Tag Archives: Vietnamese tradition

Vietnamese Tradition: Lunar New Year Outfits


Informant G is a 20 year old Cinema and Media Studies major from The Inland Empire in Southern California. Her family is primarily Vietnamese and Cambodian, and G lived in Vietnam for periods of time as a child. She is a junior at USC.


Please excuse any grammar issues, these are direct text message quotes. G sent me a photo of herself and her older sister wearing áo dài. She said the following:

“During Lunar New Year (Tết in Vietnamese) most people wear áo dài which is the traditional Vietnamese dress/costume/outfit. Although, it’s not exclusively worn during Lunar New Years, most people buy new áo dàis or wear their best one as a way to start the new year off well.”

When I asked about further significance in the type of áo dài, she replied

“they more symbolize the significance of an event, like people can wear it in their casual life but the fancier an áo dài the more formal/significant an event is”

“the color is also very important (not as much any more) but during Tet a lot of people wear red áo dài because it represents luck and prosperity”


There are a number of significant details in this anecdotal description. For one thing, G clearly indicates an association with life cycle. There is a purpose in the kind of áo dài worn as one enters the new year. She mentions that people might “buy new áo dàis” – perhaps as a physical representation of newness – or wear their best one as a way of instating luck. G explained that áo dài is a Vietnamese garment that can be worn casually, but a fancier one is considered more formal and correlates with the event for which it’s worn. G also mentions that the color red has some significance. I find this interesting because, though Vietnam is considered a Southeast Asian country, imperialism brought bits of Chinese culture into Vietnamese culture, and the East Asian significance of the color red has been part of Vietnamese tradition, too. Traditions done for the purpose of bringing luck into the new year are incredibly common (ie: Latin Americans eating 12 grapes or bringing a suitcase around the block) – they are meant to induce prosperity, and multiple aspects of wearing fancy, or sometimes red áo dài reflect that folkloric commonality.

Vietnamese “Day of the Dead”


My informant is a 20 year old student at the University of Southern California (USC). This conversation took place one night at Cafe 84, a place where many students at USC go to study at night. The informant and I sat alone at our own table, but were in an open space where there was a lot of background noise. In this account, he talks about a Vietnamese tradition, similar to the Day of the Dead, that his family practices every year in order to honor and respect his family’s ancestors. My informant says he never officially learned this folklore, but rather that his mom “just started doing it… One day I woke up and there’s just this altar in the middle of my house.” This is a transcription of his folklore, where he is identified as N and I am identified as K.



N: Hello, so um, this is really similar to the Spanish Day of the Dead—I don’t really know what it’s called to be honest—but it’s kind of like an ancestral worship thing, so like…


K: But specific only to Vietnamese?


N: Yeah for Vietnamese people! So we have a bunch of pictures of our ancestors, and then we have a bunch of food that we put on the table… Honestly we didn’t do much more than that. I’m pretty there’s a whole other tradition that went along with it…


K: Okay but why did you do it?


N: Just to like worship your ancestors and stuff. Like, “pay respect to your ancestors” kind of thing, and we’d just have pictures of a bunch on them on our table and we’d like offer them, like, Vietnamese food offerings.


K: Were they supposed to, like, come back and visit you or something?


N: No… well, maybe, I don’t know! Yeah… so that’s it.



In this account, it was clear that my informant didn’t know a lot about the tradition and was even slightly unenthusiastic about it. This may be attributed to the fact that he’s uncomfortable because he feels that he should know more about the tradition because his family has been doing it every year ever since he can remember. During our conversation, it seemed like he felt a little ashamed or guilty that he wasn’t as informed, especially when he knows it’s so important to his family.

In a separate conversation, my informant told me that his parents were immigrants to this country, but that he was born in Los Angeles, California. Sometimes, people can be embarrassed or shy when they tell cultural stories, especially if they don’t have strong connections to their culture, which seems to be the case with my informant. Even though he gets the gist of it, my informant seems disconnected from this practice because he was never the one to set up the altar, pull out the photos of his ancestors, or cook the food that his family offered. In this case, my informant seems to only be a passive bearer of this tradition: he can recognize the folklore when it’s performed or being created, but he doesn’t seem capable of replicating it. His parents, on the other hand, have clearly been the active bearers of this tradition in his family. This could be due to the fact that they are immigrants, and thus are much more strongly connected to its purpose.

This tradition speaks to immigrant status and identity; my informant is in a liminal state of being a part of a Vietnamese identity because he was born to Vietnamese parents, but also being American because of the fact that he was born and raised in America. Because of this, he loses a lot of the authenticity of his Vietnamese identity. Even from the very start, we can see that he introduces this tradition not by it’s Vietnamese name, but as a tradition that is “similar to the Spanish Day of the Dead.” Perhaps this is because in America, Day of the Dead is much more well-known and integrated into American culture than most other ethnic holidays. For example, when I took Spanish in high school, we would celebrate Day of the Dead every year as a way to immerse ourselves into the culture. As a child, it’s possible that he came to understand his own family’s folklore in the context of America. Thus, rather than thinking that Day of the Dead is similar to this Vietnamese tradition that his family practices, his mind was instead wired to notice that this tradition is similar to the popular holiday of Day of the Dead.

On the other hand, understanding that Day of the Dead is a much more understood and well-known celebration, my informant perhaps uses Day of the Dead to explain his tradition in terms of other peoples folklore to help it be better understood. His way of introducing it as a Vietnamese version of the Day of the Dead could be his way of saying “Day of the Dead is not a mainstream holiday, and neither is mine.”