Tet is a time for reunion for Vietnamese people. However, not all Vietnamese are able to celebrate Tet with their friends and family in person.

For overseas Vietnamese who cannot make it home before the holiday, the days leading up to Tet are filled with homesickness.

To combat these feelings, a group of Vietnamese students in Vancouver have transformed their homesickness into motivation to organize a program that helps them preserve Vietnam’s Tet culture and share the festive spirit with other Vietnamese people in Canada.

The students involved in this program are all members of the Vancouver Vietnamese Youth Community (VVYC). Their Tet initiative, called ‘Tet Ben Tay’, was first introduced five years ago and has been celebrated annually on the first day of the lunar year. This year, the event will take place 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, the president of the Vietnamese Student Association at Simon Fraser University and a member of VVYC, the organization consists mainly of students in Vancouver who share a passion for organizing activities and events for young people.

As they are unable to return to Vietnam for the holiday, they celebrate Tet through video calls with their friends and family in Vietnam, allowing them to enjoy traditional Tet dishes such as banh chung and banh tet.

Initially, the program was designed for students and young families, but its popularity has grown, leading VVYC to extend the invitation to all Vietnamese residents in Vancouver.

This inclusive approach allows everyone to participate in the Tet festivities and provides them with a taste of home, helping to alleviate their homesickness.

Despite their young age, the members of VVYC are committed to preserving Vietnam’s cultural values and have the desire to establish and develop a Tet tradition in Vancouver, providing an opportunity for Vietnamese people in the city to enjoy the holiday.

In the past, the event has attracted up to 250 guests. This year, 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.

The event is funded by local benefactors, Vietnamese small business owners, and entrance fees.

According to Phuong, the event is highly popular and tickets consistently sell out because the organizers strive to appeal to all audiences by highlighting the cultural characteristics of Vietnam’s three regions: the north, central, and south.

The event also serves as an opportunity for Vietnamese individuals who were born or have spent the majority of their lives in Canada to connect with their native culture and experience 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

Celebrating Tet in Canada is different from celebrating it in Vietnam due to the limited availability of many traditional Tet elements.

To prepare for ‘Tet Ben Tay,’ VVYC has spent weeks creating yellow apricot and peach blossoms from colored paper and constructing a ‘neu’ pole (a long bamboo pole) using empty toilet paper rolls.

In Vietnam, these ‘neu’ poles are traditionally erected a few days before Tet as part of a ritual involving the worship of deities and prayers for good luck in the new year.

VVYC has also purchased kumquat branches from local Vietnamese and Chinese markets to decorate the event space.

Thanks to their hard work, ‘Tet Ben Tay’ has become an essential event on the first day of the lunar year in Vancouver.

“‘Tet Ben Tay’ helps the organizers, including myself, ease our homesickness and connect with the Vietnamese community in Vancouver through a festival that encompasses our national identity,” Phuong said.

The organizing committee and guests of the 2023 ‘Tet Ben Tay’ event. Photo: Courtesy of organizers

Vietnamese culture and cuisine in Canada

As in previous years, this year’s ‘Tet Ben Tay’ will feature Vietnamese traditional games such as mua sap (Cheraw dance), a sack race, and a traditional lotto game similar to ‘BINGO’. Visitors can also try their hand at creating Dong Ho folk paintings.

The cuisine area will offer visitors typical dishes from all over Vietnam, including banh chung, braised pork, gio cha (Vietnamese sausage), and nem ran (fried spring rolls).

In addition, there will be Tet-themed singing, dancing, and drama performances to further enhance the festive atmosphere.

Last year, visitors showed great interest in a comedy performance called ‘Kitchen Gods’ that catered to younger audiences.

In Vietnamese folklore, it is believed that the Kitchen Gods ride a common carp to heaven a few days before Tet to report a family’s problems and good and bad deeds to the heavenly emperor.

In Vancouver, students also performed dramas depicting the distinctive characteristics of sons-in-law from the three regions of Vietnam: northern, central, and southern.

They also presented plays revolving around the theme of returning home to celebrate Tet.