By: Maya Carey, Nakira Causey, Natalie Coyne and Arief Zulkifli
With a special invitation from the Vietnamese community in the Greater Pittsburgh Area, four Chatham University students were graciously welcomed to experience the most festive and beautiful of Vietnamese holidays and traditions. Tet Nguyen Dan, or Tet for short, is the most celebrated and popular festival for Vietnamese communities. In celebration of the Lunar New Year, the Tet celebration in Pittsburgh emphasized the coming together of the diasporic Pittsburgh-based Vietnamese community for a celebration full of joy and tradition.
In conjunction with the celebration of the lunar new year, Tet represents an occasion for Vietnamese people to express their respect and remembrances for their ancestors. Traditionally, Tet also provides a long break during the agricultural year between the harvesting of crops and the sowing of the next ones. More so, Tet represents a time for family and community to come together, have big meals, decorate traditional Tet trees (typically Peach Blossom or Kumquat tree), and welcome the new year. Tet also symbolized the start of a fresh year. People use it as a time to get rid of the bad luck of the previous year by spending days cleaning their homes, and decorating the house with the colors of fortune, red and yellow. Additionally, people consider the actions they perform on the dawn of Tet as a predeterminant of fate for the whole year to come.
Read more below to see the experiences of four non-Vietnamese Chatham University students and their first Vietnamese Lunar New Year Celebration with the Vietnamese community from the greater Pittsburgh area:
Community Culture, Clothing and Food:
When you enter the community hall, the sounds of Vietnamese families in celebration, red and yellow decoration, and the sweet, sweet smell of traditional Vietnamese food greets you. With upwards of 100 Vietnamese community members and families gathered in the Dormont community hall, Tet festivities have begun! Families are gathered around tables dressed in their best Tet traditional wear, children are entertained with family-friendly games and special Tet celebratory gifts of money and toys, and the smell of traditional Vietnamese cooking is in the air. The room is bustling as kids run around the room, meeting with family friends and community members in celebration of one of the most anticipated events of the year.
In true traditional Vietnamese fashion, Tet represents a time of new beginnings and a time to set one-self up for the new year. One can see such dedication in the clothing worn at this event. Families are either dressed in newly-bought clothes and shoes, or in beautifully traditional silk tunics called ao dai. The ao dai is a tunic that is comprised of layers that are otherwise known as ‘kep.’ The layers that form sets within the tunics give the clothes a busy and detailed aesthetic that keeps itself in-tune with the busy formalities of the Lunar New Year celebrations.
As with many other traditional clothing in Asia, the ao dai is very complex. Throughout time, the way the ao dai was styled has changed. The changes were subtle and were mainly put in place to adjust to changing lifestyles and times. For example, the ao dai used to have several layers, including inner and outer layers, which were called the ‘mo ba.’ In addition to that, the color of the ao dai has been vastly extended. Previously, light colors, preferably white, were worn, but more colorful options have become more popular. Both men and women walk the room in these silk tunics delicately decorated with embroidered floral designs, showing of their wealth or aspirations of good tidings, typical on Tet. Traditional ao dai have been modernized so that women and men can wear jeans and heels, as seen in the images below.
(Image of mother and son. Mother is dressed in a traditional ao dai tunic with a modern twist, allowing her to wear jeans underneath)
(Pictured above is an example of blue ao dai for men.)
The differences that distinguish male and female ao dai are mainly the cut and color. Furthermore, the neck or collar of the male ao dai is longer than the female one. These days, ao dai can be distinguished by the material they are made from. As part of the Vietnamese cultural tradition, it is normal to see the ao dai decorated with intricate designs, this is done to make the ao dai unique from others. Some of the decorations or ways to accessorize the ao dai includes adding a belt or bow stripes. Depending on the occasion, the ao dai may appear different, even to the extent of location.
As men, women, and children celebrate this holiday decked out in their most delicate ao dai, the sounds of Vietnamese Karaoke are in full swing. Older kin-folk flock to the stage to sing fan-favorite songs and celebrate this happy occasion. In true celebratory fashion, all are welcomed to sing their favorite Vietnamese tunes and celebrate fully in the joyous occasion of the new year.
Next to the Karaoke sits the traditional ancestral alter which is specially tended to by the President of the OCA and the elders in the room. Carefully decorated with five types of fruit, flowers from the Mei tree, and traditional Vietnamese incents, this alter represents a space where families can pray and give thanks to their ancestors. Throughout the night, a celebration at the alter is commenced where elders were invited to pray and light the incenses. Although the prayer was in Vietnamese, it was easy to understand the importance of this traditional measure. It was beautiful to see traditions such as this live on, even though it arose from a country thousands of miles away.
Although the decorations, community nature, and fun karaoke were key aspects of the festivities, the homemade traditional Vietnamese food was a definite highlight. Food is a necessity when it comes to celebration and the meanings behind the consumption. Even though not all food has meaning, it is essential to understanding the culture. Banh chung is a sticky rice dish with meat packed tightly in leaves. The square shape of this dish represents the Earth. Banh tet is similar but its cylindrical shape represents the moon. These two foods have been chosen as the main food for Tet due to its ability to stay fresh in the severe Vietnam weather. Xoi gac is red sticky rice which is also seen as one of the main foods for Tet because the redness symbolizes luck, happiness, good fortune and new achievements in the New Year.
Banh mi isn’t as traditional as the other foods mentioned; however, it was one of the dishes served at the Tet Festival. Banh mi is a sandwich made by seasoned pork, shredded carrots, cucumbers, cilantro, and a variety of condiments, including sriracha and vinegar, on a French baguette. While eating it, the vinegar and cilantro really sticks out and the taste was the more memorable than the other ingredients.
Pickled onions, hanh dam, is also consumed during this celebration. The dish that caught the attention of many of us was the canh mang luoi heo, pig tongue bamboo shoot soup. The pig’s tongue is boiled with ginger and then sliced into bite size pieces. These pieces are mixed with carrots, bamboo shoots, fish sauce and more. The thought of eating pigs tongue was quite a surprise and the soup was said to be very delicious.
The Lion Dance:
Quite like a Dragon Dance that one may encounter at a Chinese community’s Lunar New Year celebration, a major part of Tet is the Lion Dance, which the Chatham students attending got to see. The Dragon Dance is quite differing from the Lion Dance for many reasons, namely the fact that two are in the costume for a Lion Dance whereas many more are for the Dragon.
(Pictured above is the lion with its “tongue out” to read “Chúc Mừng Năm Mới,” meaning “Happy New Year” in Vietnamese.)
The community presented the lion with the symbolic gifts of pineapple, lettuce, and oranges in and around a bowl, and during the celebration young Vietnamese children also approached to give the lion money. The lion dancers would respond to the community’s fruitful gifts with taking it through the mouth before pretending to digest it by tearing the fruit up and throwing the remains out to the community again.
(Pictured above is the bowl with the gifts from the Vietnamese community to the lion prior to the dance starting.)
(Pictured above is the lion taking in some of the gifts presented to it.)
(Pictured above is the lion with the remnants of the gifts it has already “digested” on the ground in front of it, while continuing to “digest” more gifts.)
The dancing lion was accompanied by a row of people banging on drums and other percussion instruments, such as the triangle.
Having the opportunity to experience such a special and valued part of Vietnamese culture and tradition was beautiful. From the food to the Lion Dance, being able to be a part of this festival was something to be cherished forever.