While Vietnam is in its busiest days during Tet, with markets filled with people selling and buying kumquat trees and red ornaments, Vietnamese international students across the world are also trying their best to celebrate this cultural tradition.
Pre-pandemic, 21-year-old senior at the University of Cincinnati in Ohio Sunny Tran, hosted an annual Tet celebration with her friends for the local Vietnamese Student Association. “We would have all kinds of traditional Vietnamese games such as o an quan, banh dua, bau cua ca cop, etc., as well as all kinds of Tet decoration. As with bau cua ca cop, it has always been one of Tet activities as it is a game of luck,” said Sunny.
Miles away in the southeast region of the US, the Vietnamese community in Georgia also celebrated Tet by holding festivals in churches, temples, and local Asian supermarkets, said Annie Nguyen, a 20-year-old student in Georgia Gwinnett College. She remembered watching the lion dance during New Year’s Eve and gathering to make bánh chung after that.
Across the Oceania continent, Thomas Nguyen, an undergraduate at Front Cooking School in Melbourne, carried out some customs that his mom taught at home. “I always buy some food, offerings, and flowers to worship ancestors. These are essential activities I do every year to show my respect to the departed ones in my family as well as my ancestors.”
Muted celebrations in times of pandemic
While Annie found ways to create a Tet atmosphere herself, the celebrations hardly compared to the festivities she was used to. “In Vietnam, everyone is so excited about Tet. They all get ready to give out and receive happy wishes to and from others. In contrast, not everyone here in the States feels as much,” she said.
“Tet is a time for family reunions, when all family members, regardless of where they are, do their best to go home by the last day of the lunar year. That’s why I would always feel restless and expectant around this time of the year. I miss home-cooked meals, xi dach, of course, and li xi, though I’m a little too old for li xi. Above that, a family gathering is undoubtedly what I miss most about Tet,” said Sunny. This year marked her sixth Tet celebrated away from her family. “There isn’t any place like home. It doesn’t matter how much Tet decorations are displayed; I won’t feel the same Tet spirit.”
Nevertheless, the raging COVID-19 pandemic makes the absence from home and family feel more intense than usual. The fear of the Omicron variant hampers many Tet activities and events. Organizers at Little Saigon areas hold fewer music shows, traditional lion dancing and banh chung-making competitions like they usually do.
“The pandemic has affected many aspects of my life, both mental and physical health, for the last two years. It was absolutely frustrating that I couldn’t hang out with my friends or visit my relatives who live far away and there were no annual fireworks, which is my favorite show on New Year’s Eve,” reminisced Thomas.
The “taken for granted” lessons
As Vietnam slowly recovers from the most intense battle with COVID-19, many international students are taking advantage of the simplified travel policy to celebrate Lunar New Year with families and reconnect with old traditions in Vietnam.
This year’s celebration is special for Nguyen Huy Minh Tu, a senior at Nanyang Institute of Management in Singapore, given that this was the first time for him to spend the holiday with family after four years.
Celebrating Tet overseas allowed Tu to reflect on the most important things that he has taken for granted — family. “For the first 18 years of my life, being with family and loved ones didn't seem important — I always thought that my parents would be there waiting for me every time I went out ‘til midnight. But after many hardships and loneliness, I finally understood how my parents felt when I left them waiting on such important days.”
“Tet in Singapore wasn't the lavish gatherings with friends like when I was in Vietnam, but the feeling of not bursting into tears talking to my parents through the screen,” he said. “Seeing them happy and peaceful is what matters to me.”
Zoe Le, a 22-year-old student at the University College of Dublin in Singapore, is very excited to be back in Vietnam and surprise her parents, who didn’t know she returned after the quarantine.
“Singapore has a lot of traditional Lunar New Year activities, thanks for hosting a large Chinese community,” Zoe said. “Here, people will give tangerines as presents. Bamboos are displayed instead of kumquat and apricot blossoms. Of course, there will be no banh tet and banh chung, but there’s Yusheng, a traditional salad dish that they consider a lucky food in China.”
“But all of those cannot replace the experience of being in Vietnam with your family, which is the true essence of Tet. Seeing the apricot blossoms and Tet decorations on the streets of Saigon makes me feel very emotional and grateful,” she said.
Because of the times she spend Tet holiday away from home and the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic, she realized the importance of family. “Life has so many places to go, but there’s only one place to return. Ain't no mountain or ocean as large and vivid as the love of family.”
To celebrate Tet this year, Zoe is keen on buying new clothes for the whole family and visiting their relatives. She also plans to decorate their house with different flowers.