It felt like a scene out of Disney’s Tangled. I was floating in a boat on the Thu Bon river. Around me, people set off lanterns into the water. Nestled on the banks of the river, Hoi An’s yellow-painted buildings were cast in a warm glow.
I had landed in Vietnam quite spontaneously—as much as being an Indian passport holder lets me be spontaneous. Sitting in a hostel room in Krabi and booking my tickets less than a week ago, I had been unaware that I would arrive in Vietnam right in the middle of Tet, a celebration of the coming of spring, held every February. When I had realised the timing, it was too late—my money was invested. Conventional wisdom discourages travel to the country during the Tet; large parts of cities—especially the tourist spots—shut down as families gather to celebrate the festival. The places that do remain open, apply a “Tet tax” on food and transportation, sometimes as high as 25 per cent. This means spontaneity can cost one dear.
But now, as I was being rowed down the river, my worries drifted away like flotsam. I could not ignore how alive the place was: hundreds of people were on the streets, walking under the light of a thousand lanterns. Every month Hoi An celebrates its Lantern Festival on the day of the full moon.
Earlier my partner and I had spent our day walking down narrow streets that cut through the Ancient Town, Hoi An’s main historical area comprising homes, temples, and stores. Throngs of people moved in and out of cafes and stores. But as the sun sets, the colourful lanterns that we had seen earlier in the day dangling over streets, all lit up.
In Hoi An, one is as likely to spot a tourist on a bike as a local, dressed in a traditional ao dai and a conical hat. The Ancient Town is dotted with old homes, chapels, and temples, some dating back to the 16th century. Hoi An’s houses are largely wooden on the inside with indoor courtyards and balconies, held up by wooden pillars sometimes adorned with tablets inlaid with mother-of-pearl. Temples here sport dragon-tipped red-tiled roofs, while decorative motifs and scriptures in old Vietnamese writing cover the walls.
Hoi An has its own rituals and traditions; the city has a special Tet show and parade. Street side bai choi games or Vietnamese bingo are a common sight and museums, temples and restaurants that would usually be shut in other cities stay open till late.
Not unlike bringing home a tree for Christmas, citrus trees are brought home for Tet. Only a few days before Tet, I spotted the locals of Da Nang buying fruit-laden kumquat trees and bouquets of orange and yellow blossoms. These trees, blossoms, and other food-based offerings are placed at ancestral altars and entrances of homes. It is customary for elders to hand out red envelopes filled with money to friends and family. If you are lucky, like my partner was, a kind old lady might hand one to you. On the eve of Tet, we were ushered into a party taking place in an office lobby. Everyone took turns to sing. We sang “Stand By Me,” clinking glasses as countless rounds of “cheers” rang in the air.
The morning after our Tet party, we cycled through Hoi An’s countryside, passing by homes with the country’s flags fluttering outside. Hoi An’s official Tet celebration is steeped in nationalist sentiment. During a special cultural show and parade, songs about Hoi An, Tet, and Vietnamese pride were intertwined with lessons on cleanliness and respect for seniors. As soon as the fireworks display wound down, thumping basslines, alcohol vendors, and laughing gas balloons transformed what was a relatively quiet avenue into a roadside rave.
Later that night, we walked into one of the temples open in honour of Tet despite the late hour. On the opposite bank of the river, revellers partied the night away while on our side, devotees sought blessings for the year ahead.
The next morning after a short flight, I was in Ho Chi Minh City, walking down its quiet streets. The city teems with green spaces, lined by tall trees that bypassed the Agent Orange attacks during the Vietnam War. Walking to the War Memorial Museum, we came across a flower festival in one of the city’s main parks. Tet’s spring-time origin is evident in the yellow and orange flowers adorning every doorstep and the floral-themed events organised across the city.
In the following days, the city is largely quiet with restaurants, barring a few exceptions, staying closed for almost 10 days. Nights, however, were a different story. One night not long after Tet, we made our way down Bui Vien, the heart of District 1 or Quan 1, the city’s main tourist area. Loud bass from the clubs and bars thumping in our ears, we stopped to watch a lion-dog and dragon dance performance in the middle of the street. During Tet, we had seen trucks of performers and their props being ferried around the city. But this performance was special. At the end of a quiet day, it seemed as though the lifeblood of Ho Chi Minh was being channelled into this one street.
Tourists and locals filled the area, drawn towards the sounds of drums and gongs to which dancers moved. Two young boys jostled in sync inside one colourful, fringe-lined, beady-eyed lion-dog costume. Five pairs moved in a circle. Legs were kicked, butts were twitched, and heads moved from side to side. Then came the dragon dancers swinging their costumes in complex motions. The performance ended with the crowd covered in tinsel and glitter.
A few days later at the Jade Emperor Pagoda, we saw another lion-dog performance in the temple courtyard. While the rhythms were the same as the other night, these lion-dogs periodically stopped dancing to open their maws. I noticed a parent directing a baby’s hand into a lion dog’s mouth, making a monetary offering for good luck. Inside the temple, a heady fervour gripped onlookers as we passed through crowded walkways that led to different sections of the pagoda.
Soon after, Ho Chi Minh City went back to its pre-Tet ways. As shops and restaurants reopened, traffic on the roads intensified and life in the city resumed its typical pace. I was glad for the normalcy, but gladder to have witnessed Tet in its full glory.
When travelling to Vietnam during Tet, plan your stay and transport well in advance to avoid surcharges. Indians receive visa on arrival in Vietnam, provided they show an approval letter from a reliable travel agency (vietnamvisa.govt.vn). There are flights from Mumbai, Delhi, Chennai and Bangalore to Ho Chi Minh City, usually with layovers in a southeast Asian city like Bangkok or Kuala Lumpur. From Ho Chi Minh, fly to Da Nang and take a hourlong ride to Hoi An.
Sukanya Charuchandra is a freelance science writer whose “side gig” is immersive travel. Having done both the touristy, see-the-sights kind of sojourns and slower, month-long stays, she pledges never to go back to shorter forays—budgets and visa restrictions permitting.