Over the past five years, a pre-Tet event in Vancouver, Canada has become a beacon of hope for Vietnamese students, offering a taste of home and easing the ache of missing Lunar New Year celebrations in their homeland.
For Vietnamese people, Tet is an occasion for reunion. But not all Vietnamese people are able to celebrate Tet in person with their friends and family.
For overseas Vietnamese who are unable to make it home before the holiday, the days ahead of Tet are a time of serious homesickness.
To ward off such feelings, a group of Vietnamese students in Vancouver have turned their homesickness into motivation to hold a program to help them preserve Vietnam's Tet culture and spread the holiday spirit to their fellow Vietnamese in Canada.
The students involved with the program are all members of the Vancouver Vietnamese Youth Community (VVYC). The group’s Tet initiative – 'Tet Ben Tay' – was first launched five years ago and has been celebrated annually on the first day of the new lunar year. This year, the event falls on February 10.
|A festive photo booth, reminiscent of the vibrant atmosphere of Ta Hien Street in Hanoi during the Tet holiday, was featured at 'Tet Ben Tay' in Vancouver, Canada in 2023. Photo: Courtesy of organizers
According to Nguyen Phuong, president of the Vietnamese Student Association at Simon Fraser University and a member of VVYC, members of the organization are mostly students in Vancouver who share a passion for organizing activities and events for young people.
As they are not able to return to Vietnam for the holiday, they are limited to banh chung (square glutinous rice cakes), banh tet (cylindrical sticky rice cake), and other Tet mainstays through video calls with their friends and family in Vietnam, Phuong added.
Initially designed for students and young families, the program gained such popularity that VVYC decided to extend the invitation to all Vietnamese residents in Vancouver.
This inclusive approach allowed everyone to partake in the Tet festivities, offering a respite and a taste of home to alleviate their homesickness.
Despite their young age, members of VVYC believe in preserving Vietnam’s cultural values and have a desire to jointly establish and develop a tradition in Vancouver so that Vietnamese people in the city can enjoy the holiday.
In the past, as many as 250 guests have showed up to the event. This year, however, VVYC expects to welcome over 450 participants.
|A dance performance by overseas Vietnamese students in Canada at ‘Tet Ben Tay’ in Vancouver, Canada in 2023. Photo: Courtesy of organizers
Six months of preparation
VVYC has spent the past six months preparing food, artistic performances, and activities for the program.
Funding for the event comes from local benefactors, small business owners who are Vietnamese, and entrance fees.
According to Phuong, the event is so popular that tickets consistently sell out, likely because the event organizers do their best to appeal to all audiences by featuring cultural characteristics from each of Vietnam’s three regions – northern, central, and southern regions.
Phuong also shared that the event is a great chance for Vietnamese who were born or have spent the majority of their lives in Canada to connect with their native culture by exposing them to the values associated with Vietnam’s biggest festival.
|A singing performance of the song ‘Tet Nay Con Se Ve’ (I Will Return This Tet) at ‘Tet Ben Tay’ in Vancouver, Canada in 2023. Photo: Courtesy of organizers
A major distinction when celebrating Tet in Canada compared to Vietnam is the scarcity of many Tet traditional elements readily available in the North American country.
As such, to prepare for 'Tet Ben Tay,' VVYC has spent weeks making yellow apricot and peach blossoms from colored paper and building a neu pole (a long bamboo pole) from empty toilet paper rolls.
In Vietnam, these neu poles are traditionally erected a few days before Tet as part of a longstanding ritual that involves the worship of deities and prayers for good luck in the upcoming New Year.
VVYC has also bought kumquat branches from local Vietnamese and Chinese markets to help decorate the event space.
Thanks to their hard work, 'Tet Ben Tay' has become an indispensable event on the first day of the lunar year in Vancouver.
“'Tet Ben Tay' helps the organizers, including me, ease our homesickness and connect with the Vietnamese community [in Vancouver] through a festival rich in national character,” Phuong said.
|Members of the organizing committee and guests of the 2023 ‘Tet Ben Tay’ event. Photo: Courtesy of organizers
Vietnamese culture, dishes in Canada
As with previous years, this year’s 'Tet Ben Tay' will feature Vietnamese folk games, including mua sap (Cheraw dance), a sack race, and a traditional lotto game played similarly to 'BINGO.' Visitors to the event can also try their hand at creating Dong Ho folk paintings.
A cuisine area at the event will offer visitors typical dishes from across Vietnam, including banh chung, braised pork, gio cha (Vietnamese sausage made from ground pork or pureed beef and traditionally wrapped in banana leaves), and nem ran (fried spring rolls).
In addition, Tet-themed singing, dancing, and drama performances will also bring the festive vibes to the event.
Last year, visitors showed their interest in a 'Kitchen Gods' comedy for young people.
Vietnamese people believe that the Kitchen Gods ride a common carp to heaven on the 23rd day of the final month of the lunar year, several days before Tet, in order to report to the heavenly emperor on a family’s problems and good and bad deeds from the year.
In Vancouver, students also staged a drama depicting the distinctive characteristics of three sons-in-law hailing from the northern, central, and southern regions of Vietnam.
They performed plays centered around the theme of returning home to celebrate Tet as well.