As urbanization increases and more people are moving to the cities and abroad, some of the traditions are dying out
Despite the broad-ranging changes that have occurred in Vietnamese society over the last quarter century, there’s a distinct air of reverence for the Tet festival that’s hard to miss if you happen to be here during the holiday season. Ho Chi Minh City clears out as the Vietnamese New Year approaches and its migrant population heads back into the rural heartland for the annual homecoming; out there in the countryside, the old ceremonies you read about in overzealous guides to Vietnamese culture do indeed take place. For many modern local families, however, improved lifestyles have weakened the traditional hold of the national holiday, and many wonder if Tet isn’t now beginning to unravel on its path toward becoming a commercialized caricature of itself.
This is something that, as an outsider, seems very familiar— Christmas, after all, has been through its own change of character in recent decades. The yuletide season is a tiresome performance for many Westerners; a day when you can’t get any work done, when you’re obliged to visit your estranged parents, where family get-togethers have devolved into one stressful and largely disappointing gift-unwrapping session before everyone spends the rest of the day staring into their smartphones. Something similar is happening with Tet— the same social forces of modernity that had their way with Christmas are perhaps now an encroaching influence on the fringes of Vietnamese society—the urban and Overseas Vietnamese people in particular—which leaves one to ponder how the festival will be marked a generation from now.
For sales and marketing specialist Pham Tra My, parenthood has presented her with an experience of the Tet holiday that greatly varies from the traditions of her childhood. Despite her intention to recreate some of the magic of Tet for her sons, she feels she has been unsuccessful in delivering the atmosphere she remembers from years past.
“As a child, the Tet holiday was all about having new clothes, seeing all the family members together at our grandparents’ house, and cooking together,” she remembers. “We had meals together for two or three days, shared what happened in the previous year, and made plans for the new one. So many things are missing now. In the past, on the evening before the Tet holiday came, we would gather during the night to cook and make banh trung, the traditional Tet foods and cakes. But now we can get everything in the market, so we just buy it and sleep instead. In the past, we didn’t really sleep on the night of the New Year. We waited up together, it was very exciting. The grandparents would tell stories. Now, to be fair, my boys are happy to do some small things with the family, but then they have TV, they have games—they have other things that attract them more.”
Local parent Tran Xuan Mai, who now lives in Canada with her Taiwanese husband, has observed similar changes in the way Tet is celebrated. “Every time we would prepare for the Tet holiday, we would buy a lot of flowers, especially hoa mai, the flower you can’t miss during Tet,” she recalls. “I remember from my childhood that the Tet holiday was very crowded—we’d light fireworks and everything, but after a few years, that was abandoned. Before, you could buy Roman candles and let them off yourself, it was a lot of fun. Tet isn’t so much fun anymore.”
Born to an ethnic Chinese immigrant family, Mai’s experience of Tet was slightly different to that of the Vietnamese, although her parents very consciously adapted their observance of the Chinese Spring Festival to involve local elements. “It wasn’t exactly the same, but quite similar,” she says. “We followed the Chinese tradition; most of my friends just went home to the countryside to spend time with their family and relatives. Here, because we don’t have any relatives, we would just stay with our own family. Most of the things we ate were similar to the Vietnamese tradition, like thit kho and some sweets. My family kept up the tradition of blessing the parents and receiving a red pocket. I’m not sure if the Vietnamese do it exactly like we did.”
Since moving to Canada, where she is not strongly involved in local Vietnamese communities, Mai has almost abandoned the Tet of her childhood. “We don’t have a day off on that day,” she explains. “I just go to a Chinese market and buy some traditional food to cook at home. We still have family, my in-laws, and we do go there to have dinner together. Before when I lived with my parents’ friends, they did celebrate, but after I moved out, I rarely did anything—we’re too busy with our own lives.”
For Vietnamese people growing up in foreign lands, the traditions of Tet are usually something experienced secondhand. German-raised Jen Nguyen spent a childhood in which her immigrant parents were very mindful of blending in with local habits. “We adapted to the traditions of Germany,” she explains. “For example, we do celebrate Christmas, even though we’re not Christians. We do all the holidays that Germany does. My brother and I also wanted to do the things that other children did. So instead of only sticking to our Vietnamese traditions, our parents were also open to those of Germany.”
Such a cultural compromise wasn’t made easily on the part of Jen’s parents. Her mother Nguyen Thi Yen remembers the difficult early years when Tet was the one celebration that connected the family to their Vietnamese roots. Purchasing traditional foods like the banh trung in Asian stores in Germany’s larger cities, they would hold simple ceremonies before their family altar at home, while in the absence of Vietnamese friends living nearby, they would attempt to share the festivities with the German people.
“My parents had a small restaurant,” remembers Jen, “and for the Tet holiday, even though most Germans don’t even know what it is, they would give them some small present. We would give them fortune cookies, or an extra dessert for example, just for my parents to celebrate that day.”
For lawyer/entrepreneur Khanh Nguyen, things were a little more festive during his childhood in the US. His family’s observance of Tet was uniquely significant, as it was the anniversary of when they left Vung Tau by boat back in 1981. Although the Vietnamese community where he grew up in North Carolina wasn’t large, Tet was the time when everyone would gather together at a local community hall for a single night of celebration.
“My earliest memory is maybe six or seven years old,” says Khanh, “of running around, the dragon dancers, you had the fireworks—because back then fireworks weren’t an issue—you had live music. I always remember my dad getting on stage and singing. Food everywhere. I don’t remember the ceremonial side to Tet, I didn’t see the offerings— maybe that was done at home before the big party. All the families would come out there and it’d be buffet, food everywhere, just kids, family, everyone having a good time.”
It was only after returning to Vietnam and taking a local bride that Khanh began to understand the larger implications of the Tet holiday as he began to experience the way it is held in the motherland. “Being in Vietnam, it’s almost unavoidable to be a part of it,” he smiles, “and it’s cool, because I like it. Everybody’s always in a happy mood. There’s a lot of feeding, a lot of gambling, a lot of new friends. It takes on more significance because you start realizing that this is Vietnam’s equivalent of Thanksgiving and Christmas in the US. The feeling that a spring is coming, the buying of new clothes, the giving of money to little kids, presents, photos, family gatherings, friends’ gatherings. It’s the exact same feeling from Thanksgiving to Christmas in the US, where once the holiday comes around, everybody is in that festive mood. So I understand the concept of having an ending and a beginning, a new year, and spending that time with close people, friends and family, and the drinking and the partying and the eating. Plus the buying of new stuff. Almost like a new beginning.”
“I don’t have any cynicism towards it,” he says, pondering observations that the holiday has lost some of its authenticity. “It’s part of the Vietnamese culture, the thinking, the way they grew up. It’s almost as though it’s something for people to look forward to, so that they can get their mindset right about what happened during the past year, and was it good or bad; what is going to happen in this new year, and is it going to be good or bad? That being said, I know a lot of Overseas Vietnamese do have issues with it, because even though it has no bearing on anything else other than as a holiday to celebrate, they associate it with being Vietnamese, and that’s not who they are anymore.”
The Tet holiday may continue to evolve and mean different things to different Vietnamese communities, but the roles of both Christmas and Tet as a focus for family sentiment remains consistent. “If it weren’t for my wife’s family or even being in Vietnam, I would view Tet as just another day where people take off and celebrate,” admits Khanh. “I guess being an entrepreneur, all my days run together anyway. That being said, when Christmas rolls around, when Thanksgiving rolls around, that feeling like, “where are my friends, where is my family” comes back, and I’m missing those guys, missing the turkey, the food, the football, the cold weather.
Jen Nguyen’s mother in Germany had a similar sense of nostalgia as her family began to make the transition over to Christmas. “My mother said that Christmas was almost the same feeling for her,” tells Jen, “but Christmas did not replace Tet, because tradition was not at the center. Those old Tet holidays when she would call her parents before dressing very nicely and going out on the streets to watch the fireworks or go to the temple, all these things she was missing, which cannot be replaced by the Christmas holidays.”
Xuan Mai is philosophical about the difficulties in holding a traditional Tet in Canada. “Before when I lived in Saigon, my parents did everything,” she says, “but now I live apart from them, I don’t know exactly how to prepare for Tet. At home we still keep up the traditions, but overseas it’s hard. If you live with the older generation, they always try to preserve it, but for younger people it’s not so easy. Now that I have a son, I want him to know more about the Vietnamese traditions, but it’s hard because life has changed, people change. A lot of Vietnamese still do go back during Tet to spend time with the family—but it all depends on the family culture you grew up in.
For Tra My, however, the old traditional Tet has largely faded away, its meaning revised in the light of adulthood in general as well as Vietnam’s exposure to international ideas. “It’s more like just the holidays than Tet,” she sighs. “I see a lot of families now in HCMC, they spend the first day here and then on the second day they will go travel somewhere. It’s not about Tet anymore.”
While she feels the old traditions she remembers from childhood are important, she does acknowledge that modern life has made the whole rigmarole a little cumbersome. “It’s a hassle, definitely,” she admits. “We just worry about, will our kids be the same in the next 20 years? Will Tet be the same? At that time, we’ll be old, and we, like our parents now, will expect the children to come back during the Tet holidays and spend some time with us. But I don’t think they will, and honestly, I understand how hard it is. I just want them to enjoy life— I’m traditional, but if it makes them tired, then what is the point?”