North Carolina’s Vietnamese community rang in the New Year on Sunday at the N.C. State Fairgrounds with feasting, prayers to their ancestors and wishes for prosperity and health in the coming year.
The New Year, known as Tet, is the most important holiday in Vietnam. This Tet marks the beginning of the Year of the Rooster, an animal whose early morning crowing symbolizes punctuality, faithfulness and hard work.
Food vendors sold a wide array of sandwiches, desserts and rice dishes. Food at Tet tends to be green, sticky and with an emphasis on meat, said Tho Nguyen, a leader in the Vietnamese American Association of Raleigh.
“Green stands for money, and sticky food stays in your stomach so you are able to work,” Nguyen said. “Traditionally, people who can afford meat are more prosperous.”
Sunday’s celebration began with the singing of the national anthems of the United States and South Vietnam, with veterans wearing the military uniforms of both countries. The festivities included pairs of lion dancers and traditional Vietnamese songs and dances celebrating spring and rebirth. There were also martial arts exhibitions and the gifting to children of red envelopes, each containing a $2 bill.
“At Tet, we review all our actions of the past year,” said, Phung Nguyen, who came to North Carolina in 1972 to study at Duke. “We resolve to do better in the coming year, to celebrate our culture and to educate our young.”
The lion’s share of the Vietnamese community in North Carolina trace their roots to the boat people who fled Vietnam during the late 1970s and early 1980s, after the end of the Vietnam War in 1975. They have few kind words for the Communist Vietnamese government, but are profuse in their praise of the United States.
“I came for education and freedom,” said Khai Do, who fled Vietnam in 1981. Do wore a dark blue brocaded silk tunic that reached his knees. Underneath the tunic, he wore a tie that imitated the flag of South Vietnam – a yellow flag with three red horizontal stripes.
Some of the money raised Sunday went to the Vietnam Healing Foundation, a charity that supports veterans of the South Vietnamese army and their families.
The Communist government actively discriminates against anyone who served in the army or government of South Vietnam, said R.J. Del Vecchio, a Vietnam veteran who chairs the foundation. The discrimination can continue for the next two generations.
“It’s a lesson, that this is what happens to you if you piss off the Communists,” Del Vecchio said.
Tam Tran marveled at how his life changed after he left Vietnam in 1980, one of 150 refugees jammed into a small boat that had no business carrying more than 30. The voyage was hellish. There was little food or water and no bathroom. The seasick passengers were packed into a cabin that reeked of urine.
“We were vomiting on top of each other,” Tran recalled.
Tran said he was lucky to escape the fate of hundreds of thousands of his countrymen who drowned or died of disease and starvation.
After three days at sea, a Norwegian cargo ship rescued them. But even that was tragic: a man climbing a rope ladder dropped his two infant children into the sea when the ladder swung wildly, smashing the man against the ship. The children drowned.
Tran worked his way through high school and college, becoming an electrical engineer. In 1992, he was able to bring his father and six brothers and sisters to the United States.
“I thank the United States for the opportunity to work and go to school,” Tran said.