“I arrived in Australia from Vietnam in 1975,” the Vietnamese-Australian, Huong Nguyen, tells SBS.
"We actually just got out of the country on the day the communist regime took South Vietnam, 30 April 1975."
History has since branded this day as 'the Fall of Saigon'.
As Nguyen recalls this childhood migration memory, she realises that the act of fleeing Vietnam saved three generations of her family and their traditions. "We were very lucky. Myself and 13 other family members all left Saigon all on the same date...It was do or die”.
“We were classified as refugees and left the country by boat. It was a small cargo vessel that took 4,000 people on the day that the South Vietnamese government collapsed. We were tugged by the liner all the way to Hong Kong."
"It was do or die."
It was there, in Hong Kong, that her family spent a few months in a refugee camp before being told that they could immigrate to Australia. They arrived here in June 1975.
"We, 200 refugees, arrived in Australia on a chartered flight to East Hills Hostel [in Sydney] from a Hong Kong refugee camp as the first refugee intake under the Whitlam government at the time.
“...We were the among the first group of [Vietnamese] refugees to arrive in Australia by plane. We entered Australia by plane, a Qantas flight, when I was eight years old."
She explains how this exodus marked the second time her family had ever fled home, fearing for their safety and lives: the first time was from North Vietnam in 1954.
“My family had always been running,” Nguyen says.
Although Nguyen’s childhood memories of her homeland are somewhat a blur, one particular cultural tradition stands out strongly: the annual festival celebrated at the turn of the lunisolar Chinese calendar, Lunar New Year.
“Around Lunar New Year, no matter how wealthy you were, you always went to the flower market to bring back at least two to three pots of flowers or cumquats or anything that could bring colour into your house or life.
“That was a tradition we all followed.”
She explains that as a mark of cultural respect, younger generations of the family also prayed for their elders and gave them a gift, like “the best harvest of fresh fruit that the market could bring or traditional glutinous rice cakes”.
“We’d eat pork loaf steamed in many varieties. Anything dried – fruits or nuts – was also considered precious.”
Over 40 years may have passed since Nguyen first left her country of birth, Vietnam, and came to Australia. But, she says, she still celebrates Lunar New Year every year and does her best to keep her culture's traditions alive.
“As grandparents and parents get older, some traditions die with them. But we try to keep them going." For example, she lists, "this weekend, I am going to see all of my elders”. And, as per tradition, Nguyen will fill her house with colour and clean her home to sweep away bad luck.
“We still have one big family dinner with all of the siblings and their descendants at my mum’s house: around 40 people. We will gather together, cook, eat a meal, and just have fun and hang out.
“The Vietnamese cuisine is quite predictable: we’ll have spring rolls, everything barbecue, traditional meats and seafood. There will be lots of fruits and traditional deserts, like red bean with coconut.”
She says family members who live overseas will ‘Skype in’ to wish everyone health and happiness, and a great New Year via video-link.
Nguyen will also incorporate her passion for Lunar New Year into her work. As the director of Escarpment Group in the popular tourist destination, NSW Blue Mountains, she is helping to shape a community Chinese New Year celebration.
On Sunday 29 January – one day after Lunar New Year – she will help to host a festival at the Hydro Majestic Pavilion, which will be adorned with similar decorations as those hanging in Nguyen’s past and present homes: lanterns, cherry blossoms and cumquat trees.
Traditional food will be served and children will be given red money bags to tie to trees as an offering to their respected ancestors.
“Lunar New Year is about bringing families together with colour and fun. But I also think it’s a good idea to spread a bit of multiculturalism throughout the Blue Mountains. It’s important to showcase that cultural side of Australia [to tourists].”
Most importantly, Nguyen says, this year she will take time to just ‘be’ with family and appreciate the life they now have in Australia.
“Abandon any worries or concerns and look for the smallest things that make you happy in life."
“It doesn’t matter how busy we are at this time of year: we always make time – whether it’s a day or an hour – to think about happiness and the small things in life that matter, health and family.”
And Nguyen advises anyone wishing to truly participate in the festive celebration to do the same.
“Abandon any worries or concerns and look for the smallest things that make you happy in life.
“Being happy, healthy and with your family is what Lunar New Year is all about.”
Watch Huong Nguyen on Luke Nguyen's Food Trail this Thursday. Luke Nguyen is back in his brand-new series Luke Nguyen's Food Trail airing Thursdays at 8pm on SBS and also on SBS On Demand. Visit the program page for recipes, videos and more.