I arrived in Hue two days before Tet Nguyen Dan began and witnessed some of its preparations. According to legend, the Kitchen God journeys to heaven one week before Tet to report to the Jade Emperor about everyone’s behavior. In hopes of a good report, families make offerings, visit ancestral grave sites and clean their homes thoroughly. You can feel the mounting excitement as people scour their front porches, decorate shop windows, and pile flowers onto the backs of bikes. Shoppers hunt for the perfect "cay neu," a traditional Tet “tree” made of a tall bamboo pole thought to bring good luck. Because it represents the family, its symmetry and health are vital; each aspect – buds, leaves and branches – symbolizes a family member. Other trees and plants, such as kumquat and peach, are also important decorations in Hue.
Tet music spills into the streets, and holiday bean and rice cakes are offered at every turn. Hue, the ancient capital of the Nguyen dynasty, became famous for its royal Tet cuisine. Food here it is often spicy and, thanks in part to its large Buddhist population, frequently vegetarian.
The place to be on the eve of Tet is Dong Ba Market, if only for the people-watching. Inside the bustling covered bazaar, vendors and farmers in conical hats hawk their wares, while couples and families, giddy with New Year excitement, inspect brightly wrapped packages, candies and fruits.
On the street, women crouch on every corner of the stone sidewalks, cooking and tempting passerby to plunge in and try savory smelling dishes - the original “drive-thru.” Hue’s street cuisine is delicious and served in a sanitary manner, despite rumors to the contrary. Sitting in crowded sidewalk cafes allows you to feel the rhythm of the city more than in restaurants.
By midnight, I had stationed myself by the illuminated Trang Tien Bridge, a short stroll from the Dong Ba Market. Still suffering from jet lag, I felt like I was in a dream when, at midnight, bells began ringing from nearby Buddhist temples (Hue has many). Everyone around me hooted or banged on whatever was at hand. This is when the Kitchen God has returned to earth, and all problems are dispelled so that a new year, filled with hope, can begin with a clean slate.
Tet Nguyen Dan itself is a family affair. Unless you are staying with someone, your best bet is to take advantage of the free admission at numerous historical sites in Hue. Head for the iconic Thien Mu Pagoda, a 7-storey tower that is the tallest in Vietnam and is actually in use by monks today. It is located about 6 kilometres from downtown Hue along the Perfume River and is well worth the visit, especially if you have the opportunity to visit by boat.
The contagious energy, tasty food and welcoming people of Hue make Tet Nguyen Dan an unforgettable and fun holiday .
When to Go to Tet Nguyen Dan
This season is quite rainy in Hue, so pack accordingly. If rain scuttles your Tet Nguyen Dan plans, consider visiting the Dong Ba Market or ask your hotel staff about local live music performances and fun places to celebrate indoors.
The great advantage of traveling at this time of year may be fewer tourists, although the city draws visitors year-round. Keep in mind that most stores are closed on the eve and first day of Tet Nguyen Dan, so make sure you have everything you might need before then.
Odds n' Ends
Remember that bargaining is a must all over Vietnam. Non-natives will certainly be charged extra, not only on the street, but also in most stores.
Firecrackers were banned in 1995 and should be left at home.
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