The Lunar New Year ‘Tet” is the biggest Vietnamese holiday. Celebrants prepare their home by cleaning and organizing, cooking traditional foods, getting a haircut and being with family–just to name a few. These customs are very similar to the Chinese New Year, but there are some slight differences.
“When I was in Vietnam, we would go out to the night market to buy candy, treats and a mandarin tree, which is similar to a Christmas tree. We would hang red envelopes on it and my family would play maj-jong,” said Allen Luong (Photo of Allen & his brother William).
Red envelopes, “hong bao,” are filled with money and given as gifts to the young and unmarried.
The mandarin tree that Luong spoke of is an ornamental Lunar New Year tree, a tradition I never heard of. In my internet research, a Lunar New Year tree is a Vietnamese tradition . However, my non-scientific poll on Facebook found a very small number of Chinese had one too. The tree is usually a fruit tree, such as a mandarin, kumquat or a peach blossom and decorated with red envelopes. One Facebook friend said his family used their houseplants instead of a fruit tree. Another said they bought their mandarin tree from Costco. Some may choose to use flowering branches in a vase in place of a Lunar New Year tree. Many, like me, were unfamiliar with the custom.
The night markets in Vietnam are flea markets with vendors selling many different things. Luong said that is where his family would purchase their ornamental tree. Days leading up to Tet, the markets would be stocked with special holiday items such as dried flowers and candy. Parents would also purchase new clothes or shoes for their children. The night markets were especially busy in the evening as the air was much cooler.
Luong now lives in Long Island, NY. He immigrated to the US in his teens and is half Vietnamese and Chinese. When he was still a young boy, Lunar New Year was celebrated with big family dinners. He agreed with me that it was inevitable that some of the traditions would be lost or forgotten as time went by. He doesn’t celebrate it as much as he used to now that his children are grown and most of his family now lives on the West Coast.
I asked him if he was aware of any similar night markets in the New York City area, but he was not. Night markets are popular on the West Coast where more Vietnamese communities are concentrated and the weather is much warmer for such a venue.
Bayside, New York resident Thuy Buist was only six years old when she left Vietnam.
“We call it Chinese New Year,” but Buist’s young children constantly remind her, “We are not Chinese.”
“We had a huge family so it was always a lot of fun during the new year. We had lots of food and liked getting red envelopes, “ she told me.
Her mother still makes a traditional Tet dish called “banh chung.” It is made of sticky rice, mung bean with a piece of pork wrapped in banana leaves. She also makes dough dumplings with ginger syrup. Other foods may include soups and vegetarians dishes.
At her home you’ll soon find Buist putting out the “tray of togetherness” which has eight compartments representing prosperity. Each compartment is filled with different candy and other sweets. Buist follows the Chinese tradition in cleaning and decorating her home, and takes her children to see the lion dance. She also gets a haircut before the new year, because according to legend this may save a life! The legend says that a haircut during the first month of the Lunar New Year may cause death to a maternal uncle. Such traditions and superstitions are many and details are extensive, so I won’t be covering them here.
Rebecca Nguyen, another Bayside resident, begins cooking a few days before the holiday.
“I cook almost eight to ten hours a day before the New Year. Then on the first day (of the New Year) I go to my Buddhist temple in Chinatown. We pray there and share a sweet home made dish with friends at the temple,” Nguyen said.
Anthony Ngo of Stamford, CT says “It’s not much different. We celebrate it just like the Chinese and buy lots of food to cook. We buy lots of fish and marinate it for the next new year. It’s called “Nan Nan Joe Yue.” (That’s my rough translation.)
Is 2015 year of the sheep, ram or goat? According to the Chinese calendar, 2015 is the year of the sheep or ram. Either animal is fine, but to the Vietnamese it is year of the goat.
In Chinese, sheep and goat share the same character, but the Vietnamese have two separate characters for each animal. According to what I’ve learned, a choice had to be made and thus, the Vietnamese now call it year of the goat. You can find a better explanation here.
You are calm, shy, gentle and kind-hearted if you were born in the year of the sheep. Does that describe you? Find your Chinese horoscope here.
No matter how you celebrate the Lunar New Year, celebrating with family and friends is always best. Happy Lunar New Year to all of our readers.
(Photo of money tree by: “Hoa mai” by Original uploader was Nhanvo at vi.wikipediaLater version(s) were uploaded by Lưu Ly, Casablanca1911, Tdangkhoa at vi.wikipedia. – Transferred from vi.wikipedia; transferred to Commons by User:Common Good using CommonsHelper.. Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons – http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Hoa_mai.jpg#mediaviewer/File:Hoa_mai.jpg)
(Photo of banh chung by: “Banh tay” by GFDL. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons – http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Banh_tay.jpg#mediaviewer/File:Banh_tay.jpg)