A Foreigner’s Guide to New Year’s in Saigon
I ride my Honda 67 through the empty streets of Saigon in the week before Tet in 2009. Most foreigners expect the lead-up to the Vietnamese New Year to be full of excitement and energy. They expect the streets to be bustling with people and vendors hawking their wares—like some sort of giant country-wide version of Ben Thanh market. I used to be like them, but after a disappointing Tet in 2008, I now know better.
The notoriously congested streets of the city seem nearly deserted as I zip through main boulevards that would have been filled with thousands of motorbikes just days before. You could almost lay down on the street and take a nap without fear of being hit by anything. In fact, last year my local friends refused to teach me how to ride a motorbike until Tet precisely for that reason: This was the safest time to drive a car or ride a motorbike in Vietnam.
Why is the biggest holiday in Vietnam seemingly so underwhelming? To us Western-raised Vietnamese Americans used to the frenzy of New Year’s Eve, the image is strikingly strange. But the reason is simple: In Vietnam, Tet is for family. The city streets are empty because people leave work and return home to celebrate the new year with their families. In a cosmopolitan city like Saigon, a high percentage of these people are from out of town and leave the city altogether to spend time with families in distant cities and villages. Think of Christmas day all week and you’ll start to get an idea of what Tet in Saigon is like.
Until nightfall, that is. Then, the city suddenly explodes with life and starts looking a little like a wild Western New Year’s Eve. The main boulevards in District 1 are covered in traditional Tet decorations and Nguyen Hue street is usually closed off to all but foot traffic as one giant Tet exhibit. This is the time that families venture back into the streets of the city and mingle.
New Year’s Eve in particular is absolutely insane.
My friends and I plan to meet at a friend’s office, which is in a building by the Saigon river and has a perfect view of where the fireworks will be. I can barely make it to the beginning of the street before I find myself stuck in what is literally a wheel-to-wheel motorbike parking lot. The streets are jam-packed with people, motorbikes, and cars from the river all the way to the Rex Hotel. Pedestrians are climbing over cars and crawling under legs just to move.
I manage to escape and park my bike a few blocks down, then try to make my way to my friend’s building. Progress is excruciatingly slow and when I try to call my friends, I find that the lines are down. I’m lost in a sea of wild Vietnamese youth and can’t even use my phone!
I slowly force my way through the crowd trying to make it to the my friends building, the minutes ticking closer and closer to midnight. I just barely make when all of a sudden, the sea of people explodes in a deafening scream. I’m pushed and pulled and thrown until finally I somehow end up on the sidewalk and the crowd seems to have dispersed momentarily. I realize then that the scream wasn’t the crowd—it was the fireworks! They blossomed beautifully over the bay, and then behind us in the direction I had come from, and large groups of people alternated between running towards river and then in the other direction, chasing the fireworks. That was the only reason I had been able to break free.
I look around and realize then that I had made it to my friend’s building. So I take out my phone and try calling him again, thinking that maybe everybody else was too busy chasing fireworks to be making calls. I was right and Nick comes down to open the door to me, and I enjoy the rest of Tet in the safety of his riverside office watching the fireworks explode over Saigon, welcoming in the new year.
So a lesson from my experiences to those of you planning to go to Saigon for Tet this year: get to where you want be early… and now’s the perfect time to learn to ride a motorbike!