Vinh Nguyen

Educator & Vietnamese culture specialist

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Vinh Nguyen is an educator and cultural specialist. He is also a leader in the Des Moines Vietnamese community, and has been instrumental in creating the Vietnamese American Community in Iowa (VACI), which, along with several other organizations, produces the annual Tet,(Vietnamese New Year) celebration in Des Moines.
The head of Des Moines Public School’s English Language Learner program, Nguyen came to Iowa as a refugee when he was 22. He was born in Saigon in the early 1960s, and grew up in a family of 10 brothers and sisters.

With the fall of Saigon to the communists, the Vietnam War came to an end in April 1975. Life in South Vietnam changed completely. To ensure their son’s future, Vinh’s parents planned his escape from Vietnam in 1981. He was smuggled out of Vietnam along with 134 other Vietnamese on a tiny and unseaworthy boat. An oil tanker rescued the group, which was sent to a series of refugee camps in Thailand. Vinh was eventually sent to Galang, a remote island in Indonesia. Once his petition for refugee status was accepted, he traveled from there to Des Moines, Iowa.

Although, Vinh struggled with his language skills and worked many different odd jobs to survive, he was able to enroll in DMACC to learn English. He worked for Des Moines Public Schools as a Native Language Tutor to assist Southeast Asian refugee students. In 1993, he graduated from Drake University with a teaching degree in mathematics, taught high school math for several years and worked as a community advisor for the English as a Second Language program; he now supervises a program that serves more than 3,800 students.

Nguyen has lent his skills and support in many projects and activities in the Southeast Asian and Language Minority communities. In 2004 and 2005, he was honored by the Iowa Council for International Understanding’s “Passport to Prosperity Award” and the Iowa Culture and Language Conference’s “Dan Chavez, Beyond the Horizon Award” for his extraordinary efforts on behalf of immigrant, refugee, and non-English speaking populations.

Besides serving the larger community, Vinh is especially dedicated to preserving and passing his traditions on to his children. One way he does this is to celebrate Tet.

A major holiday for which families clean and decorate their homes, prepare special foods, and entertain guests, Tet celebrates a break in agricultural activities. It also marks the time when the Kitchen God journeys to Heaven to make his annual report on household activities to the Jade Emperor. The Vietnamese, like many other ethnic groups, follow a lunar calendar. This means that Tet, which occurs in the 12th moon month and lasts for three days, takes place sometime between the last 10 days of January and the middle of February on the western calendar.

Tet involves rituals that pay homage to the ancestors. Women prepare elaborate traditional food to be offered to the ancestors and served to family and friends. While dishes vary by region in Vietnam, favorites include chân giò ninh mang (pig feet with bamboo shoots), xôi gac (sticky rice), xào hanh nhan (stir-fried almonds), nom du du (papaya salad), and chè kho (green bean pudding) as well as lon quay (roast pork), and bánh chung (square sticky-rice cake). Since most of Iowa’s Vietnamese are from South Vietnam, families here also serve thit kho (stewed pork and coconut milk) as well as dua gia (pickled green bean sprouts with leeks, sliced carrot and turnip). Bánh tét (round-shaped glutinous cake) and bánh tráng (rice waffle) are also on the menu.

Dragon dances and firecrackers mark special occasions in Vietnam. The dance portrays the intricate interaction between the Dragon and Ông Ðia, the guardian of the earth. With drums and gongs, Ông Ðia spurs the dragon from falling asleep to greet the audience. In the old days, firecrackers were used to expel evil spirits from villages and bring forth happiness. Today, they commemorate old traditions and welcome visitors and the Spirit of Spring.

Each person is considered to be one year older at the beginning of the New Year. During Tet, Vietnamese celebrate everyone’s birthday by offering Chúc Tuoi, best wishes for a long life to the elders, as well as wishes for peace and prosperity to family and friends. Adults give children red envelopes of Lì Xì (Lucky Money), which signifies fortune, luck, and happy wishes.

Contact: Vinh Nguyen, vinh.nguyen@dmps.k12.ia.us, 515/242-7853.