Why I don’t come back for Tết

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Vietnam Tet Flowers
Vietnam Tet Flowers

It’s that time of the year again, the Vietnamese Lunar New Year. While my friends in Vietnam have to confront questions like “When are you getting married?”; “When will you have kids?”; “Have you bought a house?”, there’s only one question that I have: “Are you coming back to Vietnam for Tết?”

My answer is pretty simple: “No, I am not”.

First, it’s not that I can’t afford a ticket back. If you live in a more developed country, make a decent living or simply know how to save, coming back home at least once a year won’t break your bank. I remember when I was a student in Japan, I could come back home every Tết with my part-time job money. And to be honest, it has cost less and less to fly home in recent years: In Japan, I would pay $800 for a 5 hour flight. Nowadays, I can get as low as $600 for a Paris-Saigon round trip.

Second, it’s also not that I’m stuck with study or work that I can’t fly back. My job is quite flexible, I have neither bosses nor colleagues. I can take a few weeks off without having to ask for permission or worrying that my coworkers may get jealous of my long holiday. 

So why won’t I come back for Tết? Because I don’t feel like returning any more.

Don’t get me wrong. As a Vietnamese, I do consider Tết the biggest event of the year and it’s the topic that comes up these days in my conversations with friends, Vietnamese or not. When I was a kid, I would long for Tết many months before. The fireworks at midnight, the red envelopes, the card games and all the good food I could eat all day long.

However when you’ve become an adult, that excitement for Tết gradually fades. Last year in Vietnam, I had jet lag so I slept through the New Year Eve celebrations. And because I’ve seen much more beautiful fireworks around the world, the fireworks back home doesn’t appeal to me any more. As a grown-up, I receive red envelopes as a symbol of good luck, and I have to give out more of them to my friends’ kids. I now find card games boring and enervating as I have to sit long hours to win then lose and lose then win. I’m also no longer fond of Tết food since I get to eat the same thing: mứt, bánh chưng, bánh tét, thịt kho hột vịt… in every household I visit.

Tết is the time for family gathering. I used to have a big extended family on my mother’s side. We would get together on the first day of Tết. The adults would eat, drink and talk, and the kids would play games together. But since my grandmother passed away a few years ago, my uncles and aunts would rather celebrate Tết at their own home. Last year, I visited each one of them and realised I could never have everyone in one place like previously. I even didn’t get to meet all of my cousins. Some are married to husbands or wives from the central Vietnam or the Mekong Delta so they would leavefor their spouse’s hometown.

In fact, Saigon is the worst place to celebrate Tết: houses are locked, shops are closed, streets are empty. The biggest city in Vietnam literally turns into a ghost town. Saigon is not Saigon anymore when you can’t meet friends in Starbucks, grab some sushis in a D1 restaurant, walk around Takashimaya or simply do people watching. I find the first day of Tết the longest day of the year as I wait impatiently for things to go back to business. Tết is the time to escape Saigon, many people I know plan their trips to Thailand or Singapore, sometimes even to the United States or Europe.

So what am I going to do this Tết holiday in Europe? I already attended a Tết party and will go to another one next month. It’s a great opportunity to meet old friends and make new ones. I’ll give a red envelope to thank a friend who helped me last year. On weekend, I’ll call my parents to ask how their celebrations are going. I’ll prepare a traditional Tết meal, share it with my housemates and we may end up playing cards. 

That’s my plan for Tết this year. I don’t feel sad not coming home for Tết. I’m glad I celebrate Tết away from home, and that next Monday, things are back to business here and that I can go back to work!

Thuy is a writer, educator and traveler with a curiosity about people and life . She is currently living in Brussels, Belgium.