Tet a more elaborate, extravagant affair in Vietnam: Korean student

By Huynh Nhi   February 13, 2021 | 05:00 pm PT
Kim Ju Hee usually goes home to South Korea for Lunar New Year celebrations, but stuck in Vietnam this year, she gets a new cultural immersion opportunity.

Ju Hee, 23, came to Vietnam in 2019 to pursue higher studies, but this is the first time she is staying in the country during the Lunar New Year holiday.

Her initial plan was to celebrate the New Year in the capital city, Hanoi, stroll around Hoan Kiem (Sword) Lake, take pictures, relish local specialties, and visit some friends. The recent Covid-19 complications prompted her to cancel the trip.

"I had already booked flight tickets so it was sad having to cancel them. But it is not safe to travel during this time," she said.

Ju Hee said the weather in Ho Chi Minh City is pleasant but it does not offer the diversity she is used to. There is only a dry season and a wet one.

"Sometimes I’m bored because the lack of different seasons makes time feel stagnant. On the other hand, Hanoi has all four seasons, like Korea."

Unable to embark on her northern region adventure for the holiday, Ju Hee decided to explore the Tet traditions in HCMC.

She learned how to wrap chung cakes (savory sticky rice cakes) with friends and enjoyed traditional Tet treats like mut (candied fruits). She found wrapping the chung cake a difficult and elaborate process.

"Koreans typically have rice cakes and steamed buns which are not wrapped in leaves. I am intrigued by this process of wrapping chung cakes. You have to carefully trim and fold the leaves multiple times. I can’t remember all the steps.

"After the intricate and elaborate preparation, chung and tet cakes (cylindric glutinous rice cakes) emit a herbal scent from the leaves that I love."

South Korean student Ju Hee holds up a wraped chung cake at school. Instead of flying back to Korea this Tet, she will settle for calling home to check in on her parents.

South Korean student Ju Hee holds up a chung cake at school. Photo by VnExpress/Huynh Nhi.

Ju Hee said Lunar New Year is also an important holiday in South Korea as it is an occasion for family reunions. Currently, however, many people are staying in instead of visiting close relatives to exchange New Year greetings because of Covid-19.

The Lunar New Year holiday lasts three days in South Korea, from December 30 until January 2 of the lunar year. During this time, people mostly rest and go to the movies, shops, and meet up with friends for coffee.

Meanwhile, Tet in Vietnam lasts longer, houses are decked out in extravagant decorations, as are shopping malls, public spaces and museums. Many exhibitions are held at this time of the year, she noted.

But the main Tet traditions in Vietnam that have caught Ju Hee’s eyes are the elaborate house decorations and trips to see family in the countryside.

"No matter how far they live or work from their birthplace, Vietnamese people always return to the countryside and visit their parents and relatives for Tet. I admire this because traditions are strongly preserved and adjusted to fit the modern lifestyle."

Another difference between the two countries that Ju Hee remarked on is the green landscape in Vietnam, where it is spring time. In South Korea, Tet takes place in the dead of winter when most plants and flowers wither, rather than bloom as they do in Vietnam.

This year, South Korea has canceled or banned celebratory events and large gatherings. Last December, the government promulgated stricter Covid-19 measures, including a ban on gatherings of over five people until January 17 of the Lunar New Year as well as other social distancing practices.

Ju Hee said that the social distancing level in the Seoul metropolitan area remains at Level 2.5 while all other localities nationwide maintain Level 2. These safety precautions have greatly affected day-to-day life and business operations.

In Vietnam, even though the latest Covid-19 wave has complicated the situation, Ju Hee said she believes in the government’s ability to handle this crisis effectively, as it has done previously.

She hopes to start off her spring with a trip to the Mekong Delta, depending on Covid-19 developments.

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