It was complicated to plan our trip to Vietnam to coincide with Tet, the annual New Year’s celebration. Several of our group of five people had other commitments to work around. But it sounded so exotic to be there for Tet – a word that for our generation resonated with war — now to experience it as a joyful national holiday instead.

In 2011, the Year of the Cat in Vietnam, the first day of Tet occurred on February 3. We planned to arrive in country a couple of weeks before, and we’d work our way from north to south, ending up in Ho Chi Minh City for the celebration.

Even two weeks early in Hanoi, the shops glittered with decorations in gold and red, lucky colors for the new year. Businesses displayed banners proclaiming “Chuc Mung Nam Moi” (Happy New Year), which gave us great delight since one or our group was named Chuck. (We’re ridiculously easy to please.) “Chuc mung nam moi,” we repeated to everyone we met.

It’s traditional in much of the country to give food delicacies to family and friends for the holiday, so the street-side stalls were stocked with candied fruits, flowers both fresh and artificial, and exotic specialties, including bottles of liquor containing whole snakes. We were not tempted by the snake liquor.

People rushed through the crowded streets carrying home branches of pink peach blossoms. Motorcycles roared by carrying four- and five-feet tall mandarin orange trees, or plastic bags full of water with goldfish to release in nearby rivers and streams, a tribute to the kitchen gods.

Our anticipation grew as we worked our way south, from Hué to Hoi An, with a stay at Nam Cat Tien National Park and a cruise on the Mekong River. In the countryside, families cooked up huge batches of banh chung, rice cakes stuffed with pork and tied up in banana leaves, to sell in the street markets.

We arrived in Saigon a day or two before Tet. In a park near our hotel, a festival was going full-tilt, with flower arranging and bonsai competitions, dragon dances and stalls selling everything from semi-precious stones to grilled meats and bean-stuffed buns. Here in the south, we learned, people love the yellow flowers of the apricot tree.

Tao Dan Park, on the eve of Tet, was chock-a-block with floral decorations. Street vendors sold all kinds of food treats, including okra on a stick. Families thronged the place, many children wearing brightly colored Chinese-style robes in pink, yellow and red. At midnight, we watched the fireworks from our hotel windows.

The next morning, Viet Nam shut down. It was as quiet as Rome on Christmas Day. You could actually cross a city street without dodging motorcycles. Everybody with any choice was at home with their families. The only places open for the next couple of days were places that catered to tourists.

Oh. It finally dawned on us. Tet: it’s a family holiday. The festive atmosphere in the past two weeks was the run-up, but the New Year itself really wasn’t for us. We spent the morning on the phone, rebooking our flights home so we could leave that day.