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      Vietnamese Tét   New Year —Chúc Mú'ng Nám Mó'i
the country Tét homage to ancestors traditional foods
  dragon dance wishes for young and old entertainment  
  lesson plans resources traditional artists  


Image of Map of VietnamVietnam
Vietnam is a country of tropical lowlands, rolling green hills, and densely forested mountains, located in Southeast Asia. With a population of 83.5 million, the Socialist Republic of Vietnam has a land mass half the size of Texas. Vietnam’s rivers very much influence the culture, commerce, and traditions of her people. Most significant are the Red River (Song Hong), and the Mekong. The Mekong, which stretches from China to Cambodia, is the 12th longest river in the world. Its annual floods make it possible for Vietnam to grow rice and vegetables and to harvest a variety of fish to feed its people.

For about 3,000 years, China influenced and controlled Vietnam. The country enjoyed 900 years of independence until the French Image of Tết celebration in Des Moines, c1982 (photo courtesy of Vinh Nguyen)colonized the region. From the mid-19th century until the mid-1950s, Vietnam was part of French Indochina along with Cambodia and Laos. In 1954, the Communist forces of Vietnam’s Ho Chi Minh defeated the French, and Vietnam regained its independence.

Freedom did not last long. The Geneva Accord split the country into a Communist north and a capitalist south. Conflict rapidly ensued as U.S. aid to South Vietnam increased and then escalated. From March 1965, when American troops landed in South Vietnam, until the fall of Saigon Image of The lotus blossom is a symbol of survival and new lifein 1975, violent conflict ripped apart the country. Vietnam was reunited with Hanoi as the capital of that devastated land, which continued to struggle for another 25 years. Since 2000, a series of economic advances have opened up Vietnam to the rest of the world.  

The end of the Vietnam War caused thousands to flee, especially those allied with the American military. While some made their way overland to refugee camps in Thailand, many tried to escape by water. Known as “boat people,” desperate families paid large sums of money to pile into tiny and untrustworthy boats. The lucky ones were rescued by other ships or taken to refugee camps. Many languished in camps for years, waiting to immigrate to other countries. Since 1975, over 2 million Vietnamese have left to avoid Communist persecution.  

Image of The entire community attends Tết celebrations in Des MoinesOf the one million Vietnamese now in the U.S., about 9,000 live in Iowa. About 5,000 reside in Des Moines with the rest largely in Sioux City, Iowa City, and Cedar Rapids. Vietnamese-Americans in Iowa are active in politics, in the business community, and in the South Vietnamese Veterans Association as well as in chapters of the Vietnamese Students Association at ISU and the University of Iowa. In Vietnam and the U.S. most Vietnamese are Buddhists;there are also Catholics, Lutheran, and Evangelicals as well as Cao Dai and Hoa Hao.    TOP

Image of Honor guard presenting the colorsTét as celebrated in Iowa opens with a flag procession. Both American and Vietnamese flags are marched into the celebration. Regardless of religion or cultural affiliation, Vietnamese Iowans agree that Tét, Vietnamese New Year, is a major holiday. Families clean and decorate their homes, prepare special foods, and entertain guests. Tét celebrates a break in agricultural activities and marks the time when the Kitchen God journeys to Heaven to make his annual report on household activities to the Jade Emperor.

The Vietnamese, like many other ethnic groups, follow a lunar calendar. This means that Tét, which occurs in the 12th moon month and lasts for three days, takes place sometime between the last 10 days of January and the middle of February on the western calendar.   Image of Watermelon carving to celebrate Tét

The Vietnamese-American Community in Iowa, VACI, is one of the primary organizers of the annual Iowa Tét celebration. Formed in Des Moines in 2004 to unite Iowa’s Vietnamese people, the organization wants to keep alive their ancient traditions. Working with the Vietnamese Buddhist Temple, South Vietnamese Veteran Association and a host of other organizations, the VACI brings the community comes together each year to welcome in the New Year.    TOP

Image of Traditional ritual homage ceremony with community eldersLễDâng Hương: Homage to the Ancestors
Tét involves rituals that pay homage to the ancestors. With incense in hand, family members stand in front of their home’s ancestral shrine. They offer prayers and ask to be blessed in the coming New Year. In Iowa, community elders represent the community in performing this ancient ritual. It has also become traditional to honor and pray in memory of the fallen soldiers who fought for Vietnam and sacrificed their lives in the search for freedom.    TOP

Image of Spring rolls with green oinins and egg rollsThú'c An: Traditional Foods
Women prepare elaborate traditional food to be offered to the ancestors and served to family and friends. While dishes vary by region in Vietnam, favorites include chân giò ninh mǎng (pig feet with bamboo shoots), canh nấu bong (dried pig skin soup), xôi gấc (sticky rice), thit gà luộc (boiled chicken), xào hanh nhan (stir-fried almonds),Image of Bánh tét (sticky rice with pork and mung bean paste filling) nộm đu đủ (papaya salad), and chè kho (green bean pudding) as well as lợn quay (roast pork), andbánh chưng (square sticky-rice cake). Since most of Iowa’s Vietnamese are from South Vietnam, families here also serve thit kho (stewed pork and coconut milk) as well as dua gia (pickled green bean sprouts with leeks, sliced carrot and turnip). Bánh tét (round-shaped glutinous cake) and bánh tráng (rice waffle) are also on the menu.

Image of a Kumquat tree. In Vietnam, Kumquat trees are prominently displayed during Tét. In Iowa, families have their pictures taken under and artificial apricot tree, whos sunny yellow blossoms shining like little suns or gold coins, represent wishes for prosperity.

In Vietnam, Kumquat trees are prominently displayed during Tét. In Iowa, families have their pictures taken under an artificial apricot tree, whose sunny yellow blossoms shining like little suns or gold coins, represent wishes for prosperity.  TOP

Múa Lân: Dragon Dance
Image of dragon dancersDragon dances and firecrackers mark special occasions in Vietnam. The dance portrays the intricate interaction between the Dragon and Ông Đia, the guardian of the earth. With drums and gongs, Ông Đia spurs the dragon from falling asleep to greet the audience. In the old days, firecrackers were used to expel evil spirits from villages and bring forth happiness. Today, they commemorate old traditions and welcome visitors and the Spirit of Spring.    TOP

Image of Giving lucky money to children Chúc Tuổí: Wishes for Young and Old 
Each person is considered to be one year older at the beginning of the New Year. During Tét, Vietnamese celebrate everyone’s birthday by offering Chúc Tui , best wishes for a long life to the elders, as well as wishes for peace and prosperity to family and friends. Adults give children red envelopes of LìXì (Lucky Money), which signifies fortune, luck, and happy wishes.    TOP

Image of Vietnamese DancersGiải Trí: Entertainment  

Image of Vietnamese Children DancersDuring Tét, Vietnamese play several games, including swinging and con (ball) tossing. Young and old enjoy Lô tô , a game of chance similar to bingo. Children receive toys and a special band plays both traditional and popular dance music. At Vietnamese-American celebrations, an Áo Dài Thời Trang (fashion show) provides a display of traditional clothing. Children and young adults proudly wear a variety of long silk tunics worn in different parts of Vietnam for different occasions.    TOP


Text by Vinh Nguyen & Riki Saltzman. Photos by Riki Saltzman. Tet photo c1982 courtesy of Vinh Nguyen. Audio Provided by Vinh Nguyen.

the country Tét homage to ancestors traditional foods
  dragon dance wishes for young and old entertainment  
  lesson plans resources traditional artists  
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