The Vietnamese year follows a rhythm of festivals and religious observances, ranging from solemn family gatherings at the ancestral altar to national celebrations culminating in Tet, the Vietnamese New Year. In between are countless local festivals, most notably in the Red River Delta, honouring the tutelary spirit of the village or community temple.
The majority of festivals take place in spring, with a second flurry in the autumn months. One festival you might want to make a note of, however, is Tet: not only does most of Vietnam close down for the week, but either side of the holiday local transport services are stretched to the limit and international flights are filled by returning overseas Vietnamese.
Many Vietnamese festivals are Chinese in origin, imbued with a distinctive flavour over the centuries, but minority groups also hold their own specific celebrations. The ethnic minorities continue to punctuate the year with rituals that govern sowing, harvest or hunting, as well as elaborate rites of passage surrounding birth and death. The Cao Dai religion has its own array of festivals, while Christian communities throughout Vietnam observe the major ceremonies. Christmas is marked as a religious ceremony only by the faithful, though it’s becoming a major event for all Vietnamese as an excuse to shop and party, with sax-playing santas greeting shoppers in front of malls.
The ceremonies you’re most likely to see are weddings and funerals. The tenth lunar month is the most auspicious time for weddings, though at other times you’ll also encounter plenty of wedding cavalcades on the road, their lead vehicle draped in colourful ribbons. Funeral processions are recognizable from the white headbands worn by mourners, while close family members dress completely in white. Both weddings and funerals are characterized by streetside parties under makeshift marquees, and since both tend to be joyous occasions, it’s often difficult to know what you’re witnessing, unless you spot a bridal gown or portrait of the deceased on display.
Most festivals take place according to the lunar calendar, which is also closely linked to the Chinese system with a zodiac of twelve animal signs. The most important times during the lunar month (which lasts 29 or 30 days) are the new moon (day one) and the full moon (day fourteen or fifteen). Festivals are often held at these times, which also hold a special significance for Buddhists, who are supposed to pray at the pagoda and avoid eating meat during the two days. On the eve of each full moon, Hoi An now celebrates a Full-Moon Festival: traffic is barred from the town centre, where traditional games, dance and music performances take place under the light of silk lanterns.
All Vietnamese calendars show both the lunar and solar (Gregorian) months and dates, but to be sure of a festival date it’s best to check locally.
01 January: New Year’s Day (Tet Duong Lich)
01 - 03 January (Lunar Calendar): TET (Vietnamese New Year - Tet Am Lich)
10 March (Lunar Calendar): Hung King Temple Festival
30 April: Liberation Day (The unification of Vietnam in 1975)
01 May: International Labour’s Day (Quoc te Lao Dong)
02 September: Vietnam National Day (1945)
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