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Man spends decades preserving Tet in England

By Pham Nga   February 3, 2022 | 09:00 pm PT
When temperatures in Gloucester dropped to minus one degree Celsius by end January, the peach blossom tree in Vinh Le's home began to bloom as if in preparation for Tet.

It's been a tradition for Vinh's nail salon to bring out all the peach blossom and kumquat trees whenever someone back home talked about Tet preparations. Vinh, 50, would close the salon and shop for Tet goods, while his wife and two children clean up and redecorate. He also prepares the Tet staple sticky rice cakes banh chung and numerous other dishes for both his family and their Vietnamese friends in England.

Vinh Le prepares the Tet sticky rice cakes banh chung at his home in the U.K. Photo courtesy of Vinh Le

Vinh Le prepares the Tet sticky rice cakes banh chung at his home in England. Photo courtesy of Vinh Le

Vinh's first Tet away from home was when he was 18, confined within the barbwires of a refugee camp in Hong Kong. Hearing the sounds of fireworks in the sky and people around him cheering for the new year, Vinh could do nothing but weep.

"It was an unforgettable experience. I told myself that once I get out of there, no matter how hard life becomes, I would never skip celebrating Tet," Vinh said.

When he finally settled in England, he had all the jobs one could think of: from tailoring to cooking to his current profession of running a nail salon. He said everything he did was for his little family to be able to celebrate Tet like everyone else, to remind them of their roots and in some ways, fill up a void inside him.

Vinh's wife, 45-year-old Khanh Do, said she supported Vinh's Tet celebrations as a fellow Vietnamese migrant.

"While my children don't live in Vietnam, they know all about Vietnamese culture and are fluent in the Vietnamese language," she said.

When the couple first moved to England, traditional Vietnamese food and ingredients were hard to find. Vinh had to request relatives back home to send him seeds of numerous plants, like morning glory or sweet potato. So far, their garden has offered more plant varieties than even the local markets in England.

Vinh Le prays by a table of Tet offerings at his home in the U.K. Photo courtesy of Vinh Le

Vinh Le prays by a table of Tet offerings at his home in England. Photo courtesy of Vinh Le

Vinh had to import many Tet goods from China, though it never felt the same. As such, Vinh decided to learn about making jams and other traditional dishes from scratch. He even decided to cultivate the peach blossom branches used as decorations himself instead of relying on expensive imports.

He tried numerous ways to make his peach blossoms bloom in time for Tet but didn't see a satisfactory result due to England's much colder temperatures and different time frames for the blossoms to bloom.

Vinh later relocated his trees from his garden to spot with temperatures around 10-15 degrees Celsius and with ample natural light, among other requirements. Thanks to his ceaseless efforts, Vinh managed to turn seemingly dead twigs into lively flowers that bloom just in time for Tet.

"I shared my experience with the Vietnamese communities abroad so everyone could have their own peach blossoms to celebrate Tet," he said.

Vinh also kept a Tet tradition to gift his loved ones in England presents, something some people in the countryside in Vietnam still do.

"At first there were people who laughed at me, telling me I was living in the West now, not Vietnam. But I kept this tradition going as I want my fellow countrymen to be reminded more of Tet back home," he explained.

Children from Vinh Le and his friends families in the U.K. pose for a photo in Vietnamese traditional dress and with Tet lucky money li xi. Photo courtesy of Vinh Le

Children from Vinh Le and his friends' families in England pose for a photo in Vietnamese traditional dress and with Tet lucky money li xi. Photo courtesy of Vinh Le

Dinh Pham, a friend of Vinh in England, said he was touched to receive numerous Tet presents over the past two decades, like banh chung or wine, from Vinh.

"I'm someone who's decades older than he is and often think about the past myself, but I was surprised to see his love for Vietnam and the Vietnamese culture," he said.

When the new year arrived, Vinh's entire family celebrated the occasion with each other. He also celebrated it with those he could not meet in-person, either through the phone or text messages.

In the past several years, Vinh and other Vietnamese England often celebrated the Tet festival on the first Sunday of the Lunar New Year. There were singing and dancing and giving kids lucky money.

During the days leading up to Tet, Vinh was busier than ever, having to juggle between running his own business and instructing people on celebrating Tet with the community.

"I just hope that everyone's healthy and have peace, so they could celebrate Tet every year in England as if it's in Vietnam."

 
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