In common with all other Asian nations (and pretty much everybody else on the planet), the Vietnamese love to party, as is amply demonstrated by the enthusiasm with which they approach their festivals, both national and local. If you happen to chance upon such an celebration, consider yourself lucky and make the most of it. No doubt you will be invited to sample dishes cooked especially for the event, play lots of silly games and get some fantastic photos of the proceedings.
The biggest and most important festival for all Vietnamese is the Tet or New Year Festival, usually in late January or February, when most people visit their parents or hometown and special foods are enjoyed.
While this may seem the ideal time to visit the country, it can be frustrating for travellers since most offices are closed so it’s almost impossible to buy tickets, acquire visas or get any other administrative task done.
It makes sense, therefore, to look closely at our guide to Ho Chi Minh City festivals before planning your trip to Vietnam. Even large resorts can be closed during the Tet festival here, and so you may find the selection of restaurants, bars and shops limited.
But the best idea is just to enter the spirit of the occasion, as these are celebrations after all and always great fun.
New Year’s Day
Though the traditional Vietnamese New Year, Tet, does not begin until January or February, the citizens of Saigon treat New Year’s Eve (December 31st) as a special day too. Since January 1 is a national holiday, it’s an excuse for a party the night before, and for once the midnight curfew is generally ignored as everyone lives it up.
Tet Festival (February)
The Vietnamese equivalent of Chinese New Year, Tet is the country’s biggest festival and falls between late January and mid-February. It is a time of great joy as people clean their houses and pay respects to their ancestors. Many people head for their hometown at this time so it can be difficult to get plane, train or bus tickets. A good tip for foreign visitors is to arrive on an attractive beach just before Tet begins and wait patiently for it to pass.
Buddha’s Birthday (Phat Dan)
The majority of Vietnamese are Buddhists, so this is one of the biggest festivals of the year, celebrating not only the Buddha’s birth, but also his Enlightenment and death. In Saigon, celebrations are particularly focused on Nghia An Hoi Quan Pagoda in Cho Lon. Full moon in May.
Ho Chi Minh’s birthday (May)
Born on 19 May, 1890, Ho Chi Minh is the greatest of all Vietnamese heroes and is revered enough for his name to replace Saigon as the official name of Vietnam’s biggest city. On this national holiday, Vietnamese praise the founder of the country’s independence movement.
Wandering Souls Day (Trang Nguyen)
This festival, which usually takes place in August, is dedicated to ancestors, and is second in importance only to Tet. At this time, people make special foods that their ancestors enjoyed, clean their gravestones, and pray for their well-being.
Mid-Autumn Festival (September-October)
This is a day for the kids, when special cakes called banh trung thu are cooked and devoured in large quantities. It takes place in September or October.
Le Van Duyet Festival (Early September)
This minor festival is held to mark the death of national hero Le Van Duyet in early September. On this day, Vietnamese opera is performed in front of the Le Van Duyet temple on Dinh Tien Hoang, and devotees turn out in force to make offerings.
Christmas (25th December)
It may seem odd to see Santa Claus and fake snow in a predominantly Buddhist country, but entrepreneurs will not give up the chance of a spending spree, so decorations abound, especially around shopping malls, to get everyone in the Christmas mood of giving. The midnight service in Notre Dame Cathedral on Christmas Eve is a highlight for devout Christians.