Chuc Muong Nam Moi – My first ever Tet

I have read quite a bit about it, hearing nightmare stories and lovely stories – but I never experienced the most important holiday in Vietnam – Tet. This was about to change.

In other parts of the world known as Chinese New Year Tet is the beginning of the new Lunar year. In Vietnam someone explained it to me as the biggest move of people within Vietnam. The reason is very simple – everyone tries to get home to their families. As a result flights are sold out rather quickly or are rather more expensive if you wait too late, as I unfortunately found out!!!

But I was also told how exciting pre-Tet is in Saigon. I must admit, except of seeing a lot (and I mean A LOT) of flowers sold along the road, I was not really able to experience that. But thankfully that changes when you open your eyes.

The week before Tet more and more lights are switched on around the city, so you must be blind not to see this. I actually loved it. My favourite was certainly on Dong Khoi, which connects Notre Dame and the Opera. The green light was a bit enchanting, and riding your bike underneath was just lovely.

One of the main areas is the Walking Street in District 1. They opened it on the 2. February, but even before I was able to get an impression of the area. It looked certainly impressive. But while the  main decoration was still be under construction, the different shops and buildings started to put up their own decoration. You could see a lot of Pigs all over the year (FYI – 2019 is the Year of Pig) – and have a lot of opportunities for some lovely photos.

In front of the Citybank building next to the Walking Street I decided to take a few photos myself. But it seems while most Vietnamese people around me decided to be a bit more serious, I decided to take some silly photos – which certainly kept everyone entertained. It seemed quite a few phones were pointing at this silly German Dude. One guy actually wanted a photo with me. Help yourself Mate. But I must admit, it was a good laugh – and I enjoyed walking around the area. Walking here when the street opened with the full decoration was certainly on my list now.

And after my final day at work and the official start of the Tet Holidays I really got into this Tet mood. The atmosphere was suddenly more festive – and the streets got even busier with vendors. Anyone who didn’t have to work anymore took the change to get out to enjoy the decoration. Some even wore their traditional Ao Dai. On the Saturday (02.02.) we went for dinner and some coffee before stopping on Pham Ngoc Thach (near Notre Dame) where we found a market selling cloth, food and some stalls selling papers with traditional writings. These written words are supposed to bring luck to the homes, so it was interesting to see the queues there. I got myself a wooden keychain with some writings on the back. I hope it really works.

At the end of the market was then a little square with some nice decorations that somehow reminded me of the Mekong Delta. And this area was popular to get pictures taken. So obviously when in Rome…..

It was a lot of fun, and I think because of these things Vietnamese in Saigon are telling me that they love this time of year. I really started to get it.

However, while I was surprised to see a lot of shops still open (I heard stories that you struggle to find places to eat etc…) some of my regular food places for breakfast were closed. So it took a bit longer than usual to find a place. But again, more places than I expected were open. Not everyone has to leave Saigon to be with the family I guess….

On Sunday afternoon it was decided to avoid the walking street in D1 (the one I wanted to see) mas it is apparently far too busy, and instead headed to District 7 where another area was full of flowers and other decoration. So why not – I am open to everything.

District 7 is in the south of Saigon and I only know the main road I used to get to the Mekong Delta a few month ago. Other than that it was all brand new to me. At least there was no issue with Parking spaces as we stopped at the rather large Crescent Shopping Mall. next to the mall is a rather large pond, with a path following the shore. And the whole path was covered with flowers and other decorations. First impression – wow.

It was just beautiful. From the start the sides of the path were full of colourful flowers. I love sunflowers, so seeing so many of them was pleasant. But there were red, yellow, purple and other colourful flowers as well. It was a full (pleasant attack on your eyes). In addition they added quite a few additional items that were used by all visitors as background for some photos. Some piglet in one corner, some little huts in the middle of the path. One of my favourite was probably the little working watermill, surrounded by flowers. It was just stunning.

They also had Good luck tree, where you could buy a coin connected to red rope. You throw it at the tree and if the coin did not fall down, it means good luck to the new year. Knowing my throwing I declined. Behind the tree they even had flowers in the pond, either in little boats or baskets. This was certainly a popular place to take some photos. Though the reaction of some visitors scared by the moving platform was rather funny.

After having a little snack in an open outdoor food court behind the buildings the sun disappeared and the whole atmosphere changed. With all lights and lanterns switched on it looked even more beautiful now. It also got busier now, but still easy to walk around without being squeezed. And the decoration got in some parts even nicer. My favourite section was certainly the little Mekong Delta area with rice fields, straw covered path, with some bicycles standing around as decoration. It was just lovely.

At the end of the path was the Starlight Bridge crossing the pond. The name was give due the little lights on the ground of the bridge, that looked like little stars. THe highlight of the bridge were not the lights, but the colour fountain on the side of the bridge. It looked absolute lovely, and you could see a lot of people on the side of the bridge to watch the spectacle.

On the other side of the bridge was a small park with smaller huts and even more flowers and corn plants. There were less lights on this side, so the contrast was quite nice. One thing to made me laugh were the strange-looking vegetables hanging down the hut, some rather large, others looking  more like a German Bratwurst. It never got boring anywhere.

From here we walked back all the way to the start, though taking advantage getting some small piglets that can be painted at home (well, you could do it there, but no tables were free….). I hope it brings more good luck. It was now 7pm, and the place was now quite busy, but still having a lovely atmosphere with kids running around to enjoy the space and the colourful surroundings, couples taking photos and others sitting in one of the restaurants at the side of the path. I really loved this area, and it was probably the much better choice between Walking Street in D1 and D7. It was a wonderful afternoon.

But who thought this would have been the end was wrong. One more place was on the itinerary, and ever since hearing about it I really wanted to see. Back in December I went to a street in D8 with a lot of Christmas decoration (as shown in my blog entry here). District 8 and District 4 are separated by a canal, and during Tet the street in D8 along the canal was a local flower market were you could buy plants and lowers all day and night along. Of course I had to see such a local place.

So from D7 it was just a 30 minute ride to Ben Binh Dong in District 8. And yes, it was clearly the last night before NYE as it was packed. A lot of people decided to do their shopping for flowers in the last-minute (maybe hoping for a good deal). The side of the road next to canal was covered by vendors next to each other, selling flowers, trees with a kind of lemon or star fruit. I even saw some Bonsai trees. And everywhere people stopped on the road, eyeing the flowers or trees, and if they liked it put the tree on the back of the bike. It was incredible to watch. Though I saw one instance where a newly bought tree fell from the bike onto the road. But immediately a few people running over to help the poor fella.

I must admit I would have loved just walking along the road (as riding a bike was a challenge and slow-moving), mainly due to the activities but also because of the old colonial houses along the road. I definitely have to get back there.

After riding along the road (and no parking place in sight) it was time to leave. For the vendors unfortunately the finish time was still in no sight, as they all stay there until the next day noon time, hoping to sell as much of their stock as possible. There was no sleep on the agenda for most of them. Just a different side of Tet holidays I guess.

This was the case throughout Saigon. I was on the bike until well after midnight, and everywhere the markets or streets were busy with vendors and locals buying flowers. Whenever I stopped to take a photo there was waving and posing. And some cheers when I wished them all “Chuc Mung Nam Moi” – they did not expect that I guessed. This actually summed up the atmosphere of pre-Tet. And I must admit, I loved it.

On New Years Eve more and more shops were closed, but I was still surprised to see normal shops open. While the usual breakfast spots were closed there was no issue to find something to eat for breakfast. In this instance I tried a local places inside a market – and the Chinese Won Ton Soup was just lovely. This is a big benefit of living here – you find new great places around every corner.

The streets itself were still busy, a lot of people doing last minute shopping of flowers, vases and food. It got the same feel as on Christmas Eve back in Germany, when everybody remembered that something is missing and they had to buy it. It is a quite a rush, but a positive one. But it kind of sudden disappeared around noon, when the vendors started to pack their belonging and by 1pm the roads felt suddenly very empty. Only the garbage was evidence what happened here during the last 24 hours. And even that evidence disappeared as the street cleaners did their job quite well…

Were the streets empty in the afternoon everything changed in the evening, when everyone came out to visit the Walking Street in D1 or even heading out to D7. And like during the Western New Year a lot of people headed out to watch the firework. As usual I left it to the last-minute (this time it was not my fault…) and we were out to head to D2. I know quite a few good places there that even many locals do not know. The problem is that the roads to these places were packed with bikes. It seems the whole of Saigon was out in D2. The reason for this was that there was not only firework in D1, but for the very first time at the Landmark 81, the tallest building in Saigon that only opened a few month ago. So we just joined the crowed along a main road. And it was not a bad place – as at midnight we were able to watch two different fireworks. Though I must admit, seeing the new firework from this tall building was far more fascinating. And it finally meant – Welcome year of the Pig. CHUC MUNG NAM MOI.

After this nice start of the year the whole of Saigon was back on their bikes heading . But for many locals the night did not end. But they were not heading to a pub to drink. Instead many locals headed to nearby pagodas to pray and get some good luck presents. Wherever you looked, you saw packed pagodas and then people on their bike carrying some flowers, and potentially some salt and rice. I really enjoyed that part of the festival.

So this was my first Tet in Saigon. I did not know what to expect, but in the end I fell in love with the pre-Tet atmosphere. I loved the decoration, the way people enjoyed it. Just sitting on the road having a coffee or juice while enjoying the view was great. The highlights were certainly experiencing D7 and D8 and the firework.

I was also surprised about the numbers of stores, cafes and food places opened. The owner of one restaurant confirmed that more and more shops open over Tet, especially as people nowadays come out again at night to enjoy the various decorated streets. This did not happen in the past. I also assume that the potential income is a good reason. Not everyone can or wants to stay home with their family for the whole time. And in places like Saigon you might have a lot of people who do not have a Vietnamese family who needs to be catered for. So things are changing. But unfortunately it also means that some people are unable to visit their family, lie the security guard of a café who is from Hanoi and was not able to go home due to work. So while some might see the development as progress, I hope it does not mean that more and more people are not able to celebrate Tet with the loved ones.

For me – it was a great experience. I was lucky to enjoy it with my Vietnamese friends who showed me around. While I enjoy the rest of Tet holidays I am sure I will look forward to the same procedure next year…

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