What to expect when visiting Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon), Vietnam for Tet (Lunar New Year)

We knew we wanted to visit Vietnam during Tet, or the Lunar New Year. Travel bloggers usually tell you to head to Hanoi or Hoi An, but we ended up staying in Ho Chi Minh City (or Saigon as many locals say) with our Vietnamese "parents." Lots of rumors out there say that Ho Chi Minh City is abandoned, shut down, and generally boring during Tet. We didn't know what to expect, but we did know one thing: Ho Chi Minh City is never boring.

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In this post:

  1. Intro

  2. General Tet info

  3. Our Tet highlights

  4. Recommendations


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1. Intro 

First things first: Tet is not one day, or even two days. It's up to seven days officially, and in terms of changes to the city, it's more like 1-2 weeks. If you're planning to be in Ho Chi Minh City during Tet, I strongly recommend that you arrive at least a few days beforehand, for two reason:
  1. So you can visit places in the city that will be closed during Tet.
  2. Tet is a family celebration, and arriving early gives you time to make some local friends -- and quickly become a part of their family!
Some local friends (teenagers who wanted to practice English)

We were in Ho Chi Minh City for about a month before Tet kicked off, which gave us time to get familiar with the city, make some friends, become comfortable with our homestay hosts, and gather lots of info about what to expect. Vietnamese people are genuinely friendly, and we were invited to three different Tet family celebrations by near strangers. We ended up staying home with our homestay family.

Mrs. Hang, our host. We became quite close in our six weeks in her home!

Even though everyone said the city shuts down, we were still surprised to learn that my Vietnamese language classes would be postponed for a week, and our gym would close for two weeks. It was so obvious to locals that they didn't feel the need to tell us when we bought our six week memberships!

2. General Tet info

The days preceding and during Tet each hold significance and VietnamOnline.com does a really good job explaining the basics of Tet traditions. The Lunar New Year is often referred to as the "Chinese New Year" around the world, but in Vietnam, it's Tet (well, Tết). Don't be That Guy and call it "Chinese New Year" when it's the biggest holiday in Vietnam.

The BEST Tet gift: a dragon chicken (Dong Tao) like this one gifted to our homestay family! These guys can be hundreds of $US!

Tet is huge, and everyone goes home to celebrate with their families. This means that Ho Chi Minh City will be full of local families, and everyone else will leave the city to go home. Of course, there are still expats and foreigners, mostly drinking beer.

Or as we recommend, tequila with nuoc mia (sugarcane juice).

Yes, most shops will close. In fact, almost all shops will close at some point, and it's hard to know when that is... Basically, people keep whatever hours they want and take a few days off if they feel like it.

No, not all shops will close -- especially if they are in any way foreigner-friendly, and sometimes if they're run by a local family. We stayed in District 8 (we'll be writing a review of it soon!) and there were places that were only closed for one day during Tet, like a few cafés, banh mi thit heo carts (pork belly sandwiches), and our favorite pho restaurant. In District 1 and around Ben Thanh district or the Backpacker's district, many (but not all) restaurants and bars and breweries stayed open.

Market-goers buying food and gifts and offerings and flowers before Tet

The same District 8 market street, two days into Tet.

On this note, beware that government offices and banks will close, so if you have to e.g. extend your tourist visa during this time, do it before Tet! ATMs are open, but things like money changing shops may be harder to come by. 

We were told that the streets would be empty during Tet. Not true! Yes, the traffic was diminished, but it was not at all empty. We had planned to ride bicycles around town, but instead decided to walk, and after seeing how busy some streets were, we were glad we didn't believe the "empty streets" myth. Luckily, this also meant that Grab and Uber were running the whole time. These are absolutely the best ways to get around the city. Make sure you Google some Grab promo codes before booking a motorbike ride -- we often got nearly free rides due to promo codes! If you haven't yet, definitely sign up for Grab (discount code for signing up here) and Uber (discount code for signing up here) and check them both before booking to see which service is cheaper. Quality is comparable and they DO have a helmet for you.

...but if you walk, you'll see all the fun carved fruits!

If you're invited to anyone's home during Tet, it's a good idea to bring a gift. Again, VietnamOnline.com has some pointers, but I'll weigh in and say that banh tet and banh chung (sticky rice cakes with beans and often meat) are great gifts. Everyone gets a bunch of them, and one more is always good. Plus, they'll want to cut it open and share it with you, so you can try it out!

We loved banh chung

If you're still outside the country reading this, bring some of your country's delicacies like candy, chocolates, nice bath/body products... basically anything you would give to your bosses family who you haven't met. Think nice stuff that they can't get (or is very expensive) in Vietnam. I wish we had brought root beer barrels for kids, since they love the sarsaparilla flavor and they are such a funny candy. Even if it's not Tet, bringing gifts like this is a great idea.

Families in Vietnam will be honoring their ancestors for Tet, so you'll see many of the altars to deceased family members in local houses will be extra decorated. They're beautiful, but they're not just fancy decorations, so be respectful.

Gift basket and offerings around a small altar

Finally, everyone cleans house (and shop) before the new year. Starting the year with a clean home is important, so people will be doing a very deep housecleaning in the days leading up to New Year's Day. On the day, and a couple of days after, no one cleans -- you don't want to sweep out all of the good luck and prosperity that was brought into your home for the new year. This means that after Tet, shops and homes are extra clean. Nice!

Housecleaning for days

3. So what are some of our Tet highlights?

Where to begin? We had a truly lovely time.

  • Flowers, flowers, everywhere! Oh, and dogs!

    • Every year for Tet, Saigon is swathed in beautiful flower decorations, and you can buy flowers and plants everywhere. There are flower sculptures, flower competitions, flower archways... and 2018 is the year of the dog, so there were multiple dog displays and, you guessed it, dogs made of flowers.
Seasonal flower market in District 1

Orchid competition

We had lots of fun at the flower displays...
    • I loved the Year of the Dog decorations in homes and businesses. So many cute puppy signs!
Year of the doggo!
  • The streets actually were a bit quieter

    • Walking around the Ho Chi Minh City was great just after Tet, when you could really enjoy the sights of the city.
Tan Dinh Church

Nguyen Van Binh, the famous Saigon Book Street
  • Annual family photos... that we were in... with someone's family

    • Tet is the time for family photos, and the city has a few centers set up for them. The biggest one is Nguyen Hue Flower Street in District 1, which is worth visiting even if you aren't taking family pictures.

    • We were invited by my yoga instructor's daughter to take family photos with them, to practice their English and also show us something beautiful. Keep in mind, we barely know these people and they included us in their extended family portraits. So friendly. So fun! We met up with them before Tet at the Phu My Hung Flower Festival and participated in a truly local experience.

Lots of beautiful ladies in beautiful Ao Dai
  • This ABBA song:

    • This was our homestay mom's favorite song, and at midnight on New Year's Eve we listened to it on repeat for about an hour, while we ate traditional snacks and sipped hot tea.
  • Free pigs head!

    • OK so this probably won't happen to everyone, but our host works at a meat processing plant, so when he was given LOTS of meat as an annual gift, he didn't know what to do with an entire pig's head. Just so happens that Warren is a butcher, so they gave us a head, he butchered it up, and we had delicious fresh pork for days.
He was told to butcher in the bathroom, on the floor. Excellent.
  • Expat stuff is great fun

    • Normally we stick to local stuff, and eat local food/drink local beer. However, during Tet, since lots of stuff closes, it's a great time to take advantage of the expat-friendly spots.
    • For us, this meant eating cheeseburgers at Soul Burger and drinking beer at local breweries (our favorite being Heart of Darkness). Sure, this isn't the Vietnamese experience we all dream of, but it's a fun thing to do, cheap by western standards, and allows you to meet other foreigners who live in HCMC who you can make friends with :)
Feeling like dumb expats but enjoying the delicious beer

Heart of Darkness's rotating tap selection is very good!
  • Amazing hospitality (and meals, and snacks)

    • I can't overstate how hospitable Vietnamese people are, and during Tet, everyone is in ultra-fun mode in terms of cooking and singing and generally inviting you into their lives.
    • My favorite moments were eating amazing home-cooked meals and trying out the traditional annual treats, like candied coconut, watermelon seeds, and of course banh Tet.
Slowly cooking candied coconut over coals... indoors!

One of many beautiful meals we were invited to share.

Featuring this morbid chicken eating itself!

Everything, including sate and egg rolls and fried shrimp, were made completely from scratch.

4. Recommendations

Our main recommendation for visiting Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon) during Tet are:
  1. Bring some treats from home (like candy) as gifts.

  2. Come early and stay with a local.

  3. Say YES to any invitations to family gatherings (but make sure you actually go).

  4. Don't you want to befriend these people?!
  5. Try any and all food that you can!

  6. Check out one of the many fireworks displays at midnight on New Years Eve.

  7. ...and the accompanying confetti canons 
  8. Stop and smell the roses, and lilies, and orchids, and massive dog/pig/rooster flower sculptures, and...

  9. Doggo.


    Metal doggos.
  10. Stock up on beer and snacks, in case shops close for a day or two.

  11. If all else fails, get a Grab bike to an expat pub for food and drinks.

But beware of giant sneaky dogs!

To get a good perspective on what it's like around Tet in the busier parts of the city like District 1, check out Jodi from Legal Nomads perspective on Tet in Saigon. We loved being in Ho Chi Minh City for the Vietnamese New Year, and hope that people give it a chance. It's rare to see HCMC when it's not swamped with people, and it was very cool to get to know the people who are actually from the city. Even if some things close, there's always something exciting and interesting to find in Ho Chi Minh City!


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