All Articles 7 Asian destinations for can’t-miss Lunar New Year festivities

7 Asian destinations for can’t-miss Lunar New Year festivities

From Shanghai to Singapore.

Jolyn Chua
By Jolyn Chua20 Jan 2023 8 minutes read
An illuminated Chinese dragon lantern
An illuminated Chinese dragon lantern
Image: Kiszon Pascal/Getty Images

The heart-thrumming beats of acrobatic dragon dances; vibrant streets filled with endless rows of vendors hawking red-and-gold decorations of lucky foods; parades filled with exuberant music, spectacular fireworks, larger-than-life lanterns—as the largest and most important festival in many Asian cities, Lunar New Year celebrations are a spectacle to behold. The atmosphere is lit with excitement, anticipation, and a general joyousness as locals look to usher in a new start by reuniting with friends and family.

Depending on the new moon, Lunar New Year can fall anywhere between January 21 to February 20 and lasts between three and 15 days (varying by culture) for ample time to spend with all family members. While families today tend to be smaller (having 10 or more children was not uncommon in the early 20th century) and don’t require as many days of visiting, the eve and first two days remain the most significant. Families gather for a reunion dinner on the eve, and visit their most senior relatives on the first two days to pay their respects. Married couples hand children lucky red envelopes, which, according to Chinese legends, will keep them safe from demons.

Each Asian city has its own spin on Lunar New Year traditions, superstitions, culinary delights and events, so don your brightest clothes for luck and join locals in the destinations below for their biggest celebration of the year.

Taipei, Taiwan

Lungshan Temple in Taipei, Taiwan
Lungshan Temple in Taipei, Taiwan
Image: Sean3810/Getty Images

Shopping is at its peak just before the Lunar New Year as new clothes, new decorations, and a clean house signal a fresh start for the year. Head over to the historic Dihua Street (迪化街) and Nanmen market (南門市場) to soak up the festive vibes with auspiciously red pop-up stalls offering samples of everything from sweet dried meat to fruit jellies. Candied winter melon and melon seeds are essential eats on the trays of togetherness (全盒), snack platters offered in family homes during the celebratory period. For a sit-down meal, chow down savory dumplings for good fortune since they resemble gold ingots or braised pork knuckle longevity noodles (長壽麵), where the long strands of noodles symbolize longevity—so try not to break any off!

Visit a nearby temple like Longshan Temple (龍山寺), Xia Hai City God Temple (霞海城隍廟), or Songshan Ciyou Temple (松山慈祐宮) in the morning of the first day to observe Taiwanese devotees lighting incense sticks to sanctify the space and convey their wishes to the deities. Temples are particularly colorful in this period, with rows of fresh flowers, oranges, and packaged foods laid on long tables as offerings to the Taoist deities and Buddhists bodhisattvas, saints on the route to becoming buddhas.

If you are lucky enough to stay for the entire Lunar New Year period, the Pingxi Sky Lantern Festival in New Taipei City is unmissable. Thousands of lanterns illuminate the night sky in this centuries-old tradition that was used to signal a safe return to villagers in the mountains who fled from bandits. You can even write your own wishes on a lantern and release it in hopes of having your dreams realized.

Singapore

Chinatown district in Singapore
Chinatown district in Singapore
Image: Primeimages/Getty Images

Singapore’s Chinatown reinvents itself annually to match the zodiac animal of the year and this year features the vigilant and witty rabbit. Legend has it that the Jade Emperor held a race to determine which 12 animals became his heavenly guard and the rabbit came in fourth, just after the slightly swifter tiger.

Intricate lanterns bearing that year’s zodiac animal accompany the festive buzz along the Pagoda Street, Smith Street, and Temple Street, where you can sample the traditional treats to start the new year, like pineapple tarts, bakkwa (sweet barbequed pork) and kueh bangkit (coconut cookies with Perenakan—mixed Chinese-Malay-Indonesian—origins).

From the third day onwards, having friends over or visiting them is common, so if you are invited to a Singaporean household, bring a pair of mandarin oranges and a red packet for each child if you are married. Chinese believe even numbers are auspicious, and in Cantonese, the name for mandarin oranges is “song gam,” which sounds like the word gold. Present the oranges with both hands (basic respect in Asian culture), and don’t forget to receive a pair back in exchange!

Singapore is known as one of the melting pots of the world, and there’s no better way to experience the unique blend of Chinese, Malay, Indian, and Eurasian cultures than catching the Chingay parade on the second weekend of the celebratory period. Almost as old as this island nation itself, the Chingay parade started out as a Lunar New Year street parade in 1973 and has evolved beyond traditional martial art, dragon, and lion dance acts to include acrobatics, celebrity performances, multi-ethnic street performances, and dazzling float displays. Winding through the waterfront area downtown, it culminates with a spectacular light and fireworks display.

Seoul, Korea

A woman, dressed in a tradition Korean hanbok, walking the grounds of Gyeongbokgung Palace in Seoul, Korea
A woman, dressed in a tradition Korean hanbok, walking the grounds of Gyeongbokgung Palace in Seoul, Korea
Image: John W Banagan/Getty Images

Come Seollal (설날), the name for Korea’s three-day Lunar New Year, Koreans leave the cities and return to their hometowns to visit family and pay tributes to their ancestors through a memorial ceremony called Charye (차례). Traditional hanboks (한복) are worn for the ceremony, where a New Year’s meal of gujeong eumsik (구정 음식) that includes rice, meat, fruit, and makgeolli (rice wine) or soju (clear Korean spirit) is prepared for their ancestors. When greeting elders during Seollal, Koreans make a deep bow, or sebae (세배), to seek blessings for the new beginning.

Arriving on the second day of Seollal lets you skip the crazy traffic of getting to Seoul’s key attractions, which usually remain open throughout the festivities and play host to traditional performances and activities. Take in the theatrics and music of Namsadang (남사당놀이), traveling entertainers wearing swirling Sangmo hats, as well as elegant fan dances called Buchaechum (부채춤) at the Namsangol Hanok Village (남산골한옥마을) or The Korean Folk Village (한국민속촌). Kite flying, rice cake pounding, stick throwing (yutnori), and savoring of Seollal staples like tteokguk (rice cake soup) are just some of the activities that will keep you warm in this wintry Seollal season.

To truly capture the moment, rent a hanbok—Hanbok Girls, Seohwa Hanbok, and Oneday Hanbok offer exquisite ones—and visit any of the palaces including the famous Gyeongbokgung, Changdeokgung, and Deoksugung Palaces for free during the celebration to create some unforgettable Seollal memories.

Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam

Flower Street in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam during Lunar New Year
Flower Street in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam during Lunar New Year
Image: Jethuynh/Getty Images

Sunny yellow apricot blossoms are the surest signs that Tết Nguyên Đán, the Vietnamese Lunar New Year, is around the corner. Tết marks the start of spring, Lunar New Year, and, traditionally, everyone’s birthday (according to historical customs, individual birthdays were not celebrated). Ho Chi Minh City bursts into brilliant floral hues as Vietnamese flock to flower markets to buy offerings for ancestors and deities.

The most floral Instagram spot is Pham Ngoc Thach Street, where locals outfitted in silk áo dài pose for photos among the trees, both real and fake. It is part of the Tết Festival at the Youth Cultural House, which brings travelers back in time with rustic set designs, live calligraphy demonstrations on Calligraphy Street, and traditional workshops like nón lá (conical hat) making.

Vendors at Saigon’s largest flower markets—Ho Thi Ky flower market and Dam Sen flower market—work around the clock leading up to Tết. These flower markets boast several hundred varieties of flowers and are busiest between 9 p.m. and 3 a.m., when Da Nang trucks carrying tons of fresh flowers arrive. For more flower power, hop over to Nguyen Hue Flower Street, Phu My Hung Spring Flower Festival, or the Spring Flower Festival at Tao Dan Park.

Gorgeous floral art installations showcase the city’s creative talents and rich history, and frequently feature the year’s zodiac mascot as a centerpiece—the Vietnamese will celebrate the Year of the Cat, instead of the rabbit. Grab a Tết traditional banh chung or banh tet (both are glutinous rice cakes stuffed with mung bean and pork—the former comes from the northern part of the country and is a square to symbolize the earth, while the latter is linked to the rest of the nation and is cylindrical like the moon) to fuel up for this full-day sightseeing.

Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia

Lion dance performance during Chinese New Year in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia
Lion dance performance during Chinese New Year in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia
Image: Simonlong/Getty Images

Follow the unmistakable rapid drum beats, followed by the clash of symbols along Petaling Street in Kuala Lumpur and you’ll find yourself face to face with a lion dance troupe. Many shop owners, restaurants, and hotels invite these performance groups throughout the Lunar New Year to chase away evil spirits and bring good future. Fear not if the lion approaches you—it’s just being playful and you can pet it, taking care to avoid the horn and mirrors, which are used to ward off evil spirits.

The bright red stalls of Chinatown close by the late afternoon on Lunar New Year’s Eve and that’s when you should head over for your own reunion dinner at a traditional restaurant like the Nook, Shang Palace, or Luk Yu Tea House. Dinner is served in multiple courses (up to 10 or more) with dishes like yam ring (a deep fried taro ring filled with overflowing meat, veggies, and seafood) and poon choy (an eight-ingredient, one-pot dish that often includes abalone, fish maw, and shitake mushrooms).

For a stunning way to end the night, visit the six-tier Thean Hou Temple, where several thousand lanterns light up the courtyard, entrances, and interior in a beautiful red glow.

Shanghai

Lantern Festival at Yuyuan Bazaar in Shanghai, China
Lantern Festival at Yuyuan Bazaar in Shanghai, China
Image: Richard I'Anson/Getty Images

There is no grander scale to the movement of people in the world than China’s Chinese New Year exodus. As China eases its strict COVID-19 restrictions, millions will leave the cities to return to their rural homelands, and for many, it will be their first time returning home in three years (those returning to the U.S. afterward will face testing requirements). Whether or not you join the mass travel period, often with people squashed on long-distance trains, it’s quite the experience to witness a city like Shanghai empty out, leaving key attractions and highways strangely empty.

Shanghai’s Yuyuan Lantern Festival is surely the biggest highlight for any visitor during the Chinese New Year. It’s hailed as one of the world’s best lantern festivals, with fantastical art creations, traditional folk lanterns, and even ones with riddles written on them, set against classical Chinese architecture built in the Ming dynasty. Take a stroll through the royal five-acre garden to admire towering light sculptures, reflections of glowing artistic displays floating in the middle of the lake, and traditional temple streets softly lit with overhead lanterns.

Make your way across the nine-turn JiuQu Bridge towards the Mid-Lake Pavilion Teahouse to rid yourself of bad luck, as the Chinese believe ghosts and evil spirits can only walk in a straight line. For a quick bite, sit down at Ningbo Sweet Dumplings in Yuyuan Garden Mall for a steaming hot bowl of tang yuan (sweet rice dumplings), a local delicacy typically enjoyed on the 15th day of the Lunar New Year.

Also aglow in the Lunar New Year period are the Guangfulin Blessing Temple Fair and Zhujiajiao Water Town, which will be richly decorated for the spring festival. Traditional Chinese games, folk music, dance performances, and craft workshops count among the activities on the festive calendar.

Hong Kong

Fireworks at Victoria Harbour in Hong Kong
Fireworks at Victoria Harbour in Hong Kong
Image: Rapisan Sawangphon/Getty Images

Time your visit to catch the Lunar New Year Night Parade in Hong Kong. It’s the liveliest celebration of the year, with an eclectic mix of modern and traditional singing, dancing, musicals, acrobatics, and floats enhanced with captivating light, sound, and firework effects and elaborate set designs. It is usually held on the eve or first few days of the new year, and winds through the streets of Tsim Sha Tsui.

Hong Kong’s most amazing fireworks can also be enjoyed from the Victoria Harbour between Tsim Sha Tsui and the Central district. This million-dollar firework extravaganza lasts more than 20 minutes with carefully choreographed falling lights over the stunning Hong Kong CBD skyline. Stake out your spot early, or go for an elevated view at a luxurious rooftop restaurant like Aqua or Chaat.

For a final twist to your celebration, proceed to Sha Tin Racecourse for one of its largest events—the Lunar New Year Race Day. Lion dances, mini parades, raffles, and God of Fortune appearances are some of the peripheral activities surrounding this exciting race.

The Lunar New Year Guide

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Jolyn Chua
Jolyn is a former Discovery Networks marketer and freelance writer from Singapore. She lives and works mostly in her 4x4 campervans and has visited over 50 countries on solo backpacking and couple overlanding trips. You might find her hanging off a climbing crag or trying to blend in with the bird life on occasion.