This content is also available in: Vietnamese
By: Nguyen Ngoc Ngan / Interview by: Chris Tran
When the spring and Lunar New Year arrives, Vietnamese people across all seven continents keenly embrace traditional New Year rituals. People rush into preparations for the Lunar New Year and their hearts are aglow with joy. However, few know the origin of these rituals. Many assume that the Vietnamese traditional Lunar New Year originated in Chinese culture. To shed light on this confusion, Culture Magazin held an exclusive interview with writer Nguyen Ngoc Ngan. With his scholarly background, profound knowledge of culture and history and a quarter of a century spent hosting Paris By Night, he has been able to bring traditional culture closer to Vietnamese families, especially the younger generation. Read on to learn of Nguyen Ngoc Ngan’s amazing career and the history of the Vietnamese Lunar New Year.
What does the celebration of the 25th anniversary of Thuy Nga Paris By Night mean to you?
I recently finished a cultural tour, “25th Anniversary Onstage,” in various cities in the United States, Canada, Europe and Australia. Initially, it was not my idea. On the second Lunar day of 2017, show manager Steven Mai had intended to promote a show called “Ballads of Lam Phuong” at Casino Winstar in the state of Oklahoma. In the end, Steven changed his mind because he feared the Lunar New Year would sound so tragic with Lam Phuong’s music and the audience would be upset. Steven came to me and suggested changing the show into the 25th Anniversary of Nguyen Ngoc Ngan. Thanks to the big success of this performance, many show managers have contacted me to suggest putting on a show for me in their areas. For a senior like me, the 25th milestone marked a milestone on my career path. I don’t know how long this path will continue. This was an opportunity for me to visit different cities and directly express my gratitude to the audiences who have been supporting me over a quarter of a century.
The Lunar New Year plays a crucial role in Vietnamese culture. Can you shed light on the origin of these traditions?
Let’s jump in the time machine: Tết (Lunar New Year) was derived from Tiết. Tiết refers to momentary zones in a year. For instance, “Thanh minh (grave visiting anniversary day) takes place momentarily in Lunar March” (The Tale of Kieu) or “The sky is momentarily in a chilly winter (24 Figures of Filial Piety).”
There are many Tết celebrations in a year, for instance the Cold Food Tết, Mid-Year Tết, and Mid-Autumn Tết. The year opening Tết is traditionally called the Grand Tết, or called in Chinese as Tết Nguyên Đán (the first morning of a year). Subsequently, thanks to the New Year celebration in the Gregorian calendar, Tết is clearly distinguished as the Lunar New Year, or Vietnamese New Year.
Originally, the Tết was dictated for two purposes. The first was to welcome our parents, grandparents and deceased forefathers home in order to pay homage and converge the mortal world and underworld at the beginning of a year. Secondly, festivities were to take place to make up for grueling farm days in a largely agrarian society. Hence, the Tết must have occurred in leisure times following harvests, and was honoured with sumptuous feasts after laborious times. As a result, people rarely say “celebrate the Tết,” but instead “savor the Tết”! It means the Tết was exclusive for totally different and much more lavish meals. Over time, the Tết became the most important event of a year, although we no longer profoundly relied on agriculture.
What are do’s and don’ts in the Lunar New Year?
For me universal do’s include homage to our forefathers and visits to pagodas or churches to pay tribute to the gods and pray for good luck in a new year. Many taboos in the Tết have been frequently mentioned in the Paris By Night show as well as in this magazine. Some are naturally appropriate, for instance, we should shy away from arguing, raising voices and giving heavy punishment to children. There should be no borrowing of money and we should greet everyone with smiles and good wishes.
Some taboos are simply nonsense and not worth a second thought. For instance, the taboo of forbidding consumption of shrimps in the Tết because they crawl backwards, or ducks because of the idiom “water dribbles over a duck’s head,” which means wealth will be ill spent.