What is Tết Nguyên Đán?
Tết has a very special meaning to all Vietnamese people. It is the time of year when family members return to their hometowns, visit relatives, sing together, and relax after a hardworking year. If you have the opportunity to visit Vietnam during the Tết holiday, this is a festive holiday you don’t want to miss!
How do people traditionally celebrate?
Vietnamese people begin their preparations well in advance for the upcoming New Year. It starts with an event called “Chụp mã,” where people spend a few days cleaning their homes, the gravestones of ancestors, and the ancestral altar. They polish every utensil, then invite nearby friends and families to celebrate with a feast and religious rituals. People begin to shop for things like kumquat trees, branches of peach blossoms, and many other colorful flowers such as Hoa Mai to decorate the homes.
The marketplace is an especially fun and exciting place to visit during this holiday because fresh and luscious fruits, candies, and gifts are on beautiful displays to attract customers from near and far. Every household buys votive paper clothing and accessories for the ancestors along with many other purchases, such as new clothes like áo dài and shoes to wear on the first day of New Year.
Workers are given end-of-the-year money in red envelopes as they try to pay off debts and resolve all arguments among their colleagues, friends or family members. Children who have left home for jobs send money home to their parents as a way to show gratitude. Young children get red envelopes with money inside from family members and close family friends.
Which foods are traditionally eaten during Tết?
Weeks before the New Year, you can see scallions and carrots being dried in the heat on the streets as people get ready to make pickled onions and pickled carrots. Xôi Gấc (red sticky rice) is also commonly used in cooking at this time because the color red means good luck. Among the savory dishes are sweet treats such as Mức (colorful roasted, sweetened coconuts), mức gừng (sweetened roasted ginger), and bánh thuẫn (steamed cake). The most popular finger snacks are roasted nuts and watermelon seeds.
How did your family celebrate Tết in Vietnam?
When I was growing up, New Year’s Eve included firecrackers and fireworks. Now it is celebrated with just fireworks [firecrackers are banned in Vietnam] as families gather around eating Bánh chưng/Bánh tét (sticky rice cakes in a square shape).
When our family lived in Vietnam in 2017-2019, it was our very favorite time of year and our children loved getting red envelopes as we served up big meals over the two-week period.
How does your family celebrate Tết now that you’ve moved back to Issaquah Highlands?
We decorate our house and usually have family come to bring the spirit of the holiday. This year, my sisters and parents are coming into town. We also go to the Vietnamese Tết celebration in Seattle to see the lion dance performances at the Seattle Center.
Photo: Thuan’s sons celebrate Tết when the Stevens family lived in Vietnam in 2018.