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.
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.