(AsAmNews is running a series of stories on Lunar New Year. Earlier this week we ran a story on a third generation Chinese American and the importance of Chinese New Year’s to his family. Early next week we will run a Korean American’s observations on Korean New Year’s. Today, we hear from Sang Nguyen, a second generation Vietnamese American and his thoughts on the Vietnamese New Year or Tet. )
Tell us a little about yourself and your family, Sang. What generation are
you? Where did your first family members immigrate from? What are you
I am a second generation Vietnamese American. My parents left Vietnam as
boat people in 1979. My mother and older brother spent two weeks at sea
and ended up in a refugee camp in Malaysia. My father and sister spent three
weeks at sea and landed in Indonesia. Both of my parents were sponsored
into the United States by a Catholic charity. My mother wound up in
Houston while my father ended up in Minneapolis. It took several months for them
to figure out where the other had gone but were finally reunited in 1980. I
was born 9 months later.
Our family relocated from Minnesota to the Bay Area in 1981, joining many
other immigrant families who came in search of warmer weather and a job in
the tech industry. My parents had two more children and raised us in San
I currently live in San Francisco with my wife and am working as a deputy
public defender in Napa County. (pictured)
For those unfamiliar with Tet, what is it?
Tet is a celebration of the Lunar New Year. For Vietnamese people, it is
the most important holiday of the year and a period where families come
together, share meals, and give well wishes to each other in anticipation
of the year to come.
What traditions do you and your family currently follow for Tet?
Tet sets the tone for the whole year. Accordingly, everything must be
perfectly prepared in advance of the celebration. The house needs to be
squeaky clean, grudges are squashed, and all lingering debts must be
settled. Superstitions must be strictly adhered to in order to avoid bad
juju for the rest of the year.
It is also a time to celebrate abundance — which means we gorge for four
days. In addition to the usual Vietnamese fare such as crispy roast pork
and colorful sweet rice, visitors would bear gifts of candied shaved
coconut, daikon, ginger and dried persimmons. Of course, it would not be
Tet without some Banh Chung (a traditional cake made of sticky rice, pork,
and mung bean wrapped in banana leaves). I like to eat it fried with honey
and pickled shallots.
Unfortunately, since I got married recently, I am no longer eligible to
receive Li Xi (little red envelopes). This is probably the most
anticipated Tet tradition. Children and unmarried adults are required to greet their
elders with wishes of health, prosperity, and fortune before receiving
these envelopes. They are filled with crisp, new money or sometimes
lottery tickets. As kids, we used this money to gamble (another Vietnamese
tradition – I know, shocking) or buy firecrackers.
“American New Year” was just the time we were allowed to stay up, count
down, and stay home from school. It paled in comparison to Tet, which
lasts for four days and is filled with fun and excitement. Tet also marks the
changing of the zodiac animal for the year. Each zodiac animal has unique
qualities and attributes and therefore each year will be unique and
different from the years before. It that sense, Tet is truly embraced as a
new beginning for Vietnamese people. (Sang Nguyen pictured in the upper right in this 1990 photo with the dance troupe Van Nghe)
What are your best memories of Tet?
Each year in the weeks leading up to Tet, my uncles and aunts would gather
at our house to prepare Banh Chung together. The process to make this
great food stuff was all consuming: we’d make a hundred or more. First, the
sticky rice and mung bean needs to be soaked in warm water in order to
soften. Then the pork shoulder is cut up into cubes and marinated. A
square, wooden mold is lined with large banana leaves and filled with a
layer of rice followed by the meat and mung bean. A final layer of rice
goes on top and then the banana leaf is wrapped around before the whole
thing is wrapped in foil.
The best part about making Banh Chung is that our family steamed them in a
humungous metal pot over an open flame which we maintained for several
days in the backyard. My siblings and I would gather around the campfire, roast
marshmallows and light firecrackers.
Once the Banh Chung were cooked and cooled, they were removed from the
foil, wrapped in saran wrap, and tied with bright read twine. We would
then visit all of our friends and relatives bearing these cakes as gifts. Of
course, my siblings and I were always anxious to see some Li Xi in return
for our labor.
Do you anticipate the next generation of your family will continue to
follow the traditions of Tet?
Yes, that’s why it’s called tradition! My wife is actually Filipino, but
she has fully embraced Tet. We certainly plan to continue on these
traditions when our daughter is born. I think it helps us reflect upon the
importance of family and connect us to our heritage.
Are the traditions of Tet in Vietnam different from those followed by
I’ve never been to Vietnam during Tet. My understanding is that they take
a whole month off to party. That’s one area where we in America need to
Is there anything you’d like to add that I haven’t asked?
Just this: TET IS NOT CHINESE NEW YEAR.