As I write this, I’m currently sitting in my grandmother’s pastel green living room couch. I came home for Tết, or Vietnamese New Year, to celebrate with my family. This year is the year of the Horse. So those whose zodiac sign is the horse, expect a lot of luck coming your way this year. Tết celebrations can be divided into three parts: before New Year’s Eve, New Year’s Eve and New Year’s Day.
When I was younger, I looked forward to Tết because there would be special foods that my grandmother would make and receive lì xì, red envelope money. Common Vietnamese food to prepare and eat during the New Year are Bánh Chưng or Bánh Tét, or sticky rice cakes. But these are not a dessert food; they’re savory and made by tightly wrapping sticky rice filled with mung bean and pork in banana leaves. Bánh Tét is shaped like a rectangle, while Bánh Chưng is shaped like a square. There is some symbolism behind those shapes, but for our purposes, you just need to know that they are delicious.
Typically my family also eats dưa món, pickled carrots and radish in fish sauce, with the sticky rice cakes. Recipes differ from family to family, and my grandmother likes to make hers with carrots, radish, green papaya, ginger, garlic and red chilis. She knows I can’t stand the taste of pickled ginger, so she makes jars without the ginger and extra green papaya for me. Dưa món can be time consuming to make because the vegetables need to be air dried and the pickling process takes about one week. But the pickled flavor is unlike the pickles we eat with hot dogs; it’s a combination of sweet and salty that is unique from the fish sauce and the vegetables are crunchier.
Tết isn’t all about the food, although food is a big part of the celebration. There are New Year greetings or sayings we say to family and friends to wish them a year full of luck, prosperity and health. My grandmother also makes offerings to different gods; I know one of them is the Kitchen God or Ông Táo. She prepares dishes and places them in a special place in her kitchen and by the altar, where she displays photos of my late grandfather and great-grandparents. During Tết whenever we place some sort of offering on the altar, like tea, flowers or fruits, we bow and ask our ancestors to accept those offerings. It’s also important to hold incense sticks and bow to our ancestors and ask for their blessings for the New Year.
I always thought these rituals seemed superstitious and strange when I was younger. I felt as if I just had to go through the motions and didn’t quite understand the deeper meaning behind these traditions. Since most of my family now lives in America, I’ve developed a better appreciation for these traditions and how they connect us back to Vietnam. The different customs, such as cleaning the home before the New Year and never bickering on New Year’s Day, are preserved in my family to keep our Vietnamese identity intact despite our distance from the homeland. We’ve adapted many of the customs, and merged them with American holidays such as Thanksgiving and Christmas, where we still place offerings at the altar and ask our ancestors for their protection.
On a final note, Lunar New Year is my favorite holiday, because who doesn’t want to celebrate New Year’s twice, this second time with better food (I haven’t encountered any unique American dishes for the New Year, sorry USA) and better decorations (red and gold just goes together).
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