'I'm home': Overseas Vietnamese return for Tet after Covid

By Minh Tam, Ngan Ngoc   January 21, 2023 | 06:36 am PT
'I'm home': Overseas Vietnamese return for Tet after Covid
Richie Nguyen, a Vietnamese living in Toronto, go out to celebrate Tet in HCMC's District 1, January 17, 2023. Photo by VnExpress/Minh Tam
Huong hadn't felt "at home" in four years, until her feet touched the ground at Ho Chi Minh City's Tan Son Nhat International Airport on January 10.

Vietnamese-American Nguyen Lan Huong, 60, has spent three decades living in Texas. She normally returns to Vietnam for Tet, but she had not been able to so for the last four years, mostly due to the Covid shutdown.

She said it was too long a time for her and many other Vietnamese living abroad.

"Even now, the exhilarating feeling of walking on my motherland's soil still remains," she said, adding that there were many other Vietnamese-Americans on the same flight as hers. They were all excited to celebrate Tet at home, she said.

On Friday, Huong asked her niece to take her to a flower market at Gia Dinh Park in Go Vap District. She took photos the whole time, noting how much Saigon has changed over time.

"I was like a child again, pointing at things and marveling at how beautiful they are," Huong said.

Huong had planned to return to Vietnam for Tet back in 2020, but the Covid-19 pandemic canceled all that. 2021 was the same. But as the coronavirus situation lessened last year, Huong started to get excited. Even amid a global economic crisis, she was determined to go home and saved up money to do so.

"I bought my tickets six months prior and just wanted time to go quickly so I could come home."

During her years in the U.S., she still retained her Tet rituals, buying decorations and making traditional Tet meals, toasting her loved ones for a happy new year.

But there's still no place like home.

"At those times," she said, "I still thought to myself that there was no Tet like Tet in Vietnam."

This Tet, Huong said she wanted to go to the market herself to buy decorations, fruits and other snacks. She also canceled invitations to go traveling, choosing to spend time with her family instead.

"After Covid-19, I realized how fleeting life is. That's why we should choose to prioritize the families we love," she said.

Official data say there are over 5.3 million Vietnamese living in 130 countries and territories, including over two million associated with Ho Chi Minh City. A Tan Son Nhat representative said the airport had been fielding around 300 international flights per day recently. The representative said this Tet season had welcomed over 42,000 entrants into Vietnam so far.

'Wherever I am, I am Vietnamese'

After spending five years living in Toronto, 32-year-old Richie Nguyen returned to Vietnam for Tet this year.

The moment she landed, she took five minutes to breathe in the air around her.

"Saigon is a lot hotter than Canada, but I feel so excited to be home now," she said.

Nguyen, who's from Saigon, said so much had changed in the southern metropolis, including many new bridges and skyscrapers.

"But one thing in Saigon that has not changed is the crowded streets and traffic jams," she laughed.

In 2020, Nguyen had planned to return to Vietnam, but the pandemic got in the way.

"I was shocked back then, worrying for my family back home, wondering if it was dangerous. My thoughts ran around all day, and I could not do anything," she said, adding that for two years after that, she worked her hardest to save money for a flight back home.

Nguyen said people still buy red envelopes and prepare "lucky money" during Tet in Canada. Her uncle and aunt's family there still keep some Tet traditions alive, but they also "keep things light."

During the years in which she spent Tet far from home, she felt emptiness inside her, despite the fact that she still had loved ones by her side in Canada. On Lunar New Year's Eve, Nguyen would always video call back home to wish her family a happy new year.

"During those times, I wondered why I'm here," she said. "I wanted to go home so bad."

This Tet, Nguyen plans to take her mother shopping at the supermarket, then buy flowers and decorations for her father's apricot blossoms.

"Wherever I am, I am Vietnamese. I will still crave banh chung (Tet sticky rice cake), give out 'lucky money' to kids and go to people's homes to wish them a happy Tet."

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