Thanh Nguyen, 35, an ethnic Vietnamese man living in Virginia, always returns home to Maryland during Tet (Lunar New Year). But this year the nurse decided to stay back and instead celebrate the festival with his parents by video call.
“My Vietnamese parents are disappointed because I did not drive home to see them, but the Covid-19 pandemic is a good reason to not travel, especially when I work in a hospital with infection risks,” he said.
He also made several video calls to relatives in Vietnam for Lunar New Year, which falls on February 12 this year.
“My mom sent me two banh chung and I bought some spring rolls. I will go to a nearby Buddhist temple to pray for a new year if it is not too crowded during the weekend.”
Nguyen is among many members of the Vietnamese diaspora in America who have celebrated the traditional holiday of their forefathers amid the raging pandemic with a lot of differences this year.
Asian Garden Mall (Phuoc Loc Tho) is a popular place to celebrate Tet among Vietnamese in Westminster, California. Photo by Shutterstock/Hung Tran.
In California, even though Governor Gavin Newsom lifted the stay-home order in late January in response to an improving situation, a move hailed by some Vietnamese ahead of their traditional holiday, many people still have their guard up and are not gathering with relatives or going to public places.
“We will not go to Vietnamese malls or supermarkets since the places are always packed” Thao Nguyen, a banker in Orange County, California, said.
Nguyen’s family canceled a party with relatives on the last day of the lunar year, which “always used to be an indispensable part of our Tet. ”
Instead, she had dinner and went to a nearby Buddhist temple without her parents, who are old and likely to be vulnerable to the coronavirus.
In December 2020, according to health officials in Santa Clara County, California, the Vietnamese and Philippine communities were more severely affected by the pandemic than other Asian-American groups in the San Francisco Bay region.
Many Tet activities and events have been canceled.
Little Saigon does not have music shows, traditional lion dancing and banh chung -making competitions like it usually does.
In San Diego, Tet Festival, presented by the Vietnamese American Youth Alliance (VAYA), is held virtually from February 12 to 14.
“We had hoped to have an in-person Tet Festival, as Tet is often the time when families gather to reconnect and usher in the new year,” Dennis Duong, president of VAYA, said in a statement.
“But with the surge in Covid-19, we knew that it was unlikely any live events would be permitted in the foreseeable future. Still, it’s important to recognize the New Year and give the community a safe option to celebrate from home.”
Virtual Tet events and reunions are becoming new normal.
Travor Ta, 19, of Orange County in California called his family in Los Angeles and his father’s parents in the southern province of Vinh Long.
“My relatives passed the phone around so I can see all of them, then I wished them good health, and they normally wish me ‘ tien vao nhu nuoc ’ (money comes like water),” he said.
In a Facebook group for the Vietnamese community in America, many people said they would call their parents and relatives instead of going home to see them.
“Going home is not on the table amid this pandemic,” Ta said.
He recalled his childhood memory when he used to skip classes on the 1st or the 2nd day of Tet for lion dance performances and receiving li xi (lucky money) from his extended family in California.
Stalls supply traditional Tet products like confectionary baskets, candied fruits, lanterns, and red calligraphy papers in Hong Kong Supermarket in Atlanta City, Georgia, U.S. Photo by VnExpress/Phuong Phuong.
‘Life goes on’
While gatherings and festive activities are limited, overseas Vietnamese trying to sustain their traditions by making traditional foods and decorating their houses.
Trang Tran, 43, of Houston, Texas, spent the evening before the Lunar New Year’s Eve cooking dishes for her family and relatives.
“We call it ‘ an Tet ’, which literally means eating Tet,” she explained.
She said that banh chung (Vietnamese sticky rice cake with mung bean and pork), thit kho hot vit (southern-style braised pork with eggs) and pickles are always served in her family during the first day of Tet .
“There is no arrowroot in Houston, so we used banana leaves to wrap our banh chung ,” she added.
Another favorite activity among Vietnamese-Americans during Tet is gambling and playing board games with their loved ones.
Since the first day of Tet is on Friday, Tran said, children in her family would spend the whole weekend playing bau cua tom ca (a betting game) and ca ngua (horse racing game).
“Of course, no gathering with our relatives because of the Covid-19.”
Many Vietnamese neighborhoods are bustling and filled with festive decorations.
In Orange County’s Little Saigon, home to thousands of Vietnamese-American businesses, Asian Garden Mall is bustling with traditional flower markets and stores selling Vietnamese foods.
In San Jose, Texas, Lion Plaza, a popular market for the local Vietnamese community, is also filled with masked shoppers.
But the pandemic has cast a long shadow.
Some businesses said the number of patrons has fallen this year.
“We thought people would stay at home after a difficult year with a lot of losses, so we keep our feet on the ground and do not have high expectations when it comes to Tet business,” Nhut Nguyen, a restaurant owner in Asian Garden Mall, said.
Young Vietnamese, busy with their work amid the urban rat race, said they do not have much time for Tet but would try to celebrate it as “much Vietnamese” as possible.
In an 11,000-member Facebook group of Vietnamese living in the U.S., people share their experiences in finding traditional dishes like banh chung and banh tet in various states.
“You can have Tet in many ways,” said Thanh Nguyen, who will go to work on Lunar New Year and have banh chung alone.
Nguyen has bought some chrysanthemums and a yellow mai tree, which, he said, would welcome the spring and bring luck.
“The most important thing about Tet is that it has always in our DNA, regardless of the pandemic and any other ordeal,” Thanh commented.
“Traditions are handed down through generations, that is how life goes on.”