From making sticky rice cakes to being overwhelmed by large families and getting a bump on the head at ancestors’ tombs, foreign grooms find themselves charmed by Vietnamese New Year.
The memory of being able to make a banh chung, the Vietnamese sticky rice cake, for the first time last Lunar New Year still makes Russian entrepreneur Oleg Ponfilenok proud.
“I’d heard about Tet, but I didn’t know what it meant or how it was celebrated,” Ponfilenok recalls his first experience of the New Year, the Year of the Buffalo when his wife, Thanh Tam, informed him they would visit her family in the north-central province of Ha Tinh for the first time.
What Ponfilenok found was delightful surprises. At midnight on New Year’s Eve, for instance, his wife’s family started a fire in front of the house and neighbors poured out to watch the fireworks.
Oleg Ponfilenok makeS sticky rice cakes during the 2021 Lunar New Year. Photo by his wife Thanh Tam
He recalls that his wife’s extensive family network was “shocking” to him, making it hard to visit all of them on the first three days of Tet.
It was the Vietnamese tradition of staying awake all night to wrap and cook sticky rice cakes over a wood fire that Ponfilenok felt most excited about.
With just a few instructions, he managed to make a perfectly square-shaped and tightly wrapped cake that everyone in the family later praised as delicious though Ponfilenok himself could only try a little of it as he was not used to Vietnamese food at the time.
“Thanks to my wife, I have truly warm memories,” he says.
Not completely new to Vietnamese culture unlike Ponfilenok, Kyril Whittaker, a British student who was studying for a master’s degree in political science when he married his wife, Nhu Quynh, had learned about Tet from books and magazines.
Yet when he visited his in-laws in the southernmost province of Ca Mau two years ago, he found the real-life experience of Tet was much livelier than what words, despite being accurate, could describe.
He says: “Stores and street markets in Ca Mau, Can Tho or HCMC often played Tet songs which sounded so catchy that I could memorize their lyrics. Once in a while in England, I find myself humming those songs”.
When he and his wife arrived in her house in Ca Mau after a long and exhausting trip, they were warmly welcomed by many relatives who were friendly and kind beyond expectations, he says.
His parents-in-law for instance insisted that he should not buy Tet gifts for them because he was still a student and probably did not have much money.
His mother-in-law cooked for him all day, his father-in-law gave him a long new coat he had bought because they could not find anything that fit Whittaker at the local market. He wore it for three days straight during Tet.
“The warmth of Tet touches one’s heart,” the Englishman says, comparing Tet’s drawn-out celebration during which one can spend a lot of time with friends and family to the brief western New Year.
For 33-year-old Canadian Michael, Tet in his wife Thuy Nga’s home province of Phu Yen is an opportunity to be one with nature.
Thuy Nga and her husband Michael (first row, third and second from left) with her extended family in Phu Yen Province during the 2021 Lunar New Year. Photo provided by the couple
Four years ago when he first visited in his in-laws during Tet, he found in the southern central coastal province, with its fresh and healthy air, a very different world compared to HCMC.
On the first evening there, he walked alone on the village roads to take in the scenery, making neighborhood dogs bark, and called his mother in Canada to tell her about his wife’s idyllic hometown.
Later, while visiting his wife’s ancestors’ tombs, Michael, who is 1m95, bumped his head on the roof while standing up after kneeling to pray, becoming a standing joke for his in-laws who never get tired of recalling the incident.
When he and Nga returned to HCMC, he hugged everybody in his wife’s family, unlike her since she did not have a habit of demonstrating affection.
Since then the couple have visited Phu Yen every year for Tet.
Ponfilenok and Whittaker could not make it to Vietnam this year because of busy work schedules and the restrictions due to the Covid-19 pandemic.
“When the pandemic ends, we will go back to celebrate Tet every year,” Whittaker vows.
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