Tet a.k.a. Lunar New Year Through The Eyes Of First-Generation Vietnamese Americans
Pink peach blossoms in the North, yellow apricot blossoms in the South – these are the colors that fill the streets of Hanoi and Saigon as the Tet holiday nears. But what about the Vietnamese community abroad, where neither the art of gói bánh chưng nor chơi hoa is widely practiced?
To keep the fire of their proud identity well-lit, many Vietnamese abroad have come to create unique experiences to celebrate this most important time of the year. The resilience that upholds Tet as an irreplaceable tradition is what all Vietnamese around the world can identify with.
Looking forward to the next decade, Vietcetera has reached out to the Vietnamese community around the world in hope of a universal connection. Kim Ngo (21, Newington, Connecticut), Lauren Nguyen (20, New York), and Tin Dang (23, Boston, Massachusetts) shared with us what Tet means to them.
How did your parents explain Tết to you?
Kim Ngo: My parents immigrated to the United States about 20 years ago shortly after the Vietnam War. Growing up, I understood Tet as a time of family and coming together to share food and be grateful for what we have. Being in the United States where the Vietnamese community is very limited, we didn’t have many Vietnamese people to celebrate with. All we had was each other.
Lauren Nguyen: When I was young, my parents defined Tet as the Vietnamese version of the New Year’s celebration. So for me, it was just a second New Year’s on top of the one that is celebrated on January 1st.
Tin Dang: Likewise, I understood Tet as Vietnamese New Year.
How does your family celebrate Tết every year?
Kim Ngo: We would always call my grandparents and my mom’s parents in Long An. They would pass the phone around, and we would talk about what we were up to. Then, we would wish them good health, prosperity and wealth (metaphorically and literally).
My younger brother and I would wish the same for our parents, and then we would get red envelopes with money. We would meet up with our cousins later in the day and wish the same of my aunt and uncle. Then, we would eat pho and a mix of American foods.
Lauren Nguyen: My mom would go outside and snap a branch off of the tree in our front yard. Then I would take the branch and decorate it with hoa mai that we bought in Vietnam.
Every year, we have a fruit platter including mãng cầu (soursop), đu đủ (papaya), xoài (mango). The reason is because of a phrase that my mom often says during Tet, “Cầu vừa đủ xài,” which means “Praying for just enough to spend”. The phrase correlates to the fruit names – a good-hearted pun.
Aside from fruits and hoa mai, my mom also makes a big pot of thịt kho (caramelized pork) with coconut water (yes, you heard that right!). I’ve come to realize that Vietnamese people always use coconu water when making thịt kho as the coconut in Vietnam is so fresh.
My dad usually doesn’t allow me to buy bánh tét (traditional Vietnamese savory cake) because I only eat the sticky rice portion without the stuffing. However, for Tet, he would allow me to buy as many bánh tét or bánh chưng (a square variation of bánh tét) as I want.
And of course, the best part of Tet as a child is getting lì xì (red envelopes). I always enjoyed the cute designs on the red envelopes (and of course the cash inside as well).
Another thing that my family does during Tet is gambling. There’s usually four games that we play: card games, bầu cua cá cọp (betting game), lô tô (bingo-like game), and cờ cá ngựa (horse racing game).
Tin Dang: My case is slightly different. Since most of my family resides in Vietnam, we here in the States do not celebrate it. We do call “home” and ask my aunts and uncles what they have planned for the Tet celebration. We wish them a Happy New Year and good health.
What does Tết remind you of? Any fun/loving/terrifying memory about Tết that you’d like to share?
Kim Ngo: Tet honestly is one of my favorite holidays of the year. It keeps me grounded in the small traditions that I do have with my family. The sayings before receiving the red envelope and the red envelope itself are important to me in terms of keeping traditions that all Vietnamese and Vietnamese-American youth share.
In addition, I love bánh tét đậu (bánh tét with bean fillings), and this is the only time of the year I will eat it in order to keep the food more special.
I once got to experience “Tet in Boston” hosted by NEIVSA, a group of Vietnamese and Vietnamese-American students in the New England area of America.
It was at a huge event space with food, dancing and music attended by both the young and old. For me, not only did I enjoy being in a festive atmosphere, this was also one of the first times I celebrated the holiday with friends from university and strangers. Thus, this year, I want to bring my family so that they could experience that sense of community as well.
Lauren Nguyen: Tet has always been fun for me. I always wear áo dài during Tet, so whenever I visit Vietnam, I always get a few tailored (my closet has become quite filled with them now).
Usually when I wear clothes, I don’t think much about the article of clothing; nevertheless, áo dài somehow has a certain weight and sentiment that makes me want to show it off.
During my high school years, I would model for áo dài during the Tet festival in Connecticut, which was truly a pleasure.
As for less pleasant memories, I have a few, and one of which was that I was always very scared of ông địa (Lord of the Soil) during lion dances. Another is having to strictly bow to elders when they gifted me with red envelopes. This is particularly amusing to me, as even to this day whenever I meet elders, even if it’s not Tet, I will still bow as a greeting. I believe Tet has influenced my life more than I’ve come to realize.
Tin Dang: For me, Tet reminds me of the red envelopes, especially the generosity and well-wishes that older generations wish upon their children and grand-children. I used to receive a few of these every year when I was younger, but not anymore now that I’ve passed that age.
I learned about the Tet Offensive in 9th grade, which left quite an impression on me. Since then, Tet has a different meaning to me.
Are you more invested in New Year (as in Gregorian calendar) or Tết?
Kim Ngo: It would definitely be Tet for me, as it’s more culturally and personally significant.
Lauren Nguyen: I am likewise slightly more invested in Tet because it makes me more sentimental and nostalgic.
Tin Dang: As for me, it would be New Year.
How do you want to celebrate Tết personally? What traditions will you pass on to your (future) kids?
Kim Ngo: I definitely want to emphasize the idea of being with family in this time of transition into the New Year. The foods that are traditionally eaten and the red envelopes given – these are what I’d love to pass on to my children. Most important of all, I will always call my family members in Vietnam to wish them a good, meaningful Tet.
Lauren Nguyen: When I was younger, I really enjoyed going to Tet festivals and performing at the many activities. As for now, I appreciate more of the time that I get to stay in touch with my Vietnamese members and to be able to celebrate Tet with those closest to me.
I will pass on all of the traditions that my parents have taught me to my future kids, and I will make sure that I let them experience Tet in Vietnam at least once, if not every year, as I have not gotten the chance to yet.
Tin Dang: Vietnamese cuisine for me is what holds the most meaning. Thus, I’ve been learning how to cook recently and hope to master my mother’s Vietnamese recipes someday. In the future, I wish to share the food I grew up eating with close friends in honor of the new year.
If I have kids, of course I’d pass on to them the tradition of red envelopes. My lack of Tet experience during my childhood would probably require me to improvise more so. But I think no matter how this improvisation will turn out, it would have to stem from the idea of giving back and helping the younger generation.
Have you ever celebrated Tết in Vietnam? If yes, how was it?
Kim Ngo: No, but a free plane ticket would help! (Laughs.)
Lauren Nguyen: Never, but one day I would love to, as I’ve heard there’s nothing that can compare to Tet in Vietnam.
Tin Dang: Yes, last year in 2019. It was very moving, especially since I have been unable to properly celebrate it with my family since immigrating to the U.S. Some of the most memorable moments included helping my aunts and uncles make bánh chưng, attending a 5:00a.m. mass for three consecutive days, and feasting with my great-grandfather who is nearing 100 years old. Celebrating Tet in Vietnam was tiring, but it was a memory that I’ll have for the rest of my life.