Up until 2011, I thought that everybody in Saigon had the same Tet every year, with apricot flowers in the living room and bánh chưng or bánh tét on the altar, and family trips to the Nguyen Hue flower street and prayers to Buddha at pagodas.
Then, a new year walk in Cho Lon during the Tet holiday of 2011 changed everything.
I found out there was another Tet that I had never experienced before. Red paper scrolls covered doors, the scent of incense coiled all over the neighborhood, the way local dwellers worshipped their deities or the color of several strange cakes — they were such a discovery to me.
Since then, Cho Lon has become my favorite place to visit every year to see, explore and feel the vibe of Tet. Unlike the majority Kinh ethnic group, Hoa Vietnamese maintain a specific set of traditions of their own, a mix between Chinese customs from their ancestors and the local culture where they settled down.
This uniqueness also motivates me to keep on shooting my documentary photography project about Tet in Cho Lon. Selected from a collection of images captured over the years, this photo story covers the Vietnamese Lunar New Year in the Hoa community here from the beginning of the last lunar month (Tháng Chạp) to the days prior to the Lantern Festival, which is the biggest festival of the community and deserves a whole other photo essay.
This photo story might not cover everything about Tet in the Chinese-Vietnamese community, but it is an effort to give a glimpse through the eyes of a man who is on his way to define the identity of his home city, Saigon–Cho Lon.
Like other calligraphers in the Chinese Vietnamese community, Mr. Kien Quoc, a veteran calligrapher gets busy in days before Tet to prepare handwriting scrolls for his customers. Every Lunar New Year, the Chinese Vietnamese love to buy handwriting scrolls, mostly written in Chinese with words of wisdom and luck, to decorate their house and shops.
Around one month before the holiday, vendors on Hai Thuong Lan Ong Street start their busiest season of the year. This is the place to be for Tet decorations, from red envelopes for lucky money to tiny ornaments for hanging on trees.
People queue for their turn to pray on the first day of Lunar New Year at Tue Thanh Assembly Hall (Thien Hau Pagoda).
The working schedule of a Chinese lion and dragon dance troupe in District 11. Tet is the busiest time for these troupes in Cho Lon. Lion and dragon dances are an indispensable part of Chinese-Vietnamese merchants’ business opening ceremony in the new lunar year. Families also invite troupes to dance at their house for luck and prosperity in Tet.
A khai quang điểm nhãn — literal: “Eyes opening and dotting” — ritual conducted on new lion dance costumes at Hung Dung Duong troupe in District 11. As a tradition, before being worn, new lion costumes are blessed with dots on their eyes, ears, nose, mouth, leg, forehead and other parts by sponsors or special guests of the troupe under the guidance of a specially trained master. These lion costumes are for the new working lunar year of the troupe.
Pilgrims in Chinese temples usually buy bottles of cooking oil to pour into burning lamps while saying their names. The custom is to wish for enlightenment and smoothness in everything in life, such as work or love.
Hanging incense coils are ubiquitous in any Chinese temple. During Tet, visitors donate money to the temple by buying incense coils with their written wishes for the new year. The incense coils are then hung inside the temple.
Locals make offerings to the White Tiger while “hitting the petty person” — đánh tiểu nhân — at On Lang Assembly Hall. The custom is a popular folk ritual among the Cantonese community to prevent harm from malicious people.
People make donations to assembly halls and temples during Tet. Their name and families are written on red pieces of paper and stuck along the halls as a sign of good luck and gratitude from the community who runs the assembly hall.
A corner at Phung Hung Market. Markets in Cho Lon are usually opened on the second day of Tet for food and good luck. Traditional cakes like bánh tổ (nian gao), bánh trái lựu (pomegranate cake) or bánh phát tài (steamed prosperity cake) are still on sale throughout the holiday.
Phung Hung Market in days before Tet. Lạp xưởng (Chinese sausages) are among must-buy groceries these days for families of Chinese origin. As a traditional dish to start a new year, Chinese-Vietnamese eat lạp xưởng to wish for good developments in work and health.
Every morning of “30 Tết,” the last day of the previous lunar new year, people in Cho Lon always gather to watch performances of lion dance troupes when troupe members pray to the gods before touring across the city during Tet.
On the last day of a lunar year, lion and dragon dance troupes gather at Tue Thanh Assembly Hall (Thien Hau Pagoda) and Nghia An Assembly Hall (Ong Pagoda) to pray for good luck and success before starting their performance tours across the city to celebrate Tet.
A ritual at Ha Chuong Assembly Hall (or Ong Huoc Pagoda). To reconcile the Three Calamities (warfare, famine, pestilence), one must rotate the fan seven times to the left. To wish that everything would go well, rotate the fan eight times to the right.
During the pilgrimage to Chinese pagodas and temples during Tet, touching gods is commonly believed to be good luck.
A kid and his mom with votive papers and offerings for gods at Nghia An Assembly Hall in District 5.
Like bánh chưng of the Kinh ethnic community, bánh tổ (or nian gao) is the traditional new year cake for Tet among ethnic Chinese. Made from glutinous rice and sugar, bánh tổ is a must-have for altars and rituals. It is also considered good luck to eat bánh tổ during Tet because “nian gao” is a homonym for “higher year,” meaning a good wish for longevity.
A dragon dance during the Tet holiday in 2021. Traditions go on with masks.
“Khai trương hồng phát” (Opening with prosperity and fortune) is a common term that is usually written in golden Chinese calligraphy on red scrolls. Chinese-Vietnamese always display these words during Tet and especially when they reopen their shops for the first time in the new lunar year to seek good luck for their business.
Outside an oyster sauce shop, the date for reopening in the new year with best wishes for customers is hand-written in Chinese and Vietnamese by calligraphers on red paper scrolls. This is still a common custom for Tet in Cho Lon.
Thien Hau Pagoda on the second day of the Year of the Ox.
Offerings by a Chinese-Vietnamese community for Than Tai (the God of Wealth or Fortune) on the second day of Lunar New Year. This is usually the day to open for business in the Chinese community.