Like most of Asia, the residents of Hanoi will use any excuse to party. The Vietnamese calendar is peppered with special days, some national and others local, when the people dress in their best and take to the streets.
Local festivals in particular involve all kinds of contests, such as dragon boat racing, rice cooking, wrestling and even human chess. Many national festivals are religious in origin and therefore are celebrated mostly in temples, while others such as paying respect to ancestors take place at home.
Tet, the Vietnamese New Year festival that takes place in January or February, is the most important time of year for all Vietnamese, though since it is a time for family reunions, visitors to Hanoi would be better off tracking down a local festival, which is bound to be a colourful event with unexpected activities.
New Year’s Day
Though the Vietnamese New Year is only around a month away, Hanoians don’t miss the chance to party on New Year’s Eve like the rest of the world. Bars and dance clubs are packed, and fireworks fill the sky at midnight. January 1 is a national holiday, giving everyone a chance to recover from the excessive indulgence of the night before. 01st January.
The mother of all Vietnamese festivals, Tet causes the country to close down, or at least go on hold, for a week or more, in late Jan-early Feb. Moving round gets difficult as everyone wants to board a bus, train or plane to visit their family.
Tet is time to wipe the slate clean, to drop long-standing grudges and put the house in order. Most activities involve visiting temples and making offerings to the ancestral altar. But visitors from afar will be aware of the growing excitement in days before the festival, as flower markets spring up everywhere and special dishes are cooked.
This is not a good time to be here if you need to get something done like a visa extension, as all offices close up, but it’s a great time to see Hanoians with their hair down. 08th-09th February.
Here’s something different – a singing festival in which the men and women from Lim village near Bac Ninh sing alternating harmonies, making up the lyrics as they go along. 20th February.
Perfume Pagoda Festival
Located 60kms southwest of Hanoi, the Perfume Pagoda (Chua Huong) is Vietnam’s most important pilgrimage site. Each March or April it becomes crowded with Buddhist pilgrims for this annual festival, and it’s worth the visit for the boat journey alone. 22nd February.
Thay Pagoda Festival
Every March, visitors flock to this pagoda in the village of Sai Son, 30kms from Hanoi, to watch colourful parades and performances of water puppets, which are hugely popular for their comical depiction of everyday problems. 11th-13th April.
Second only in importance to Tet, this festival, which takes place in August, is dedicated to the souls of the departed. On this day, Vietnamese people make offerings to their ancestors and clean their graves, as well as forgiving those who have upset them.
This is the most important religious festival of the year, celebrating the birth, death and enlightenment of the Buddha. Temples are decorated with lanterns and many host local fairs. 21st May.
Often referred to as Children’s Day, this is a day for giving presents, especially of banh trung thu, cakes made of sticky rice and filled with lotus seeds, dried fruit, nuts and eggs. 15th September.
Though Christians are hugely outnumbered by Buddhists in Vietnam, everyone seems to get in the spirit of Christmas, and shops are draped with decorations. Midnight services are held in churches and cathedrals countrywide. 25th December.