarkable to me than the beers themselves was the embodiment of a cultural collision that so perfectly reflected my personal experiences as a former American craft brewery employee living in Vietnam. The place was small and simple. The sign that hung over the sidewalk felt American, but the alleyway and stairs leading to the second story tasting room were quintessential Vietnam. A mural on the wall illustrating the brewing process was something I’d seen in many a U.S. craft brewery, as was the use of plenty of wood in the decor. The restaurant manager was from Nashville, the rest of the staff Vietnamese. The clientele while we were there was slightly more foreign than Vietnamese, and we chatted with a few Kiwis and a fellow American while we camped out and enjoyed.
The first thing we did upon arrival is order a flight so that we could try everything on tap. The beers themselves were good, though not remarkable. Admittedly, they’re catering to a different palate than mine, with the hop heavy craft beers I grew up on. Hops are expensive for them to import, and the Vietnamese ingredients/flavors that they’ve chosen to incorporate into their recipes—such as lemongrass and jasmine—lend themselves to delicately balanced profiles. The passionfruit wheat was probably my favorite, in part for the strength of the passionfruit in the aroma and taste, but again for what it represented, East + West = The Full Picture.
The food was fantastic, too, with a distinct Southern U.S. flair. However, if you have enough time, you may want to save room in your beer-soaked belly for my next suggestion…
2) Pizza 4P’s. Is it crazy that some of the best pizza I’ve ever had was at a Japanese-owned restaurant at the end of another Saigon alley? (Note: This is coming from a girl who has never been to Italy but who has done her fair share of pizza eating across the States, including in Chicago and New York.) Having lived in Vietnam for a short six months, I’m no longer surprised by the success of such a cultural mashup. Some of my favorite tacos in the world are made by a Taiwanese woman who takes over a “storefront” down the road from me in Da Nang once the rice place the space is shared with closes after lunch. I’m not the only one who loves these tacos.
Anyway, Phil’s sister said we had to go to 4P’s and order the “pizza with the big ball of cheese on top”. Turns out, this was appropriately their signature dish. We got it with tomato sauce (for an additional ~$0.90) and free extra garlic. The space was great and the staff was attentive. When the server delivered our pizza, she cut the mozzarella ball that was atop the pie and spread it evenly across all eight pieces. Apparently this cheese is made just for this purpose in Da Lat—which is where all the good dairy in Vietnam is born and happened to be our next destination (blog post forthcoming). Please, do yourself a favor and don’t take a bite until you’ve put a bit of their hot sauce on it. That stuff is amazing.
I highly recommend calling to book a reservation in advance. We made ours for 11am on a Friday and, despite booking online and calling to check on it, we still had to sit at the bar for a while in order to get an open spot in the restaurant itself.
I’m not saying this place is undiscovered. I’m saying it’s appropriately well known.
Furthermore, please don’t judge me for not eating Vietnamese street food while in HCMC. I have delicious Vietnamese food at my fingertips on a daily basis. And I’ll probably have another layover or two in HCMC during which I can get enjoy some authentic bánh khọt or something.
3) La Fenetre Soleil. OK, I admit it, we went here for a mid-morning coffee and the machine was broken and we didn’t want to be late for our Four P’s reservation, therefore we ended up walking out….but this place is just the coolest. The entry is a bit tough to find, but the space itself is easy to spot from across the street, its second story windows consuming the street corner it calls home. The interior is a dark lounge-y room, and it’s surrounded by an enclosed balcony of sorts. The architectural details are sweet and the old furniture is authentically quirky. It’s one of those places that is in fashion despite itself, making it super authentic and giving it all the street cred it wants in my book. I liked imagining the space as someone’s home back in the glory days of Saigon…if it were mine, I’d sit on that sunny balcony and read and write the day away, tucked in a pleasantly air conditioned whimsy while motorbikes ebbed and flowed, honking on the street below.
They seemed to have quite the cocktail list and there were blankets tossed over a piano and some musical equipment in the corner. It seems like it would be a shame to miss the natural light in there during the day, but I’m sure others would tell me it’s a shame I visited and didn’t have a drink and enjoy some live jazz. Maybe we’ll have to visit this place during an evening layover in HCMC.
Importantly, all of these places are within easy walking distance of one another, and cabs are not hard to find in this neighborhood for when you need to make your way back to the airport.
We all want different things out of our travels, and you may think my little list is sparse and one-dimensional, but that’s OK. If I helped you out, great. If not, I hope it was at least entertaining. And that you hate your layover in Saigon. Just kidding. Maybe.
I quit a job I enjoyed at Founders Brewing Co. in Grand Rapids, Michigan, and left my family, friends, and beloved dog to join my boyfriend in moving across the world, in search of adventure and new experiences. I arrived in August 2015.