Tet is Vietnam’s most important holiday. It marks the beginning of the Vietnamese New Year and is traditionally a time when families gather together to eat and otherwise celebrate. Because Tet is based on the lunar calendar, the date of the holiday changes from year to year, but it generally takes place anytime from late January to late February.

Tet is not an ideal time for tourists to visit Vietnam because (especially in the south) shops and tourist sites close down, flights within the country are heavily booked and the best guides often take their vacations during Tet. Though officially celebrated for a day or two before and after the actual holiday, it’s not unusual for some Vietnamese to extend the holiday to a period of 10 days.

A recent article in the Los Angeles Times described how in Little Saigon (in southern California) Tet has become a time when spending money on gifts can match or exceed Christmas spending. Shops in Little Saigon sell bright red envelopes which are used for giving cash gifts. Gift-giving at Tet has put a lot of people in Little Saigon into debt and has caused hardship for those who can’t financially afford the cultural expectations of the community. Vietnamese people are expected to pay off all debts prior to Tet, so while desperately trying to clear their debts from the previous year, new debts are being created due to borrowing for the current year’s holiday.

Despite it being Vietnam’s most important holiday, most people in the U.S., and elsewhere in the west, first heard the term “Tet” during the Vietnam War (which the Vietnamese call the American War). It was assumed that fighting would cease in honor of the Lunar New Year. But, on January 31st, 1968, the Tet Offensive sent shock waves through the U.S. government and military, not to mention the people of South Vietnam, as the Viet Cong and North Vietnamese People’s Army launched a series of surprise attacks which came to be known as the Tet Offensive.

Over 100 towns and cities in the South were attacked in what was one of the war’s largest military campaigns. It is estimated that over 80,000 Viet Cong troops engaged in the campaign. The U.S. base at Danang and the American embassy in Saigon were attacked.

U.S. ground forces recovered the South’s lost territory in a matter of a couple of weeks and the Viet Cong ended up with twice the number of casualties that were suffered by the Americans. But, the Tet Offensive was a major turning point from the perspective of how the American people viewed the war. Though the war continued for almost six more years, distrust in what the government was telling Americans about the war, the decline of morale amongst American troops and President Johnson’s refusal to grant General Westmoreland’s request for 200,000 more troops directly following the Tet Offensive, had a major impact.

For Americans who were coming of age during the 1960s, Tet will always be a reminder of the war. But, for the Vietnamese today – especially younger generations – it is a wonderful and festive celebration. It’s a time to share and to be with their loved ones.

Diane Embree
January 31, 2017 (49 years to the day)