What Têt, the Vietnamese New Year, Means to Me

PHOTO: THINKSTOCK/ AARONDF2003

Happy New Year! I know it’s early February, but for those of us who celebrate Têt, the merriments have just come to a close. Têt is the most celebrated holiday in Vietnamese culture that rings in the beginning of the new year.  This differs from Western culture in that our new year starts with the first full moon of the new year. This year’s Vietnamese New Year started on January 28th.

I’ve shared a few family Têt recipes in the past, including Banh Têt and Che Dau Trang, with Stone Soup readers, but this year I wanted to share a little more on the traditions and happenings around the holiday itself. As I mentioned, Têt arguably is the most anticipated Vietnamese holiday and families prepare greatly for its arrival. This includes cooking and cleaning in the days leading up to the start of Têt. Most families continue the celebrations anywhere from one day up to a full week, so everything is done prior to the start of Têt so as not to interrupt the good times.

As I think back to childhood memories, Têt revelries immediately stick out to me. From the loud firecrackers to playing “Uncle Bao” to the red envelopes, Têt is a lively and joyful time. Aside from partying, everyone is on their best behavior to ensure the new year is ushered in with health, wealth and happiness.

As kids, we grew up in a part of Florida with a large Vietnamese population, so we would have a family meal together before heading out to partake in local Têt festivals. Our grandmother lived close by and would spend days putting together a decadent meal featuring all our favorite Vietnamese dishes.

Before leaving to watch the captivating dragon dances and firecrackers, we would gather around my uncle as he held out red envelopes for us to choose from. The red envelopes would be filled with money, but most importantly, symbolize the theme of Têt: happiness, luck and celebration. We’d also use any change we brought with us to play the new year game, Bầu cua cá cọp (squash, crab, fish, tiger). As the actual name for the game and one of our uncles is similar, we called this game Uncle Bao. It’s a dice game that involves placing bets on which animal we think will appear on the rolled dice. It’s a fun and addictive way to pass the time during Têt.

As my grandmother has now passed away, we often recall Têt memories as some of our favorite, since she gave it her all to make it such an enjoyable holiday for us. We’ve carried on the recipes she taught us, with a few modern twists I think would please her. I think it’s important to embrace these cultural celebrations because it’s a great way to share a piece of yourself with others.

Do you celebrate Têt? If so, I’d love to hear if any of our family’s traditions rang true in your home, too. If not, what are some of your favorite new year memories with your family? Thanks for reading and I wish you all a Chúc Mừng Năm Mới (Happy New Year) in 2017! 

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Tessa Nguyen, RD, LDN
Tessa Nguyen, RD, LDN, is a chef and registered dietitian working in the Triangle area of North Carolina. She is an alumna of Johnson & Wales University and Meredith College. When Tessa isn't traveling and discovering new restaurants, she teaches culinary nutrition cooking classes at Duke and works as a consultant in the food and nutrition industries. Connect with her at Taste Nutrition Consulting and follow her on Instagram or Twitter.