Landing in Hanoi, the capital of Vietnam we knew that we were arriving during their New Year’s celebrations called Tet, but we didn’t realize how huge these festivities would be or that they would last a minimum of 3 days to 3 weeks!
We stayed near the Old Quarter at the Hilton Garden Inn (and were treated like kings for a pittance).
Walking around the Old Quarter on our first night (the eve of Tet) the streets were closed to traffic. People were truly jubilant and dressed up in their best outfits. There were bands playing and huge bouquets of balloons everywhere. A real party!
We rushed back to our hotel to watch the fireworks. From our bedroom window we could see the rooftop of the neighboring building which was a bank and behind it the backdrop for the promised fireworks. We noticed that a man had set up a little shrine on the roof of the bank with candles, flowers, deities and the like. As soon as the clock struck midnight and the fireworks commenced the man fell to his knees and started to pray with his back to the fireworks. Such an intimate and surreal moment which we will never forget.
The next day Hanoi was closed for business. Only a couple of streets in the Old Quarter had any shops or restaurants that were open. However, celebrations ensued; there were people everywhere commemorating the new year – the year of the pig. It seemed a tradition to take pictures around Hoàn Kiếm Lake – which is the lake in the center of the Old Quarter.
There are many traditions during Tet but one of the most interesting ones was the burning of fake paper money as way of burnt offerings for the deceased. The preferred currency is $100 USD and it is sold everywhere (prior to Tet – so one must stock up in advance). The practice of ancestor worship is largely religious, stemming from the belief that the more offerings one burns for their dead relatives, the better their afterlives will be.
Everyday more and more stores and restaurants opened in the ancient streets of Hanoi. As the oldest continuously developed area of Vietnam, Hanoi’s Old Quarter has a history that spans 2,000 years.
Since most restaurants were closed, I was unable to sample Hanoi’s best vegan offerings. As we would walk up to each door with great anticipation the sign would read, “Due to Tet we will be closed until X” and the date was always the middle of February – sadly after our departure. However we were able to find a little gem called Little Vietnam. Although not a full vegan restaurant – or even a vegetarian one it did have a vegetarian menu which was mostly vegan. The food was delicious and very inexpensive. Needless to say we ate there most days.
Even though we didn’t get to experience the real Hanoi we were happy that we got to see it’s festive Tet state.
As many other capitals, it is a city of haves and have nots. The ritzy streets of the French Quarter and the slums near the train tracks are as different as night and day. How some of these folks survive I just don’t know – at least some of them enjoyed another Tet.