With no escape route, expats enjoy Tet ‘at home’

By Long Nguyen   February 11, 2021 | 04:55 pm PT
Expats are ditching their Tet travel plans and planning to stay on in Vietnam to celebrate the holiday with their Vietnamese friends.

In the five years that he has lived and worked in Vietnam, Daniel Woollacott has developed a tradition of "escaping" Tet, when shops and services are normally shut down and major cities become deserted for a few days.

But this year, he has decided to stay behind in Hanoi, dropping plans to go to Phu Quoc Island in the south.

His decision is influenced by the latest Covid-19 outbreak in Vietnam.

"No one can be in the mood for vacationing now, so I will try to enjoy my first Tet in Hanoi," Woollacott said, adding that it would be exciting to see the capital become quiet on the first day of the Lunar New Year.

The 31-year-old Brit is among a host of expats getting to celebrate the traditional Vietnamese holiday differently this year. Many have canceled or postponed their travel plans, not wanting to risk contracting the novel coronavirus.

Foreigners celebrate Lunar New Year in HCMC. Photo by VnExpress/Tam Linh.

Foreigners celebrate Lunar New Year in HCMC. Photo by VnExpress/Tam Linh.

"I had planned to go to Hue, but seeing the surging number of Covid-19 cases, especially in airports, I decided to stay in Hanoi," said Ashley Jones, English teacher at an international school in Hanoi’s Long Bien District.

"It is a pandemic, not a holiday," she said, adding she does not want to be infected by the virus and stay in hospitals for weeks instead of going to school and seeing her students.

In a 140,000-member Facebook group of expats living in Hanoi, many netizens who have had an earlier than scheduled start to their Tet outbreak are calling on others to be responsible with their planned trips.

Several have chosen to stay behind, meet friends in town or just stay at home and minimize infection risks.

Expats in Hanoi and Saigon know that the two cities become "ghost towns" for the festival as stores and services are shut, so they have stocked up on food.

Just three days before Tet, Monday evening, HCMC recorded 25 new Covid-19 cases, prompting authorities to close bars, karaoke parlors, cinemas and discotheques. They have also banned religious events starting Tuesday.

This is the second time the city has stopped all non-essential services, the first being last March.

In its latest outbreak, Vietnam has confirmed 553 Covid-19 cases in 13 cities and provinces since January 28.

"It is a relief after the usual hustle and bustle of Saigon with its incessant honking; the only drawback is that no restaurants and stores open," said Tim Edward, an HR consultant in HCMC.

The Canadian man spent the Lunar New Year’s Eve playing board games with housemates before taking a walk to "enjoy the silent city and beautiful festive decorations."

Many expats in Saigon said they were initially disappointed that the city shut down all bars and discotheques, but agreed that it was a necessary step.

"I will stay at home and binge Netflix until the holiday is over. All the food I need is in my fridge," Edward said.

Let’s get traditional

Without a vacation for the "Tet escape," many expats are now excited to be part of local Lunar New Year traditions with their Vietnamese friends.

In Hanoi, Simon Stewart of the U.K. has been invited to become the first person to visit his colleague’s house in the Lunar New Year, a tradition that is called "xong dat" in Vietnamese.

"I understand that ‘xong dat’ is a crucial event and feel honored to be chosen to visit my colleague’s house," he said.

He has been asked to wear colorful clothes and bring some li xi (lucky money) for the colleague’s children.

"I was trying to find an ao dai but there was no suitable size, so I have opted for a brown suit," he said, adding he has asked a friend to get him some new notes to give li xi to the children.

"And they’ve given me a banh chung that I'll have for my breakfast," he said, smiling.

Nguyen Hue flower street in District 1, one of the biggest annual draws in Vietnam’s southern metropolis to herald Tet. Photo by VnExpress/Quynh Tran.

Nguyen Hue flower street in District 1, one of the biggest annual draws in Vietnam’s southern metropolis to herald Tet. Photo by VnExpress/Quynh Tran.

Some expats are immersing themselves in the Tet culture, becoming part of local families.

"Because Tet is all about families," said Phillip Flanders, who will stay with his Vietnamese girlfriend’s family in Hanoi during the holiday.

For his first Tet in Hanoi after living in Vietnam for nearly three years, Flanders helped his girlfriend make boiled chicken and spring rolls.

"This is the first time I have seen the rituals of offering food and joss money to forefathers," he said.

He also helped his girlfriend clean up the house, buy a kumquat tree, and lent a hand in making banh chung.

But the expats are also imposing limits on themselves, given the Covid-19 situation.

In Hanoi, those visiting their friends’ families or eating outside are wearing masks. Stewart has rejected all gatherings with his colleagues, while Flanders refused to go to pagodas with his girlfriend’s family over Covid-19 fears.

Hanoi residents have been asked to stay home and limit travel during the upcoming Lunar New Year holiday as a Covid-19 precaution.

In Saigon, Edward will visit the city's famous Nguyen Hue flower street in District 1 with a Vietnamese friend this weekend.

"I am worried about the spread of the virus, but I do not want to miss beautiful moments in Saigon, so I will wear a mask and maintain social distancing," he said.

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