Tet Festival is the Vietnamese celebration of the Lunar New Year and it is surrounded by many traditions including cleaning house to sweep away evil spirits, preparing traditional foods, and giving gifts of Banh Chung and red envelopes.
Preparations for Chinese New Year, also known as Lunar New Year and Spring Festival, and welcoming the Year of the Rabbit on February 3rd, have been underway for weeks in Asian households around the world. Although the Lunar New Year is observed in all of East Asia influenced by Chinese civilization, each country celebrates it in a way unique to that country.
What is Banh Chung?
How has a humble rice cake with three simple ingredients (rice, mung bean, and pork) come to symbolize Tet, the most celebrated of Vietnamese holidays? The gift of Banh Chung during the New Year has become the most important tradition of Vietnamese culture and was passed down from one generation to the next. Always curious about the delicious foods that play such an important role in cultural traditions, I participated in a cooking demonstration by Chef Haley Nguyen of Xanh Bistro (no longer open) and learned about the legend behind Banh Chung, how it’s made, and how it became a symbol of Tết.
Tet Festival in Little Saigon
One year, my friend Monique and I met at the ABC Supermarket shopping center at Bolsa and Brookhurst in what’s known as Little Saigon in Westminster. Monique acted as my translator and tour guide, telling me about Tet symbols and customs while I snapped away. Traffic was already backed up on Brookhurst at 10:30 a.m. and the parking lot was swarming with erratic drivers looking for a spot. I parked way in the back.
Flowers are an important part of decorating a home during Tet Festival. Plum blossom and water narcissus are the two flowers most associated with the New Year.
In the midst of the crush of shoppers and staccato sounds of a foreign language, were two monks walking, eyes cast downward, moving silently amongst the crowd carrying a bamboo container tucked under their robes, discreetly revealed only when a passer-by offers a few dollars.
Vietnamese Lunar New Year Traditions
Tangerines, oranges, and pomelos are frequently displayed in homes and stores. Tangerines are symbolic of good luck and oranges are symbolic of wealth. The first store we entered had a tangerine tree decorated with lai-see envelopes (also called hong-bao). Money is placed inside the red envelopes and given to children and young adults as gifts.
The traditional gift of rice cakes called Banh Chung is made from white rice, marinated strips of pork, and yellow mung beans. I wanted to photograph Monique making Banh Chung but she said that everyone buys these in stores now because they are too labor-intensive to make at home. In this touching article by Ky-Phong Tran in the Orange County Register, the writer recalls memories of his grandfather making the rice cakes every New Year – the only thing he ever made and how this tradition was his father’s way of reaching back 35 years and 8,000 miles to his childhood in the homeland.
Sweets and Treats for Tet Festival
We popped into a dessert shop where Monique bought Glutinous Rice Balls in Ginger Syrup (Che Troi Nuoc), a quintessential sweet treat for Lunar New Year celebrations. The glutinous rice balls filled with mung bean in a sweet ginger sauce and topped with coconut cream sauce and served warm.
From there we went to the fruit market where familiar and exotic tropical fruits were piled high in wooden bins and hanging from the ceiling. Monique identified the ones I wasn’t familiar with, described their taste, and how they’re eaten. There was dragon fruit, an exotic lemon that looks like it has “fingers”, (Buddha’s Hand), gigantic Jack Fruit whose seeds are boiled and taste like chestnuts, prickly Durian that’s called “stinky fruit” and has a custardy filling. I bought a package of mangosteens which are cracked open and has white fruit segments similar to an orange.
Heading back to our car after a full morning at the market, commotion erupted when the police and city zoning people arrived. Vendors were told that they couldn’t have their wares spilling over into the fire lane and some were sent packing because they had no seller’s license. I snapped this modern-day image of a monk and police officer passing each other.
Edited 2/12/21 with edited photos.