Updated: Jan 28
Wishing you a very happy Tết Tây (New Year’s Day) and Tết Nguyên Đán (Lunar New Year). Growing up Vietnamese American means we get to celebrate two new years, each with its own significance, and equally significant to us all. Here we share our New Year's Cork and our Vietnamese American Tết traditions.
The Nguyễn New Year's Cork
Most of you are familiar with Tết Tây, also known as New Year's Day, the first day of the year in the modern Gregorian calendar. The Western tradition is to count down and set resolutions for the new year, but after four years of this, we are introducing to the public the Nguyen New Year’s Cork. Interestingly, our whole family has always spent New Year’s Day together, counting down the last hours of December 31st and watching fireworks from our window. More recently, Bố Mẹ started going to bed right after the countdown, but because we siblings were so hyped up on Apple Cider, we stayed up a bit longer. In 2018, we got older, bought a bottle of rosé, and decided to recap our year. We detailed the rose, buds, and thorns that took place the past year. Perhaps we were influenced by the rosé too - debatable.
The sparkling Italian wine cork had the word ‘purpose’ printed on the cork. We also took this as a sign to think forward. Rather than set resolutions, we set an intention, or ‘our word’ for the year. This was a word to focus our energies and set a target for growth in our individual selves. After four years of this tradition, we really believe it's the best way to start the new year. You get to enjoy a bottle of wine to help loosen you up and draw out all the feelings of the past year. After, you write your individual intention on the cork. Your word for the new year is one that is both a lesson and a renewed purpose. As it is still the beginning of the year. You can still call your friends together to ‘wine down’ and set an intention for 2022. And let us know, would you like to see a video of a Nguyen sibling recapping our year? We are taking ideas for what you’d like to see on our newly launched YouTube channel.
Tết Nguyên Đán or Lunar New Year
Tết, or fully known as Tết Nguyên Đán. will be celebrated on February 1st this year. As this event is dictated by the lunisolar calendar, the exact day can vary. Over the years we’ve noticed that the new moon of the new year typically arrives sometime in January to February.
Bố Mẹ have now lived in the United States for over 30 years and so much of the customs they used before have been changed and adapted. We’ve always thought that what Mẹ views as important is what we continue to hold, but I’ve realized that availability and willingness are also important. As timing/ order of events here in the US varies, we can only identify the Vietnamese-American traditional items we have seen consistently in our lives:
Alter Set Up
Family is hugely important in Vietnamese culture, as you may have deduced by our decision to podcast together. Naturally, family is central to Tết as well. During the new year, we pay respects to our ancestors by showing our gratitude for the bounty we have had in the past year and we ask for their guidance and support in the new year. Our altar at home has photos of our most recent ancestors. For us, we have photos of Bà Ngoại (maternal grandmother), Cậu Toàn (uncle), Ông Bà Nội (paternal grandparents), and Bố (father).
We adorn the altar with candles and flowers. Our flowers of choice are the hoa lan (orchids) and hoa cúc (Chrysanthemum, pictured below). Mẹ told us that the hoa lan is very special in Việt Nam as it represents fortune and prosperity. These are flowers we typically receive as gifts too. Hoa cúc is something we buy in the states because it’s similar to hoa mai typically found in Việt Nam.
We also fondly recall Bố holding a mango and say “Cầu sung dừa Đủ xoài”, and we would have some of the following fruits on the altar: mãng cầu (Mangosteen), dừa (coconut), đu đủ (papaya), and xoài (mango). These names of the fruits sound like "cầu sung vừa đủ xài" which loosely translates to “We pray for enough to use” and we set this on the altar requesting our ancestors bless us with a bountiful new year.
Fruit availability often determines what gets presented at the altar. Other foods that sometimes appear include
Bánh chưng or bánh tét: sticky rice cakes traditional to the holiday as set forth by a king years ago
Quít cam: tangerines/orange' color represent giầu sang or sophistication/luxury,
Bưởi: grapefruit represents thơm tho quý phái or fragrance and nobility
other fruits include dưa hấu (watermelon), dứa (pineapple), chuối (bananas), and nho (grapes).
2. Firecrackers, Dragon Dance, and Foods
Typically our church has a special Tất Niên (before New Year’s) Dinner the weekend before the Lunar New Year. These celebrations always begin with firecrackers, drums, gongs, and a múa lân (lion dance). The loud noise is meant to ward off evil spirits and the lion/dragon is a symbol of strength to ward off the evil spirits. Folks oftentimes “feed” red envelopes to the lion/dragon as a wish for good luck, but also more practically, to tip the dancers.
After the dance, the congregation lines up for home-cooked food that the ladies of the church have prepared. Dishes that we traditionally get to enjoy during this time of the year include
Bánh chưng (Southern style) and/or bánh tét (Northern style): sweetened rice cake made from glutinous rice with a mung bean and pork filling
Củ kiệu & dưa món: pickled leeks and pickled cabbage + carrots
Chả lụa: pork sausage steamed in banana leaves
Nem Chua: cured pork that's tangy, salty, and a bit spicy
To complement these dishes or more so to provide diversity, because eating plain sticky rice can be quite tiresome, there would also be some kind of noodle dish, rice dish, and salad. We will share the menu this year on our social media so give us a follow for a live view!
In addition, there are sweet treats that folks may have at home. We have grown up seeing these on Ba Ngoai’s coffee table. We don’t personally buy these anymore due to our preference to give fresh fruit. Still, if interested, these are various treats that you may see at the store and families may gift one another:
Mứt: dried candied fruits that can be sweet and sour
Kẹo mè xửng: cubed taffy made of peanuts and sesame seeds
Kẹo đậu xanh: sweetened mung bean pressed into cubes
3. New Year Greetings and Lì Xì
Many folks know about the lì xì or red envelopes because it typically signifies a gift of cash money. During Tet particularly, lì xì is typically given from a married family but unmarried individuals may give lì xì too. When giving or receiving lì xì, one should always give/ receive with two hands and chúc (or offer) a new year's greeting to the other person. These are a few that we often hear and use ourselves. Vietnamese Text: Chúc [insert name/title such as Ông / Bà, Bác, Cô/Chú] một năm mới __________. English Transalation: [I] Wish [name/title Grandpa / Grandma, older Uncle/Aunt, younger Aunt / Uncle ] a new year of ________.
Some wishes to add, usually 3 or more:
Luôn luôn mạnh khỏe: continued health/strength
Vui vẻ: fun/joy
Phát tài: prosperity
Sức khỏe dồi dào: good health
Hạnh phúc: happiness
May mắn: good fortune
Vạn sự như ý: things go your way
Sống lâu trăm tuổi: long life of 100 years. This is something we would say to our elders, wishing them good health and long life.
Tiền vô như nước và ra như rùa: may money flow in like water and leave like a turtle. This is a more casual/ fun saying. We do not recommend this for a formal greeting.
4. Áo Dài
It’s always during Tết that we wear an áo dài. An áo dài is a combination of a tunic and pants. Men and women both wear it. Red and yellow are the typical colors to wear during Tết because it symbolizes good fortune and good luck. Other lively colors and prints can also be worn to symbolize the spring season too. Designs have changed much over the years with rounded collars and stretchy fabric as well as more beading, prints, and colors. We plan to share our selected outfits this year on our social media accounts. Lookout on February 1st for our posts with our selection this year!
Because of the resources and the community we have in the Bay Area, we have been very fortunate to have celebrated these important aspects of Tết together. We are also very fortunate that Mẹ guides us through these traditions to ensure we know this part of our Vietnamese heritage. For us, Tết has and always included the gifts at the altar for our ancestors, loud firecrackers, festive dragon/lion dances, thoughtful new year’s greetings, gifting/receiving of lì xì, and dressing in an áo dài. We look forward to it every year and as part of our story boarding for Growing up Nguyen, we plan to share more about our celebration this year on Facebook and Instagram so be sure to follow us for the latest news!
As always, thank you for listening. We look forward to sharing more about our experiences of Growing Up Nguyen in the next quarterly newsletter. If there’s anything you’d for us to share, please comment below or DM us on Instagram and/or Facebook. Our stories are for us -- and for you, too.
Chức các bạn một ngày tốt lành.
Hương, Karin Hạnh, Hedda Hiếu, and Benjamin Hoàng
Growing Up Nguyễn is a story of four siblings holding onto our identity while fulfilling our parents’ dreams: the blessings and challenges of being Nguyễn in America.