Katherine Nguyen is busy with her preparations for Tet – the Vietnamese New Year – as she stocks up her refrigerator and spring cleans her house. “Tet is the most important and popular holiday in Vietnam. We have a three-day holiday on the first three days of Tet, and the eve is usually a half-day holiday. “In the days leading up to Tet, families will be busy preparing food so that they can eat, have fun and not work during the initial few days,” the 48-year-old businesswoman said. Some of the special holiday food enjoyed by the Vietnamese is banh chung and banh day (sticky rice with meat or bean stuffing wrapped in banana leaves).
“Banh chung (squarish) and banh day (circular) are symbolically connected as they represent earth and heaven respectively, and are essential to any Tet celebration,” said Nguyen.
“The preparation is time-consuming and can take days to cook as it is done over wood fires. Some people prefer buying them from stalls that have been set up just to sell banh chung and banh day.” Other dishes eaten during Tet include cu kieu (pickled vegetables), shrimp paste with sugarcane, spring rolls (made from Vietnamese rice paper), chicken stew, beef salad and kho gua (bitter gourd) soup. “Drinking bitter gourd soup symbolizes that suffering has passed. It also has a cooling effect against the hot weather,” said Trinh.
“On Tet, we’ll pray to ancestors and visit temples/pagodas. The first day is always spent at our parents’ house. On the second day, we’ll visit our siblings or relatives; the third day is for teachers or people we respect as teachers. “The children will wear their new clothes and give their elders traditional Tet greetings like Chuc mung nam moi and Cung chuc tan xuan (Happy new year). “The elders will then give li xi (red packets) to the children. The children can be single or married, and still receive li xi.”
Since the Vietnamese believe that the first visitor to the family’s house influences the family’s fortune in the coming year, a person with happy demeanor or has experienced good luck the previous year is invited first. “Most families would just pick the most well-to-do person among themselves and let him be the first visitor,” said Nguyen, adding that there was no emphasis on whether to visit the husband’s or wife’s home first.
“Tet is a time for everybody to get together, relax and have fun. Most women and young girls would be dressed in ao dai (traditional Vietnamese costume); the men would wear shirts and pants.” She said that preparations for Tet included cleaning the house and decorating it with fresh flowers, kumquat, calligraphy paintings with auspicious words and various red decorations. A Tet custom Nguyen’s husband, Kevin, 45, observed was a watermelon being cut either at home or at work.
“If it’s very red, it signify es a good and lucky year ahead,” said Nguyen. Nguyen’s children – Roger, 11, Patrick, 10, and John, eight – enjoy celebrating Tet with her extended family where the mood is more festive. “We celebrate Tet in Vietnam every year. They enjoy playing with their cousins, and going around the city,” she said.