Welcoming the new year
• Photo gallery: Tet Nguyen Dan
By Zenaida Serrano
Advertiser Staff Writer
As Phuong Thi Vo danced, her draping costume of pretty pastels wafted with every graceful gesture she made.
Vo and other members of Tan Huong Sen, a Vietnamese dance club, were in the middle of rehearsing for last Sunday's Vietnamese New Year Festival at Kapi'olani Park.
The actual lunar new year holiday falls on Sunday and is celebrated with traditions that families strive to perpetuate among Vietnamese youth.
"It's just a really good thing to pass (these traditions) on to your child to know their culture," said Vo, 16, of Lanakila.
Properly called "Tet Nguyen Dan" — or the "Festival of the First Dawning (of the New Year)" — the holiday is commonly called Tet, said Stephen O'Harrow, professor of Vietnamese at the University of Hawai'i-Mānoa.
"For the Vietnamese, the lunar new year ... is both a time to relax and enjoy oneself, as well as a marker of new beginnings," said O'Harrow, who's also the chairman of UH's Department of Indo-Pacific Languages and Literatures.
Starting off the new year "correctly" can set in motion good luck for the rest of the year, O'Harrow said.
"For this reason, many people believe it is imperative to get important things done before the beginning of the year: They pay off outstanding debts, clean the house and take care of burdens now, so that these burdens do not continue into the future," he said. "It is also a time to remember their forebears with prayers, incense and offerings of delicious food, including fruit and sweets."
O'Harrow's wife is Vietnamese, and they have three children, ages 41, 35 and 16. O'Harrow said as his children grew up, they always took part in Tet celebrations at home: performing ceremonies at their family altar to honor deceased family members, cleaning their house and eating special foods. Typical holiday fare includes mut, which are sweet treats made from fruit.
They would also attend Tet parties organized among Vietnamese students and teachers within the UH community.
"Tet has always been an important part of our family," O'Harrow said.
Carrying on Tet customs among today's youth is crucial, especially since many who were born in America or who came to this country as youngsters may have become disconnected from their Vietnamese roots, said Tong Ma, president of the Free Vietnam Organization in Hawai'i.
Ma's organization sponsors the annual Vietnamese New Year Festival, which typically draws about 4,000 attendees.
"It's very important ... to keep the Vietnamese traditions going," Ma said.
Last week at Kapi'olani Park, Vo and five other Tan Huong Sen dancers — all dressed in colorful costumes called ao dai cua bac — rehearsed a festival dance that combined traditional northern Vietnamese and contemporary styles.
During a break, the teens reflected on the upcoming holiday and its meaning among their own families.
Vo, who was born in Hawai'i, said her parents raised her to honor Tet and other Vietnamese traditions early on: They taught her the language, enrolled her in Vietnamese school and took her on trips back home to Vietnam.
And every year around Tet, they would take Vo to lunar new year events in the community, including Chinatown, because of the similarities between Chinese and Vietnamese New Year celebrations, said the 11th-grader and Vietnamese Club member at McKinley High School.
Another Tan Huong Sen dancer, also named Phuong Vo, said Tet customs in her home include cleaning house, going to festivals and just being with family.
"Vietnamese families, they always pass it (Tet traditions) down because it has great meaning," said the Kalihi resident, 16. "When you celebrate Tet, to us, it's like you're showing each other love."
Reach Zenaida Serrano at 535-8174. Follow her Twitter updates at www.twitter.com/zenaidaserrano.