Tet in Ho Chi Minh City is oh so quiet

By Connla Stokes   January 27, 2017 | 05:57 pm PT
Tet in Ho Chi Minh City is oh so quiet
A view of the iconic Ben Thanh Market in downtown Saigon on the very first day of Tet in 2017. Photo by VnExpress
There's nothing to do in Saigon during Tet, precisely the reason why it's worth staying behind.

With a week or more to do as they please, and much of the city shutting up shop, many expats in Ho Chi Minh City understandably choose to skip the country during the Tet holidays. As a result, what they never experience is this heaving metropolis at its most blissful.

According to the venerable scholar and historian Dr. Huu Ngoc, Tet in Vietnam is a time for man to commune with nature and a time for the living to honor 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 neighbor, say, one who’s been renovating their house and slyly encroaching on your land, square inch by square inch, in the process.

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, Nha Trang, Da Nang, Bali, Langkawi, wherever (I hear Sihanoukville is hot right now).

Naïve newcomers to town will be warned of a post-apocalyptic scenario: everything is shut, there’s nowhere to go, nothing to do, and most alarmingly, nobody around to do things for you. Imagine. Staying and then your internet goes on the fritz… 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.

“Maybe after Tet,” becomes a standard reply for all service providers. It all seems to scream: “you gotta get out of this place…”

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, adding “even though I don’t have to”, there is usually some confusion. I can see people thinking: “But… why?”

“Because, because, um… because it’s nice, and quiet,” I tell them. And it is.

Imagine a pleasant version of a futuristic-dystopian thriller, one starring someone like Will Smith, set in a desolated Manhattan devoid of humans. Cue the Hollywood voiceover: “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 or find a restaurant that’s mean enough to stay open…”

That’s to say for the most part I will just be riding around, admiring the eerily-empty streets, debating my limited dining options, hoping my spluttering Vespa doesn’t break down (pro tip: get your tires pumped and oil changed before Tet).  

For a much-mellower, if not entirely empty, Ho Chi Minh City is truly a sight to behold. Picture it: no trucks, no buses. Less taxis, less cars, less motorbikes, and less people (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 everything that everyone normally complains about (the traffic, the pollution, fellow expats…) is less of an issue as soon as they leave. The air gets clear(er), the normally torrid flows of traffic slow to trickles, expats are at a minimum…

For me, spending Tet in Saigon is not about visiting "Flower Street", spotting the odd dragon dance, snapping pictures of 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.

I just like to stay here during Tet so I can experience the rarest of things: a breathless, overrun, aspiring megalopolis – one recently declared the second "most dynamic city in the world", but also a place where the pollution readings are now considered by the World Health Organization as "alarming" – catching it’s breath.

The construction, the destruction, the consumption, the commotion: Everything is put on hold. Once a year, and for a few days only, the big, brash business hub steps aside, allowing a softly spoken, more humble Saigon to reemerge and take center stage.  

Look, don’t get me wrong, I’m not trying to convince anyone 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 in Ho Ch Minh City through Tet (and, seriously, there really is nothing to do and nowhere to go). In your 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 internet doesn’t go on the fritz. I know. Just imagine. The horror.  

More on Tet:

Vietnamese Kitchen Gods: A love affair retold

Tet divide: Are people getting richer or is the income gap getting wider?

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