Article and photos: Nick M.

Tet – the Lunar New Year celebration – still holds its place in Vietnam as the most important holiday of the year. However, the culture and habits around Tet have changed over the years.

During the post-war period of centralized planning and in the initial period of doi moi (economic reform), bicycles and cyclos remained the major means of transportation for Vietnamese people during Tet. Before 1990, there also used to be the clanging sound of trams in Hanoi. As Tet approached and spring came around, hopping on a tram to Hoan Kiem Lake for a photo or a leisurely stroll was an exciting experience that everyone anticipated.

Trains were also essential. In the days leading up to Tet, train stations on the North-South route filled with people holding branches of peach or apricot blossoms to start a journey that could last two or three days, in order to welcome the new year with their loved ones.

These days, big cities are growing ever busier and during Tet crowded streets and sidewalks create a bustling atmosphere for the spring celebration. Airplanes have become the way to travel around the country, with additional flights added throughout the holiday season to reunite travelers with their families as quickly as possible.

For every child who lived through the 1980s and 1990s in Vietnam, the sound of firecrackers is an unforgettable memory. Children at that time were only allowed to stay up past midnight on Tet Eve to wait for the new year, and the merry sounds and smells of firecrackers signified that spring had come. On the first morning of the new year, children wore their new clothes and walked to the front porch covered with the red and pink remains of firecrackers to wait for their parents to bring them on their Tet visits.

Tet feasts have not changed as much between now and then, as they continue to include banh chung (rice cakes), fatty meat, pickles, spring rolls, boiled chicken, bamboo shoot soup, lean pork paste and red steamed sticky rice. These are must-have traditional dishes to create a colorful and rich meal for the new year, with families often wrapping and boiling banh chung through the night.

Working hard and living frugally all year so as to have a hearty meal during Tet was a feeling treasured by many who lived through the difficult time before economic reform. Traditional dishes are still an indispensable part of Tet feasts, but after two or three meals with dishes high in fat, many have also begun to seek lighter food such as snail rice noodles, crab vermicelli soup and pho.

Music & tv programs
More than 20 years ago, old cassette players in many households could be heard playing “Happy New Year” by the legendary Swedish band ABBA. Even though the actual meaning of the song is sad and gloomy, for Vietnamese people it remains the familiar melody of Tet. And in the 2000s, the New Year program “Year-End Meeting – The Kitchen Gods,” which aired at 8:00 p.m. on Tet Eve, was a must-see as it told satirical stories about social events and life in the country during the year.

Nowadays, cassette players have been replaced by Bluetooth speakers and smartphones. ABBA’s “Happy New Year” is no longer as popular, having been replaced by newer, more upbeat songs about Tet or old songs about spring that have been remixed in contemporary styles. “The Kitchen Gods” also came to an end after 16 years and has been replaced by a newer version of the “Year-End Meeting” program since 2020.

In the past, during Tet holidays the landline phone in each household would ring constantly with calls from relatives, friends and even loved ones from overseas.

Nowadays, everyone is on social media and people send their Tet greetings via Facebook or Instagram. They update photos of the Tet atmosphere on their personal wall and share their emotions directly through comments or interactions. People living halfway around the globe can video chat to see each other’s faces as they exchange their Tet greetings.

 For a long time, many believed that they should stay at home and only visit relatives and loved ones for Tet. But now, Lunar New Year is considered the longest holiday of the year and many families have formed a new custom of traveling somewhere far away from home. After Tet Eve or the first day of the Lunar New Year, many families head to the airport to make use of every moment of the holiday and enjoy the thrill of a short vacation before the busy year ahead.

The differences between Tet now and Tet then were inevitable. But the bond of families over Tet holidays is forever unchanged. Whether now or in the past, people still need a holiday to escape from the daily grind, come home in the excitement of receiving hugs and smiles of joy, and welcome the new year together.