Combine Thanksgiving, Easter, Christmas and New Year’s Day into one mega-holiday, and you have Tết, the Vietnamese celebration of the Lunar New Year. While the main event is marked by a four-day national public holiday, preparations are underway as early as two months prior to the new year and the festive mood lasts for 15 more days. For the Vietnamese diaspora in Canada, Tết is a resilient force that connects them to their roots.
“I’ve been in Canada for 15 years and I haven’t missed one Tết,” says Kim Oanh Lam, who runs the YouTube cooking channel Kim Oanh Canada from her home in Cambridge, ON.
Preserving Vietnamese traditions, she starts her preparations on the 23rd of lunar December by sending the Kitchen God to report family affairs to the Jade Emperor, an almighty deity that looks after the universe. According to folklore, a proper send-off will bring the family blessings and promise a year of smooth-sailing ahead.
On the following days, she stocks up on food and cooks up a big feast that includes Tết staples, such as thịt kho (pork belly and eggs stewed in coconut water) and canh khổ qua hầm (stuffed bitter melon soup). These dishes are prepared to feed the family and its guests during the first three days of the new year, when people are encouraged not to cook. More importantly, they are also offered on the altar to the ancestors.
“The food and fruit platter displayed on the altar during the first three days of Tet show gratitude from the descendants to their ancestors,” says Abbot Thich Tam Hoa, who heads Phap Van Vietnamese Buddhist Cultural Centre of Ontario (or Phap Van Temple). The Abbot notes it is a very important ceremony, a bridge that connects the living and the dead.
“It allows us to feel that our ancestors have returned to enjoy the holiday with us.”
As Lam cooks and decorates her home, she also shares the meaning of the holiday with her two children, aged 10 and 14, who have never experienced Tet in Vietnam. “I tell them stories about hoa mai (yellow apricot flowers), hoa đào (cherry blossoms) and the meaning of mâm ngũ quả (five-fruit platter),” she explains. “Tet is our version of ‘Happy New Year,’ but our celebration lasts three days, not one.”
Yellow apricot flowers brighten up every Southern Vietnamese home during Tet, and in the North, cherry blossoms are a common sight. Despite the difference in color, they both symbolize renewal and prosperity. Sprouting from trees that look barren and lifeless throughout the year, the buds burst into bloom just at the right time for Tết.
Picking up a yellow apricot tree was a bonding activity for Huy Tran and his father. Tran came to Canada when he was 17 years old for his undergrad education and he is now a marketing manager for a restaurant group in Toronto.
“Every year, we would go out on the 27th [of lunar December] and bring home a new, yellow apricot tree for the family to decorate. We chose the tree based on its roots and branches. [If they are shaped in a particular way], the tree will bring longevity and prosperity.”
Long Nguyen, an IT manager in Milton, Ont., was taught by his mother that Tet brings hope for a better year to come. Born and raised in Canada, Nguyen only knows Tet is coming when his mother says so. That’s when they start cleaning the house.
According to Nguyen’s mother, “You have to start the new year after cleaning and brushing out the old dust and problems from the previous year. For the first day, you must make sure the house is clean.”
Nguyen loves the “soul-warming food” his mother cooks for the family during this holiday. One of his favourites is bánh tét, a cylindrical glutinous rice cake filled with pork belly and mung beans. Usually, Nguyen’s family invites friends over for a karaoke session, but because of the pandemic, this activity is cancelled.
Food, family and friends are crucial aspects of Tracy Duong’s Tet celebrations. “We just get together, have fun and cook a lot,” she says.
In her Chinese-Vietnamese household in Vancouver, Tết means receiving lì xì (lucky money in red envelopes), watching múa lân (lion dance) in Chinatown, and playing mahjong and bầu cua (a Vietnamese Bingo-like game). There are dumplings and noodles for longevity, but there is also thịt kho made with either Coke or Coco Rico (a coconut soda) bubbling on the stove.
“My parents were both young when they came to Canada, so our family doesn’t have any fixed, typical traditions,” she says with a laugh. “We kind of make them up as we go along.”
Duong’s connection to Vietnamese culture and Tet is around food. The family’s personal mission during the holiday is to make as many dishes from scratch as possible including desserts such as chè đậu trắng (black-eye bean sweet soup) and rau câu lá dứa (pandan-flavored jelly).
Another common activity is visiting pagodas or temples, even for those who are not religious. In non-COVID times, around 5,000 people gather at Phap Van Temple in Mississauga on the first day of Tet to pray, seek blessings and carry them home in the form of a mandarin orange or a piece of red paper imprinted with words of wisdom from the Buddha.
Founded in 2001, Phap Van Temple has since become a household name. The Abbot, Thich Tam Hoa, received the Diamond Jubilee Medal in 2013 for his contributions to the community and efforts in preserving Vietnamese heritage. A few years ago, he helped set up the iconic Chua Mot Cot (One-Pillar Pagoda) at the annual Tet Festival organized by the Vietnamese Association in Toronto, so people could learn about the country’s culture and history.
To Heidi Dao, events like these bring great joy. She recalls being homesick during her first Tet in New Brunswick but feeling much better when attending a gathering by the relatively small Vietnamese community there, where “everyone connected over food, music and games.” Dao is now celebrating Tet in Toronto with her husband and two daughters.
At the time of writing, Ontario has entered the second stage of emergency in its battle with Covid-19. The annual Tet festival will go virtual and many family gatherings are smaller or even cancelled.
Tran, who hasn’t been able to spend Tet in person with his family for the past few years, is well-adapted to such low-key affairs. To embrace the festive mood, he always makes sure he has thịt kho and bánh chưng (bánh tét’s cousin in a square form).
“I’m a big food person…so I’m just going to focus my energy on food and facetime my parents to wish them happy new year,” he says.
Unlike the month-long festivities in Vietnam, Tết abroad is celebrated with little fanfare. While some traditions and rituals are lost or simplified as time progresses, new ones have sprung up too. Nguyen’s annual karaoke session will resume next year, as Duong’s family tackles another cooking project. Lam’s children will decorate their homes with yellow apricot flowers one day and tell their own children the stories of the five-fruit platter.
In the end, it all boils down to the holiday’s essence: gratitude, hope and togetherness. “Tet is for families and relatives, a time when troubles and worries are forgotten. I’d like my daughters to know how warm and cozy New Year’s Eve feels when everyone gathers,” Dao said. “It’s an irreplaceable sacred moment.”
This post is also available in: Tiếng Việt