Travelogue: Saigon during Tet

Don’t be in Saigon during Tet, everyone says. Everything is closed, everything is three times the price, there’s nothing to do, and it’s impossible to get out. Contrary to all this advice, I decided that I HAD to be in Saigon during Tet, the lunar new year celebration. After all, it’s the biggest holiday of the year for Vietnam, surpassing both Christmas and New Years. Plus, I always have to be a rebel.
Saigon during Tet - Tet eve crowd

Conclusion: Saigon during Tet is totally awesome, and completely worth it.

Tet in Vietnam is very different from New Years in western countries – whereas New Years in the west is a one day event of partying and watching the ball drop at midnight, in Vietnam it is two weeks of taking time off of work, going back to your hometown, and spending time with family. As a result, everything is closed, and it’s impossible to travel as all forms of travel have already been fully booked. So during Tet, cities like Saigon almost become ghost cities, whereas small villages outside of Saigon suddenly swell to twice their size as everybody returns to their hometown.

But anyways, the prime attraction of Saigon during Tet is flowers. Right in the city center, there’s a street completely filled with flowers. Millions upon millions of flowers, arranged into the shape of larger shapes, horses, scenes from Vietnam, and other decorations. I got quite a nice collection of photos:
Saigon during Tet - panorama flower street

Amusingly, it took me a long time to figure out that it was the year of the horse.  Walking through the flower displays, I thought to myself, “why are there so many horse displays?”  It was only until the next day that it hit me: “ohhhhh, it’s the year of the horse!”

Fortunately, I managed to visit the flower street on a great day, Tet Eve, when the crowds were at their minimum. In the following days, there was an incredible crush of people at the street, making it next to impossible to take good photos:
Saigon during Tet - flower street crowd 1 Saigon during Tet - flower street crowd 3

For Vietnamese people, it’s traditional to celebrate the new year by dressing up in their special New Years clothing (quite gorgeous), and pose for photos with the flowers.
Saigon during Tet - flower street group photo Saigon during Tet - flower street portrait 1

But with all the people posing with the flowers, unfortunately get quite trampled and manhandled.
Saigon during Tet - flower street trampled

At the flower street, there were also cultural displays – weaving via loom, lion dance, etc.
Saigon during Tet - flower street loom Saigon during Tet - flower street lion dance

Oh, and there was also a book festival!  With my love of books, I had to visit, but unfortunately all the books were in Vietnamese.  But some cultural icons translate across languages:
Saigon during Tet - flower street book festival 1 Saigon during Tet - flower street book festival doraemon

These characters look quite familiar.  It’s interesting how widely copied the Doraemon pattern is – I saw another similar set of characters in Taiwan!
Saigon during Tet - flower street book festival mascot 1

I liked these Vietnamese characters.  Is it just me, or do so many children’s TV shows use the same archetypes over and over?
Saigon during Tet - flower street book festival mascot 2

On the subject of flowers, in the days leading up to Tet, Saigon is home to a massive flower market right in District 1, with vendors selling all sorts of potted flowers for people to take home. Yellow flowers are the most traditional, but other types of flowers are also represented.

I’m told that virtually all cities and towns in Vietnam have their own flower markets for Tet. Indeed, large cities like Saigon have multiple! I visited another flower market, a floating one:
Saigon during Tet - panorama river flower market

And the best part is, very few people have cars – so how do you get huge flowers pots and shrubs home? Popular solutions are motorbikes and mini trucks.
Saigon during Tet - flowers on motorbike Saigon during Tet - flowers on truck 2

For a few days after Tet, everything was indeed closed:
– Binh Tay and Ben Thanh markets:
Saigon during Tet - Binh Tay market closed

– Local markets:
Saigon during Tet - local market empty

– All stores along the street are also closed! Normally, I would be fine with all these shops being closed, since I don’t buy much anyways. However, right now I wanted to get a local Vietnamese SIM card for my phone. It took a good half an hour of walking around before I found a shop open.
Saigon during Tet - street stores closed

Oh, and there’s fireworks, visible from the river. They’re not quite as grand as those from the Taipei 101, but still, not bad.

The morning of the new year, I went to check out one of Saigon’s local pagoda / temples.
Saigon during Tet - pagoda 1

The pagoda by itself is rather unimpressive (but quite crowded), but I noticed that there were a lot of disabled people hanging about, asking for money. Apparently, for Tet it’s considered good karma to give money to those less well off.
Saigon during Tet - pagoda filled with people Saigon during Tet - pagoda praying

It’s also traditional to buy birds and turtles, and then set them free at the temple. Again, good karma.
Saigon during Tet - pagoda releasing birds

Bits and bobs:
– There were a lot of balloon vendors around for Tet, like this one. He’s got got something like a hundred balloons, all tied to a bamboo pole that he carries around. How much does it weigh? Does bamboo pole + balloons weigh more or less than just the bamboo pole itself?
Saigon during Tet - balloon man

– Circus performances at a lotus stage:
Saigon during Tet - lotus stage

– My friend Sally playing with horsies:
Saigon during Tet - flower street Sally

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