Tet in Saigon is oh so quiet
I first wrote this in 2017 and even though downtown HCMC has got much busier at Tet in recent years, it mostly holds up (I have updated it a smidge). Best wishes to all for the Year of the Cat.
ACCORDING TO THE VENERABLE SCHOLAR and historian Dr. Huu Ngoc, Tet in Vietnam is a time for man to commune with nature as well as a time for the living to honour the dead. It is also a time for family reunions (and reconciliations) and, if you’re really filled with the joys of Spring, perhaps a détente with a neighbour (say, one who’s been renovating their house for months on end, and really getting on your wick).
That is, if you are Vietnamese.
For many expats in Ho Chi Minh City, ones without ties to local families, it’s a different story. Tet, if anything, is a time to pack your bags and run for the hills, or more likely a beach destination of your choice, Samui, Bali, Langkawi, wherever-i.
Relative newcomers to town will be warned of a Tết-rifying (apologies) scenario: everything is shut, there’s nowhere to go, nothing to do, and most alarmingly, nobody around to do things for you. Imagine staying put and then your Wi-Fi conks out… I know, right. The horror.
If anyone is wavering, unsure whether they should stay or go, the build up to Tet is often a supreme deal-breaker. The volume of the Tet tunes gets cranked up to 11. The ungovernable traffic more feral than ever. Some folk feel the pressure and get a little Tết-chy (seriously, really sorry). Others (already following the moon and whispering ‘there’s no place like home’ to themselves) get distracted. “Maybe after Tet,” becomes a standard reply for all service providers. It all seems to cry out: “Book a ticket and get out of here…”
For all of the above reasons, it’s generally assumed no one would voluntarily stick around when they don't have to. That’s why before the holiday actually begins, every expat asks every other expat they meet, “So where are you going for Tet?”
When I answer that I’m staying in Ho Chi Minh City, there is usually some confusion. I can see people thinking: “But… why?”
“Because, because, um… because it’s nice, and quiet?”
Cue the Hollywood voiceover (in my head): “In his most demanding role yet, one Irish expat chooses to stay in Ho Chi Minh City through Tet but to survive, he will have to make his own breakfast/lunch/dinner, or find a restaurant that’s mean enough to stay open…”
In 2023, perhaps the thought of staying here, and living with limited services, gives many folk too many lockdown flashbacks. But of course, we’re free to roam far and wide, and the further and wider you roam, the more you’ll appreciate the comparative stillness that falls on the city (pro tip: pump your tires and, if you own a motorbike, get oil changed before Tet). Picture it: walking, cycling or riding your moped around with no trucks, no buses, no mini-vans. Less taxis, less cars, less motorbikes (for anyone hoping to make a zero-budget film set after a zombie apocalypse, this is your best shot).
Even Twitter and Facebook – the echo chambers of so much expat woe and strife – go pleasingly quiet, which is ironic as so much of what everyone normally complains about (the traffic, the pollution, um, other expats…) is less of an issue as soon as they all leave.
For me, spending Tet in Saigon is not about visiting "Flower Street", which these days draws huge crowds, or spotting the odd dragon dance, or visiting pagodas and temples. The residing sentimental memory I have of Tet last year is witnessing one of the city’s (much-mocked) Lamborghini drivers finally get out of second gear on Nguyen Huu Canh Street. I know he, for one, is looking forward to the Tet exodus. Who knows, this year he might get into fourth gear.
The city’s transformation is hard to fathom for those who have never lived here or visited. But for the guts of a week, an overrun, aspiring megalopolis – one recently declared the second "most dynamic city in the world" and also a place where the pollution readings are now considered by the World Health Organization as "alarming" – gets to catch it’s breath. The normally constant construction, the destruction, the consumption, the commotion, it all fades away, and when the big, brash business hub steps aside, a softly spoken Saigon comes back into focus.
I feel like that’s a sight to behold but look, don’t get me wrong, I’m not trying to convince any fellow residents with an exit plan to stay. No, no. Far from it. Fly my pretties, fly like no one is calculating your carbon footprint. The absence of each and every excursionist from the city is part of the charm to staying here through Tet (and, seriously, there really is nothing much to do, and all the best bars and restaurants do close). And in the madding crowd’s collective wake, the air will clear (a little) and the dust will settle (a lot). It’ll be very quiet, and pretty boring, but lovely, too. I mean, as long as my Wi-Fi doesn’t conk out. I know. Just imagine. The horror.