I’ve celebrated Vietnamese new year every year of my life. Tết, as we call it, is the most festive time of year for Vietnamese people all over the world. It’s a time to start anew, honor ancestors and welcome spring, according to the Vietnamese lunar calendar.
My childhood Tết memories in Olympia are from the gym at St. Michael’s School, as well as the community center downtown. The local Vietnamese community would put on a cultural show filled with music and dance, and my parents were often on the program as singers/musicians. I always loved watching them perform, my mom singing a traditional song dressed in an áo dài or my dad playing the guitar. I felt like the coolest kid in town because those two talented and beautiful people gracing the stage were my parents! Below is my mother in red, performing with her friends last year.
As an adult, my sister would become quite the performer too, even spending three years traveling the world as a Vietnamese pop singer. I was her biggest fan at the annual Tết festival in Orange County. (Sadly, I didn’t inherit the entertainment gene. But I made a damn good audience member!)
Of course there’s much more to Tết than music. There’s lì xì (lucky money handed out in red envelopes). There’s the dragon dance. There’s ancestor worshiping. Carnivals and fireworks.
We eat foods like bánh chưng (sticky rice, mung bean & pork meat wrapped in a special type of leaf) and thịt kho nước dừa (a fatty pork and medium boiled egg dish stewed for hours in coconut juice and fish sauce). The latter, in fact, my mother makes for me every time I come home whether it’s Tết or not – it’s one of my fave Vietnamese dishes!
This is the first time I’ve experienced Tết in all its glory in Vietnam. The weeks leading up to the big day remind me of the Christmas holiday season in America. Everyone is out shopping for gifts, streets are lit up with dazzling lights, people spend hours preparing special foods.
Only, it’s a time to welcome spring instead of winter, so flowers are in full bloom. I saw these two the most:
The yellow ones (Hoa Mai) are especially important, as they symbolize luck and fortune. Most households time the watering of these plants so that the first flower blooms from the bare branches on exactly new year’s day. And they often adorn the tree with red “lucky money” envelopes.
On the day of Tết (which was February 3 this year), the whole country pretty much shuts down for about a week. Everyone disappears to their hometowns and celebrates with their extended families.
Too bad for tourists thinking it’d be fun to visit during this joyous season – it’s really not fun for them at all! Save for a few hotels and travel agencies, everything is CLOSED.
The rest of us have journeyed out of the city to be with our families.
For me, that meant visiting my father’s side of the family in Kim Long for a few days. Then taking what felt like a pilgrimage to my mother’s side of the family in Gò Công for a few days as well.
The highlights for me were living the simple life in the countryside surrounded by family and coconut trees, and seeing dragon dances pop up everywhere! I’ve seen a whole lotta dragon dances in my day, but it’s so much better in Vietnam when performed by martial artists who jump ridiculously high! And it’s so much more entertaining when they’re going from house to house on dirt roads, rather than on a familiar stage. There’s something really special and energizing about it.
I became rather obsessed with dragon dances while I was out there. Every day, I could hear the drums pounding away in the distance, as some lucky household was being entertained. I’d run out into the street and over to random people’s houses if I knew a dragon dance was nearby. Those drums really got me going and I’d start dancing around like a maniac, scrambling to find lucky money so I could be a part of the show!
Dragon dancers were often seen driving around the dirt roads of the village, in search of houses with lucky money dangling in the doorways, which is a known invitation for dragon dancers:
Here are some children watching a dragon dance at my aunt’s neighbor’s house.
Hello, moonface monk man.
After making this dancer chase me around for lì xì, I somehow ended up inside the dragon’s head!
My cousin’s baby girl showing off her green áo dài, donning a nón lá – and apparently eating her lucky money…or is it yummy money?
Street lights in Nha Trang, brought to you by Tiger Beer (who else?).
Dragon dancer smiling with relief after a show in Nha Trang – dragon dances really take the wind out of em.
Me and another dragon head – I was totally obsessed! They’re freaking awesome. I want one.
Lì Xì / Lucky Money
And one last dragon dance.
I could watch dragon dances forever. A part of me dies every time the drums stop. Who knew! Overall, my first Tết in Vietnam was filled with great memories and a truly joyous spirit. Happy year of the dragon dance, everyone! Errr, I mean, kitty cat!