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Vietnamese New Year celebrates culture and community

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KIM Nguyen’s eyes light up, his face beams and he sits a little taller in his chair when he talks about bánh tét, the Vietnamese sticky rice cake that’s filled with all kinds of sweet and savory goodness and traditionally eaten for the lunar new year.

“It takes overnight to cook so we don’t do it often,” he says. “My family would do it on the last day of the year, staying up overnight to finish it and eating it on new year’s day hot right away. It’s kind of a family tradition.”

It’s how I remember tamales, how a Greek might remember kourabiedes or how you might remember grandma’s beloved pecan pie. Nguyen and other Vietnamese don’t have to wait any longer for the foods of their forebears. The Lunar New Year is February 5th.

Pics from last year's celebration in Thunderbolt.
  • Pics from last year's celebration in Thunderbolt.

“In Vietnam, when it’s peaceful and everyone has a good job, we enjoy it for one month, can you imagine? We say ‘January is the month to celebrate!’

At least for 10 days,” he says. Several festivals help local Vietnamese extend these good times.

Nguyen, a Catholic priest, oversees the tét festival organized by his church, that of Saints Peter and Paul in Thunderbolt. I found out about this annual event many years ago from my spouse, who found out about it from a Vietnamese co-worker.

And here’s where I apologize to you and the Vietnamese Nationalist Association, which runs an equally amazing, colorful and delicious festival, which took place last weekend.

Any others I didn’t know about? Both events pack 400-600 people into social halls.

They do this with virtually no publicity. It seems like the only way you know about these festivals is through the family, church or neighborhood grapevines.

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But with an estimated 3,000+ Vietnamese people living in Savannah, you don’t need the media to pack a hall.

“It’s a big family,” says Do Vuong, President of the Savannah Vietnamese Nationalist Association.

“We gather, we see each other, maybe sometimes we see some friends just once a year. We wish each other good luck and good health for the coming year.”

It really does feel like a family reunion, except for parading dragons getting stuffed with dollar bills, drums and incense, karaoke and games of chance involving gourds, crabs, shrimp and fish. The announcements from the stage are in Vietnamese and English.

How the Vietnamese came to live in our area goes back, as it does in much of America, to the 20 years that followed Vietnam War, when about 1.6 million Vietnamese refugees fled violence to our country. About half escaped in dangerous overseas journeys.

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Nguyen and Vuong were among them.

“Almost all of us were in the same situation,” Nguyen says. “We left the country by boat, applied to be refugees in Canada and the United States and were admitted. Then we came together.”

Nguyen became a priest in Canada and moved here 22 years ago to serve Vietnamese Catholics.

Vuong was among many Vietnamese who first came here during the war when Hunter Army Airfield trained nationalist fighters in helicopter piloting.

Vuong flew choppers in Vietnam, an activity that landed him in a concentration camp from which he escaped by boat. Boats brought many Vietnamese here. and also led to their success in a local and much-loved industry.

“A lot of people were fishermen,” Vuong says. “That’s why we founded [the VNA] to help people who don’t speak English.”

But the best thing about these festivals is seeing young people, who never knew the war or the language, keeping family traditions alive.

“It allows us to preserve our culture in this country, especially for the children, for them to know about our new year,” Vuong says.  Happy Year of the Pig!

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