Far and away the greatest annual holiday in Vietnam is Tết, the first day of the lunar calendar and, in Vietnam, the first day of spring. It is celebrated for three days at least and by some for seven days. The festivities emphasize eating and drinking, returning to one’s parental home, buying new clothes, getting one’s hair cut, and being sure one’s house is freshly cleaned. The traditional greeting is Chúc Mừng Năm Mới or Cung Chúc Tân Niên (Happy New Year) or Cung Chúc Tân Xuân (Happy Spring).
Flowers are the sine qua non of celebrating Tết. Preparations to assure that plants are blooming at their peak on Tết begin months in advance, and in Saigon, the Street of Flowers (the street’s real name was Nguyễn Huệ, the name of a Vietnamese emperor) was so filled with blossoms at Tết that the street itself appeared to be in bloom.
Because the date of Tết is determined by the lunar calendar, its date in the Gregorian calendar varies between the last week or so of January and the first days of February. The name Tết is known to Americans because the North Vietnamese began a country-wide offensive during the celebration in 1968. It came to be known as the Tết Offensive. That year, Tết fell on 28 January (if my memory is accurate), the same date as in 2017, and both the Americans and the South Vietnamese were caught unprepared because for years both the north and the south had all but ceased combat during the Tết period. In Last of the Annamese, the date (in 1975) is 3 February, less than four months before the fall of Saigon.
I have many happy memories of celebrating Tết with the Vietnamese. In 1964, I took my daughter, Susan, then a toddler, to the Street of Flowers to see the display. When I was in the field with combat units, I made it my business to join the locals for the festivities when I could.
But the holiday also brings back sad times. In 1968, I warned the Americans that the North Vietnamese were about to launch a country-wide offensive and wasn’t believed. The saddest was 1975. I alerted the U.S. Ambassador that the North Vietnamese were about to attack Saigon, but he dismissed my prediction. I saw that the end of An Nam (the old name for Vietnam which means “peace in the south”) was at hand.