A string of red firecrackers erupts and the air is filled with thick smoke. People gather on the grounds of Chua Bo De, a Buddhist temple in New Orleans near Belle Chasse. Women in ao dais, a traditional dress, hold their hands together in prayer and bow three times before the white marble statue of Quan Am, the Goddess of Compassion. Men greet friends with warm wishes for a year of good health and prosperity and offer children red envelops with a bit of money. People pose in front of trees that have been decorated with plastic flowers. On one tree, plastic yellow flowers have been carefully wrapped around the branches, and on the other tree, plastic pink flowers, reminding people of the flowering trees in Vietnam that symbolize the new year.
Fireworks on Tet, Vietnamese New Year at Chua Bo De, a Buddhist pagoda in New Orleans. Photo: Allison Truitt.
The smell of incense and firecrackers, the bright yellows and pinks, the red envelopes, the altars adorned with fresh flowers and fruit—all are signs that Tet, the Vietnamese New Year, has arrived!
For many Vietnamese, Tet is one of the most joyous events of the year. People look towards the future, but they also remember the past. More than a celebration of the New Year, it is a celebration within the household of family values, and in Catholic churches and Buddhist temples, of the cultural community. People gather for festivals held in churches and temples to enjoy specially prepared dishes, watch performances by popular singers and troupes of lion dancers, and experience the excitement that explodes on the first day of the New Year.
Vietnamese immigrants began to settle in Louisiana in the late 1970s. The first significant group numbered 2,000 people. They had first resettled in southern Vietnam after the division of the country in 1954, and then immigrated to the United States in 1975. Later people continued to be drawn to the city because of its climate, family ties, and the opportunity to pursue familiar occupations such as fishing. By the year 2000, more than 25,000 people in Louisiana identified themselves as Vietnamese, including more than 14,000 in New Orleans alone. The most significant Vietnamese populations are in New Orleans East and the West Bank communities of Algiers and Avondale, areas where people first settled upon their arrival to the area. Many residents still refer to the communities in New Orleans East and Algiers by Versailles and Woodlawn, the names of the apartment complexes where people were first relocated.
Food And Identity
Like other ethnic groups, people express their Vietnamese identity through food, music, language, and ceremonies. In New Orleans East and on the West Bank, small cafes, grocery stores, and large restaurants cater to the general population, but often advertise their dishes with subtle regional distinctions such as pho (a soup) with a “northern flavor” or bun bo hue, a spicy beef noodle dish from central Vietnam. Vietnamese bakeries, famous for their freshly baked baguettes, are stuffed with pate, cold cuts, and pickled vegetables. For the Mardi Gras season, the bakeries sell king cakes. But there are other dishes that are prepared for household altars and ceremonial occasions, delicacies fit not for Mardi Gras kings, but for Vietnamese kings.
In Vietnamese, the word banh covers a wide range of specialties. A classifier or a basic category within the linguistic and cultural worlds of Vietnamese speakers, banh can mean anything from dumpling to bread to noodle. Banh beo are round dumplings served with a sprinkling of ground shrimp and green onions and drizzled with a special sauce. Banh loc are dumplings made from tapioca starch, stuffed with shrimp and then steamed until the dough becomes a translucent gelatinous treasure to be dipped in soy sauce and flavored oil. Many people still prepare the dishes at home for special occasions or purchase them at the many grocery stories that sell Asian food stuffs.
Some women, like Mrs. Vuong Van Mai, are well-known for a range of specialties they make at home. The work is not hard, but time-consuming. Preparing banh loc takes time because one must knead the dough many times. The batter for banh beo is easy to make. The difficulty is in boiling and then grinding the shrimp to be sprinkled on top of the dish. Whether prepared at home or purchased at one of the many grocery stores that carry Vietnamese specialties, these dishes take on an elevated role in ceremonial feasts.
Household altars offer a sacred space for remembering deceased relatives and paying homage to one”s god. These altars, which may be arranged on a shelf or placed on top of a standing cabinet, are also places of formal religious worship. In many households, the religious iconography identifies the family”s religious faith: a statue of Quan Am in a Buddhist household, the Virgin Mary in a Catholic one. For Buddhists, the offerings may be a plate of oranges and freshly cut flowers, and for Catholics the offerings may be a plate of fried spring rolls and cha lua, a pork paste that is enjoyed on special occasions.
On special occasions—the first days of the lunar New Year, the anniversary of the death of a relative, the announcement of an engagement or in preparation for a wedding—people will place these special dishes on their household altars. While people enjoy eating the many kinds of banh as snacks, some dishes are visible and edible symbols of the delicacies enjoyed by Vietnamese royalty. For the lunar New Year, people buy banh chung, a bulky square cake made from sticky rice and a rich filling of mung bean and small bits of pork fat and wrapped in special leaves so the outer layer of the rice turns green like new rice. Mrs. Vuong only prepares banh chung for the Lunar New Year because its preparation requires so much time: the rice cakes must be boiled 8 or 9 hours.
Rituals, Holidays, And Celebrations
Tet is just one of many days throughout the year that people in the Vietnamese community celebrate. On the fifteenth day of the 8th lunar month, people celebrate Tet Trung Thu, or the mid-Autumn festival. This Tet is affectionately known as children”s Tet because it revolves primarily around children making lanterns, which are then lit with candles for a parade in the church or temple grounds under the light of the full moon.
Both adults and children also enjoy banh trung thu, a cake that is baked to a golden brown and stuffed with lotus seeds, black sesame paste, hard boiled eggs, or durian, a pungent fruit from Southeast Asia.
While these celebrations mark the importance of family relations, another celebration commemorates the founding of the Vietnamese kingdom. For many Vietnamese, the sense of a common identity is rooted in the mythic origins of the Vietnamese kingdom. This celebration is not observed within individual households, but in a public arena, a ritualized performance that is observed by Vietnamese communities around the world, including the Vietnamese-American community in Louisiana.
Performances for Tet Trung Thu, Mid-Autumn Festival, Chua Bo De. The festival is an opportunity for local talent to perform, including the youth dance group. Photo: Allison Truitt.
For Vietnamese, the word for fellow countryman is dong-bao (literally: from the same bag). This word recalls the origin myth of the Vietnamese people who came from the union between Lac Long Quan, a hero who came to the Hong River plain in which is now northern Vietnam, and Au Co, a princess from the mountains. Au Co gave birth to a sack of 100 children, the Vietnamese people. One of the children was Hung Vuong, the first of the Hung kings who established the Vietnamese nation. The first Hung kings are honored in an annual ceremony called Gio To Hung Vuong traditionally held on the 10th day of the 3rd lunar month. The day is commemorated not only in ceremony, but also in well-known verses:
Dù ai buôn bán ngược suôi Nhớ ngày Giỗ Tổ mồng mười tháng ba Dù ai buôn bán gan xa Nhớ ngày Giỗ Tổ tháng ba thì về.
Whoever goes to market in the hills or river, Remember the national day on the tenth day of March. Whoever goes to market near or far, Remember the national day in March, and return.
For Vietnamese communities abroad, this verse has a poignant meaning. It expresses the idea that wherever one goes to earn a living, when they observe the day of the Hung Kings, they return, in spirit, to Vietnam. By observing the day, communities around the world ritually affirm their membership within the Vietnamese nation.
The Vietnamese American Community of Louisiana organizes the annual celebration of the event that takes place on a Sunday on or near the tenth day of the third lunar month, usually in late April. In years prior to Hurricane Katrina, the ceremony was held in New Orleans East on a piece of land that the community had purchased. Organizing the celebration in 2006 presented the Vietnamese-American community with several difficulties. Many members of the ritual team had not yet returned to New Orleans, and the restaurant had been heavily damaged. The organizers requested permission for the ceremony to be held on the grounds of the Buddhist pagoda. In April 2006, the Vietnamese-American Community held the ceremony in the outdoor pavilion of Chua Bo De.
In the ceremonial ritual honoring the Hung Kings, the presentation of military guards and state flags is paramount. Huynh Hong Quan, president of the Vietnamese-American Community, describes the role of the military as giving strength and stability to the nation. Royal flags flank both sides of the state. Graduates from from Tu Duc military academy in southern Vietnam line up on one side of the state. A Vietnamese song, “Vietnam Forever” is played over the loudspeakers, and the color guard then presents the state flags—the American flag and the Southern Vietnamese flag–and the national anthems of both countries is played.
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Before the ceremony even begins, members of the community prepare the offerings. The altar is laid with fresh flowers, large red candles, incense, five kinds of fruit, special rice cakes including banh oan, and three large roasted pigs. A ritual team is trained in the lore of the ceremony—the special steps to approach the altar, the special manner of beating the large drum, the special meaning of the prayer offered to the Kings, and a presentation of dignitaries, adults, and children. As the flame flickers and the incense rises, people believe the spirit of the kings have returned to enjoy the meal prepared by their subjects, “the descendants of the dragon and fairy,” as Long Lac Quan and Au Co are affectionately called.
The oldest member prostrates himself before the altar, demonstrating his submission before the authority of the king by touching his forehead to the ground, while a younger man reads the annual petition to the kings. This ritual is carried out in carefully prescribed steps that resembles a Buddhist ceremony but with noticeable differences. Strict laws ensured that the rituals performed for the king were never duplicated on other occasions: beating the drum, bowing before the altar, and reciting the petition are performed in a manner reserved for kings.
When the team of ritual specialists finishes reading their prayers, the President of the community gives a speech and introduces representatives of the city, which in past years included the Mayor of New Orleans. Members of the community are invited to approach an altar, light incense, and say prayers. They are followed by two groups of children. In Vietnam, the ceremony is performed with fifty boys and fifty girls to represent the descendents of Lac Long Quan and Au Co. In New Orleans, Buddhists and Catholics participate with the two groups represented by the youth groups of Chua Bo De and a Vietnamese Catholic Church.
After the distinguished guests and the children”s groups have finished praying at the altar, several men carry the three roasted pigs and platters of rice cakes down from the altar. Men and women carve the meat and pile it high on plates to be passed out to the participants along with other specialties. The time of ritual gives way to a joyous feast as people sit at the rows of tables, enjoying each other”s company and a meal fit for a king.
New Orleans Temples
The celebration of the Hung Vuong Kings in Chua Bo De is evidence that the role of the temple is more than a house of worship. It is also an important cultural center for the entire Vietnamese community. Chua Bo De was the first Vietnamese temple to be established in the greater New Orleans area. Residents in Woodland, an area of Algiers, first began carrying out ceremonies in a small apartment until they raised enough money to purchase a piece of land on Woodlawn Highway, what is today Bo De Temple. They then raised money to build the temple. Last year the members finished constructing an outdoor pavilion with a stage for cultural and religious events, after raising funds and borrowing money from a bank. The design of the building—a large cement floor with the classrooms built high on the second floor—sheltered families displaced by Hurricane Katrina. The pagoda”s organizing committee has since leased the area of the parking lot to FEMA to use for trailers.
The New Orleans area now has three Vietnamese Buddhist temples—Chua Bo De on the West Bank, Trung Tam Phat Giao Van Hanh (Van Hanh Buddhist Center in New Orleans East), and Tu Vien Lien Hoa on the West Bank. In addition, Tam Bao Buddhist temple is in Baton Rouge, and there are centers in Houma and Lafayette.
Buddhist rituals, like Vietnamese festivities, are observed in accordance with the lunar calendar. People often consult the lunar calendar to determine auspicious days for important events such as opening new businesses and organizing engagement parties, thus important life-cycle rituals follow the lunar calendar. Like the widely used Gregorian calendar, the lunar calendar follows a cycle of 12 months. However, unlike the fixed months of the Gregorian calendar, lunar months vary in length depending on the waxing and waning of the moon. The first day of the month marks a new moon, and the fifteenth day a full month. Because the months vary between 28 and 30 days, a double month is added to the calendar every few years, a technique similar to leap year.
The most sacred days of the month are not Sundays, but the first and the fifteenth days of the month. On these days, some devotees come to the pagoda to chant, and many Buddhists observe vegetarian diets on these days. Practically, of course, Sundays are the most popular services.
On most Sundays about fifty members attend the regular worship service led by Thich Thong-Duc, who was recently installed as the abbot of the pagoda. The ceremony for his installation drew wide community support from around the Gulf region and was followed by an extraordinary ceremony, Dai Le Trai Dang, performed by a group of Buddhist monks from California and intended to bring peace by offering prayers to those people who died during Hurricane Katrina. Adults and children pay homage to the Buddha in separate services, both of which are conducted in Vietnamese. The Vietnamese Buddhist tradition is Mahayana.
Master Thong-Duc, a monk who studied Buddhism before immigrating to the United States in 1997, explains that the varieties of Buddhism are like food: some people like to eat this, others like to eat that. He practices both Zen and Pure Land, a branch of Mahayana Buddhism, offering instruction in meditation and lectures on Buddhism. Buddhist celebrations draw biggest crowds for special ceremonies such as Tet, Phat Dan or Buddha”s birthday, and Vu Lan, in which people honor their parents and ancestors. These ceremonies include circle dances performed by the youth group, special songs, and prayers.
The main temple building faces Woodland Highway. On any day, one may see pairs of shoes left outside the double doors that open to the main prayer hall. People take off their shoes before entering the open space, often leaving them in piles on the small patio in front of the building. Some prepare for a ceremony by wearing long grey robes. Floor cushions are passed around for people to sit on as they practice chanting.
Most people sit on the floor, some with their legs crossed, others with their legs tucked behind. A few people sit on the benches in the back of the prayer hall. The ceremony involves chanting from a sutra, a Buddhist prayer, alternating between standing, sitting, lowering one”s head three times at the sound of the bell, and occasionally bowing deeply by touching one”s forehead to the ground in a sign of respect.
Food And The Temple
The formal ceremonies in the main prayer hall are just part of the many activities of the pagoda. On Sunday mornings, people fill the inside kitchen, gather around the outdoor table to cut up food, or prepare che, a sweetened dessert made with sweetened coconut milk, in the dining room next to the prayer hall. Others arrive with dishes they have prepared at home, sliced pineapple, or cut up cauliflower to add to a dish. Behind the pagoda are several cooking stoves where men and women prepare large pans of fried rice and noodles. People prepare dishes that resemble traditional Vietnamese dishes in Vietnam such as cha lua, often translated as ham, but made from different ingredients such as bean thread instead of pork. The meal is usually followed with fresh fruit and che, a popular dessert that is made with a sweet broth of coconut milk.
More than 50 youth take part in Gia Dinh Phat Tu, or Buddhist Family, a youth association. The organization was strong in southern Vietnam before 1975 and based on Boy Scouts. Children from age 6 to 18 can attend the morning services and then classes that include language and religious instruction. The pagoda organizes four different classes based on the ages of the children. Children wear grey shirts, a color associated with incense smoke. The director of the program, Binh Thai Vo, points that the children can only be guided in the program. They arrive in the morning to hold a ceremony, attend class, and then eat a vegetarian meal in the outside pavilion. Plenty of time, the director added, is left for fun. Children also learn traditional dances including the Lion Dance performed by a troupe of boys for Tet and for businesses around the city.
Chua Bo De is open to the public. The pagoda has a base membership, and people pay monthly dues and often contribute to other fund-raising events. People who attend a service may also put money in the collection boxes or give it to the treasurer who then writes out a receipt. Most members of the pagoda insist that there is no requirement to offer money, and many members contribute through preparing food and maintaining the pagoda structures. The pagoda also provides a space for families to come for funeral services and ceremonies to remember the spirits of deceased ancestors.
The communal activities of cooking are just steps away from two other altars, which are located behind the main temple hall of the pagoda. One room is filled with photographs of family members who have died. The other room is dedicated to the altar of guardian spirits, Den Quan Thanh. Here people come to pray to these spirits. They may toss two wooden blocks to see if the guardian spirits have listened to their prayers or they may “xin xam,” shake a tube until a stick falls out on which is written a number. The number corresponds to a piece of paper with a fortune that may require interpretation by a monk. While these practices are not part of the orthodox world of Buddhism, they are closely entwined with many people”s experience of communicating with the world of spirits, a world that includes ancestors, guardian saints, kings, and Buddha.
Vietnamese food takes on a heightened importance when it is placed on a household altar, a Buddhist altar, or an altar for the Hung Kings. A visible and edible symbol of tradition, food is transformed by these rituals to convey cultural values of filial piety, devotion, and respect. And through such offerings, Vietnamese-Americans remind themselves that even in Louisiana, they are still descendents of the Dragon King and the Fairy Queen.
Dr. Allison Truitt is an anthropologist who teaches at Tulane University in New Orleans. This article was prepared as part of the New Populations Project in 2006.
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