A Tet-less Vietnam

Tam Le is the Regional Associate Strategy Director for Carat APAC.

Over the past few years economists have made the case for doing away with the Lunar New Year and celebrating the Western (Solar) New Year instead. What are the implications of that on culture?

2 minute read


 

Growing up in a Vietnamese family and community in America, Têt (Lunar New Year) was one of my few connections back to the motherland. I was American 364 days a year, but on Têt, I was proudly Vietnamese.

In the week leading up to the holiday, my house would be filled with yellow forsythia blossoms (American hoa mai substitute) and the smell of incense. It would cumulate in a large family reunion, one where I believe every loosely-connected Vietnamese person within the Houston area was invited. Then the children (and to be honest, me last year) would then line up to wish their elders a prosperous new year in exchange for red packets of lucky money (li xi). Afterwards we would either hold an impromptu lion dance (mua lan) in the house or gamble our money away through a game of bau-cua.

It was through those traditions that I felt connected to my fellow Vietnamese of both past as present as I imagined my parents as children or a version of me, across the world, engaging in the same age-old activities.

bau-cua
When you see this board, you know it’s going down. 

So you can imagine how I felt when I found out that over the past few years economists have made the case for doing away with the Lunar New Year and celebrating the Western (Solar) New Year instead.

“The long holiday and low productivity for weeks around Têt is causing problems for Vietnam’s development,” says prominent economist Pham Chi Lan. In Vietnam, Têt is officially a five-day public holiday with two ‘substitution days’ where employees must work one Saturday in lieu.

She has a point. As anyone who has travelled to Vietnam during Lunar New Year will tell you, the cities are ghost towns and the country nearly shuts down as everyone returns to their hometowns to spend time with their family. State employees sometimes get multiple weeks off; schools are shut for at least two weeks, and even hospitals close.

IMG_4184.JPG
Emptied streets of Dien Khanh. Taken by me on the second day of Tet this year.

Vietnam’s government is already making strides to reduce Têt festivities. The Secretariat of the Party Central Committee has banned all provinces and cities in the country from setting off fireworks, saying the money should instead be used to help the underprivileged. The directive also says leaders of Party and State organizations should practice thrift by not traveling during Têt to avoid wastefulness, and that provincial leaders must not visit leaders of the centrally-governed agencies to offer Têt gifts.

Having one short public holiday at a time that aligns with the New Year in the majority of the world (January 1st) could improve growth and attract more foreign investment. “Vietnam is trying to integrate into the global economy and the annual breakdown over Têt adds inefficiencies to the economy and government decision-making,” said Vietnam expert Carl Thayer.

How far is a government willing to go to improve the economy of its nation?

 

Image may contain: 2 people, people smiling
My sister and I in our ao dai, the traditional Vietnamese dress.

But for all the critiques about Têt, and for all the arguments from an economic point of view, it must be stressed that this is the holiday in Vietnam. It is Thanksgiving and Christmas and New Year and your birthday all rolled into one. It is the most important celebration of Vietnamese culture and has been a tradition for at least a couple of millennia.

As context for those who are growing jealous of Vietnam’s five-day Têt holiday, Vietnam has only 10 days of public holiday a year. Compare this to Cambodia with 27 days, Thailand with 14 days, and China with 11 plus five ‘substitution’ days. Têt makes up half of their public holidays; there are no days off for Christmas in Vietnam.

And when looking at numerous broader economic studies, it has been demonstrated empirically that the level of trust that people have in their countries’ institutions has a strong influence on the economic activity. Changing centuries of tradition is probably not going to drastically improve the economy of Vietnam—trust in the government is. And when the government is threatening to trade culture for economic gains, what reason do they give to deserve such trust?

Maybe I’m idealistic and naïve, but no amount of economic growth is worth such a forfeiture of a country’s culture. The cost of losing the traditions that have bound generations of a nation’s people is well worth the cost of an annual economic slowdown.