Tet: Past and Presents

The history and traditions of Vietnamese New Year.
Story Candice Harvey

Vietnamese tradition celebrates the unicorn as a being that brings happiness, peace and prosperity. A Lunar New Year parade featuring a dancing unicorn draws hundreds of onlookers as it glides through the streets of Ho Chi Minh City, which is commonly known as Saigon. It is Tet Nguyen Dan, or Tet for short, the celebration of Vietnamese New Year.

Tet occurs on the first full moon after January 20th and lasts for three to ten days. Many of these days are spent preparing special luxury foods as family and friends unite to feast, dance and honour their ancestors.

Vietnamese Canadian Vicki Le has been celebrating Tet with her family in Vancouver for the past 20 years. She takes pride in her traditions. She lays an altar complete with rice pudding, flowers, long candles, and incense in the centre of her living room. A bottle of white wine is traditionally placed on the altar, too. “It doesn’t matter how rich or poor you are, you have to put wine on the altar to worship the ancestors,” explains Le.

Gift giving is another important part of the Tet celebration. Common gifts are candied ginger, tea, fruits, flowers, and Li Xing, special red envelopes of money reserved for children. In contrast to the western style of gift giving, the Vietnamese preference is not to open gifts in front of the giver, but rather to wait for a private moment to relish the opening.

In a city as culturally diverse as Vancouver, the Vietnamese find it important to keep family traditions alive. Though their community may be small, their Tet celebrations are anything but.