Signs of Tet

by aengelson | February 2nd, 2010

Peach blossoms near the Ho Chi Minh Masoleum, Hanoi.

The weather in Hanoi has taken a turn for the better (apologies to friends back in Europe & the States locked in crummy February cold). Temps have been in the high 70s F and sunny. I’ve heard that February weather here can be unpredictable–sometimes the cool drizzle of winter, sometimes the balmy days of spring. We’ll enjoy it as long as it lasts.

Tet Festival is approaching, and that means a lot of activity in Hanoi. Tet, which is Vietnam’s most important holiday, marks the arrival of the lunar new year (it’s known best in the U.S. as “Chinese New Year” but China doesn’t have a lock on this holiday). Most Vietnamese people have at least three days off around the day of Tet (February 14 this year), and it’s a time to be with family.

An intrepid motorcycle driver delivers a traditional Tet kumquat tree.

Traditionally, it’s a time for cleaning the home and preparing and tidying the family altar. The home altars are piled high with flowers, fruits and other offerings in  preparation to welcome the spirits of deceased ancestors to meet with the family. People generally travel to be with family at this time of year, and many businesses shut down. About a week before Tet, there’s a ceremony in which the Kitchen Gods are sent to heaven to report on how the ancestors are doing. On the eve of Tet, families eat a special meal (Tất niên) to celebrate the arrival of the new year.

Americans generally know Tet from the infamous Tet Offensive, a surprise attack by the Vietnamese during the American War, in 1968. It was a surprise in part because it occurred during the Vietnamese holiday (it would be as if the US launched an attack on Christmas Day). The uprisings were a turning point in the war.

Forty cases of beer on the moto, forty cases of beer...

Another sign of Tet here is the huge profusion of decorative flowers and plants. Traditionally, the blossoms of the peach blossom tree (cây đào) are used as decorations around the home. In addition, live kumquat trees are a symbol of wealth, good luck, and the family “tree” (fruit are grandparents, flowers are parents, buds are children, and young green leaves are grandchildren).

These trees, complete with bright orange fruit, can be seen being delivered by motorbike all over the city. It’s definitely a sign that the new year is approaching to see a fearless motorbike driver with a huge, fruit-laden kumquat tree strapped on the back. (You also see a lot of cases of beer being transported this time of year, so you know big celebrations are imminent).

2 Responses to “Signs of Tet”

  1. aengelson says:

    BTW, that kumquat tree on the motorbike is a relatively small one, but about all I could come up with on short notice…

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About This Site

Andy Engelson is a writer and editor who lives in Hanoi, Vietnam. He's currently working on a historical novel set in the Northwest United States during World War II. He's also a freelance writer, essayist and member of the Hanoi Writer's Collective. In a former life, he edited Washington Trails magazine for six years and before that was freelance journalist. He likes to hike, travel, and play with his family.


I confess I do not believe in time. I like to fold my magic carpet, after use, in such a way as to superimpose one part of the pattern upon another. Let visitors trip. And the highest enjoyment of timelessness — in a landscape selected at random — is when I stand among rare butterflies and their food plants. This is ecstasy, and behind the ecstasy is something else, which is hard to explain. It is like a momentary vacuum into which rushes all that I love. A sense of oneness with sun and stone. A thrill of gratitude to whom it may concern — to the contrapuntal genius of human fate or to tender ghosts humoring a lucky mortal. — Vladimir Nabokov, Speak, Memory


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