Vietnamese culture is based on the lunar calendar, so it’s impossible to give exact dates for traditional celebrations. Lunar calendar dates usually fall within about a 6-week span on the solar calendar. The first and fifteenth days of each month (new and full moon, respectively) are considered sacred days, and you’ll see many people making offerings at temples, pagodas and roadside shrines.
Tet, or the Lunar New Year, is by far the most important holiday in Vietnam—it’s often described as Christmas, Thanksgiving and New Year’s Eve rolled into one. Tet is heavily family-oriented, and nearly every Hanoian with family outside the city clears out for the holiday. Customs include the cooking of certain foods, the exchange of gifts (often money) between friends and family, and buying new clothes. As the city empties out and closes down for a week, many expats in Hanoi take this as a good time for a vacation. On Lunar New Year’s eve there’s a huge celebration with fireworks and performances at Hoan Kiem Lake, don’t miss it if you stay in town! Tet lasts from the first through the seventh days of the first lunar month, and falls in late January or February.
Thanh Minh, the Holiday of the Dead, is a time for families to visit the graves of deceased relatives and make offerings. Fifth day of the third lunar month, late March or early April.
The Buddha’s Birthday is celebrated with processions and ceremonies at pagodas and temples on the 8th day of the 4th lunar month, in April or May.
Tet Doan Ngo, the Midsummer Festival, is when the God of Death is appeased with offerings at temples. Rites are performed to ward off pestilence and disease on the 5th day of the 5th lunar month, usually in June.
Tet Trung Thu, the Mid-Autum Festival, is the second-largest holiday in Vietnam after Tet. It’s a harvest festival, but is also known as the Children’s Festival—children are given gifts and candy, and reminded to show respect to one another and to their elders. The Mid-Autumn Festival is on the 15th day of the 8th lunar month, in September or early October, and in the days proceeding the holiday Hang Ma street turns into a lively festival market, selling masks, lanterns, drums and festival gifts for children. Moon cakes are an important part of the festival, and are exchanged as gifts between friends—no doubt you’ll receive more than you can eat of these round cakes filled with peanuts, lotus seeds, raisins and more. There are many local parades during the festival, many of which include dragon dances. Check with your local friends to find out where’s a good place to enjoy the festivities, or look for listings in the Vietnam News.
Liberation Day, April 30, is observed with various official events and parades, but there is little of interest to most expats, or even to most locals, who generally let the day pass without remark or celebration.