- Associated Press - Sunday, February 14, 2021

BILOXI, Miss. (AP) - For Jennifer Bui’s family, celebrating Tet, the Vietnamese Lunar New Year, looked different during the pandemic.

In a normal year, the Vietnamese Martyr’s Church would be hosting a three-day festival, drawing thousands of people from around the Gulf Coast. Bui and her family would visit the homes of grandparents and other relatives, sharing meals at each stop. This year, that was canceled: the church decided two months ago that it was too dangerous to host so many people, and Bui’s family didn’t want to expose older relatives to potential risk.

But a few things remained “mandatory” as the Coast rang in the Year of the Ox on Friday. Bui had to travel home from Starkville to be with her parents. And the family still attended a special Mass for the first day of the Lunar New Year at Vietnamese Martyr’s Church.

After a year defined by the upheaval and loss of a global pandemic, doing at least that much seemed essential.

“The new year is all about wishing each other good fortune, good luck,” Bui said.

In Vietnam, Tết Nguyên Đán, celebrating the Lunar New Year and ushering in the spring, is the most important holiday of the year. For weeks leading up to it, the streets are packed as people rush to finish buying food, decorations and plants: in northern Vietnam, peach trees are an essential Tet decoration, while in the South, families buy yellow mai flowers.

This year, the first day of the Lunar New Year fell on Friday. Traditionally, that day is reserved for spending time with family. But in Biloxi, people gather in more public settings throughout the holiday.

Krystina Tu spent the day at Chua Van Duc, the Buddhist temple next to Vietnamese Martyrs Church. Last year, she celebrated Tet with her extended family in southern Vietnam.

“Here, you don’t have as much family, so you rely on the community,” she said.


Bui and her family gathered with hundreds of others for a special mass at 9 a.m. Friday. The crowd wore masks, and there were fewer attendees than in a normal year. Mass attendees received envelopes containing lucky money, or lì xì, symbolizing hopes for prosperity in the new year.

Parish council president Andrew Bui said that he had hoped until about two months ago that the church would be able to host its usual three-day festival, which is a major fundraising event as well as an opportunity for fellowship. Instead, that was pared down to just the Mass.

“We hope for more blessings, prosperity, peace, joy and happiness,” he said. “And that COVID will go away.”

After the Mass, parishioners braved the rain to set off fireworks in front of the church.

The Rev. Father John Thang Pham said that his service had discussed the symbolism of the Ox. The second of the 12 zodiac signs, the Ox is considered hard-working and methodical. Addressing his congregation, many members of whom are first-generation immigrants he has seen working relentlessly to build a life for their families here, Father Thang urged balance.

“Everyone has to work, for sure, but the first thing is time for God,” he said.


At Lee’s Market, the Vietnamese grocery store on Division Street, plans for a dragon dance were canceled because of the rain. But the Lunar New Year was still celebrated inside with decorative lanterns and wall hangings for sale, as well as special Tet foods like bánh chưng, a savory cake made from sticky rice, mung bean and pork.

Assistant manager Tyler Ly, 23, said that business had been steady throughout the pandemic.

“People still need to eat,” he said.

But this year’s Tet felt “different.”

“It’s just stricter,” he said. “People want to follow COVID guidelines.”

Store manager Vivian Nguyen said that even in 2021, they had nearly sold out of many of the Tet items they had stocked, including flower pots. (The yellow mai flowers, for example, symbolize wealth and prosperity.)

“We can’t stop this,” she said.


At Chua Van Duc, temple president Tanya Kennedy took photographs of families gathered to pray. Kennedy said the rain, in addition to the pandemic, seemed to be keeping people away. The pandemic has created a financial crunch for the temple, which relies on donations. Recently, Kennedy has been paying some bills out of her own pocket.

The temple’s nun, Su Co Phuc Lien, passed out bottles of water and oranges, symbolizing luck and health from the Buddha. The altar was decorated with yellow chrysanthemums.

“When you see yellow chrysanthemums, you know it’s Tet,” said Krystina Tu.

Tu spent Thursday night, the last day of the Year of the Rat, at Chua Van Duc. Then she came back early Friday morning to help her mother prepare vegetarian stir-fried noodles.

For Tu, this year’s Tet was very different from last year’s, which she spent with family in Vietnam. The country is seen as a major international success story when it comes to controlling the virus: with nearly 100 million people, Vietnam has recorded just over 2,000 COVID-19 cases and 35 deaths. That’s in part due to strict lockdowns early on, as well as mandatory quarantines and extraordinarily detailed contact tracing.

But a recent spate of U.K. variant COVID-19 cases in Vietnam have forced parts of the country back into lockdown. Tu, who enjoyed family meals and visits to night markets last Tet, was wondering when she might be able to return to the country where she was born. Currently, international arrivals to Vietnam must quarantine for 14 days, and plane tickets are expensive.

Tu’s uncle died on Thanksgiving, she said, and the family is hoping to bring his ashes to Vietnam before his death anniversary, or at least sometime during the Year of the Ox.

“Hopefully COVID will go away this year,” she said.

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