By Kai Curry
Northwest Asian Weekly
The founders of Tết in Seattle had a dream. To complement multiple city- and region-wide Tết celebrations, they wanted one large annual festival at the Seattle Center. In 1997, this dream became a reality when, in partnership with Seattle Center Festál, the first Tết in Seattle event took place.
Tết in Seattle founders, representatives from four organizations—the Vietnamese Student Association at the University of Washington (VSA-UW), Mot Dau Noi (Helping Link), Hoi Vo Thuat Thieu Nien Tacoma, and Lien Doan Huong Dao Viet Hung (Vietnamese Overseas Scouts Troop 286)—came together in 1996.
Co-founder Minh-Duc Nguyen said, “As the former UW Asian Commission, Director, I had the opportunity to organize Asian Week in Seattle. After seeing how much people appreciated the diversity of culture and art, I had a dream to introduce the Vietnamese New Year to the larger community so that they could learn about us beyond the Vietnam War.”
Quang Pham, another co-founder, was serving as the president of VSA-UW at that time.
“Our Vietnamese communities are spread out all over western Washington. We wanted Tết in Seattle to bring all Vietnamese people together, as well as the community at-large.”
“Seattle is a big metropolitan city… and it is home to the fourth largest Vietnamese population outside of Vietnam,” said Nguyen. “Furthermore, Tết is such a big celebration in the Vietnamese culture, as much as Thanksgiving and New Year put together, it deserves to be highlighted as a major event in the city.”
Tết occurs on the first day of the Lunar New Year, and is celebrated over a period of several days. As with other Lunar New Year traditions, Tết is a time when people resolve the previous year’s conflicts, seek blessings for the coming year, and gather together with family and friends to share good food and good times.
“Tết is the most celebrated holiday, a national holiday, celebrated for days,” said Sinh Tran, one of the representatives from Troop 286. “Family members gather to wish each other health, prosperity, and celebrate a new year, a new age. It was very important to us founders to keep the tradition alive and promote this rich cultural celebration to other communities.”
“Tết in Seattle brings people together to celebrate the Vietnamese culture, irrespective of age, religion, origin, sex, politics, etc.” said Pham. Tran emphasized as well the importance of sharing Tết among not only the Vietnamese population, but also with the city and state as a whole.
Tran also expressed that “the idea is to preserve and promote and for the younger generations to learn more about the Vietnamese culture.” Tran commented that whereas the founders had difficulties, especially at the beginning, the younger generations have different challenges—learning the culture as well as the language, since Vietnamese is now a second or third language for their children and grandchildren. Tết in Seattle, with its festivities centered around food, fashion, art, and entertainment, is a way to brush up on many aspects of Vietnamese culture.
Getting together for Tết is also a time to remember shared experiences and stories. Pham, who now lives in Austin, Texas, came to the United States in 1987 after escaping from Vietnam by boat and spending a year in a refugee camp in the Philippines. Tran’s family also escaped Vietnam by boat. After seven days crossing the ocean to the Philippines and two years living in the refugee camps there, his family settled in Longview, Wash. in 1981. Tết can be a time to celebrate how far we have come.
Tran, Pham, and Nguyen remembered what it was like getting ready for the first Tết in Seattle festival.
“There’s a saying in Vietnamese, ‘Vạn sự khởi đầu nan’, which means everything has a difficult beginning,” said Nguyen. “This goes for Tết in Seattle as we had to start from scratch. Although we had some help with the venue, we needed to do fundraising, getting various organizations, churches, temples involved with food, performance, promotion, etc. The hardest part was explaining the importance of not isolating our community but to bring better understanding.”
“Tết is a big celebration for all Vietnamese communities, so most would have their own Tết celebration event. It was challenging to coalesce others to participate in Tết in Seattle,” recalled Pham. In the beginning, arranging food service was particularly difficult as many local Vietnamese restaurants did not have off-site equipment or manpower that could make food for such a large gathering, not to mention the fact that they are already busy during Lunar New Year at their restaurants.
“Food is a major part of the celebration and we are proud to introduce Vietnamese cultural foods to other communities,” said Tran.
Nowadays, participants are more accustomed to what is required, and the community at large has come to look forward to the annual celebration at Seattle Center. The success of Tết has been very gratifying for the founders.
The biggest reward, the founders agree, is passing on Tết to the next generation.
“We have passed on the baton to others after the first several years of our involvement,” Pham shared. VSA-UW remains involved in Tết in Seattle, as do Vietnamese and Vietnamese American students at Seattle University. The founders continue to act as advisors when needed. “We are fortunate that the younger generation took over and is keeping the momentum going,” said Tran.
Anyone can volunteer to help with Tết in Seattle. In reflecting upon his own valuable experience with the founders, Tran highly recommended doing so: “Volunteering is always rewarding. I learned a lot from doing this. It’s been many years, and I can remember the long hours we spent and the challenges we faced, but the reward is real. I hope Tết in Seattle will keep going for a long time.”
The Tết founders will be honored at the Top Contributors award dinner on Dec. 6 at China Harbor Restaurant in Seattle, from 6–9 p.m. To purchase tickets, go to topcontributors2019.bpt.me.
For more information about Tết in Seattle, or to volunteer, please visit tetinseattle.org.
Kai can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.