The framed color photograph of Tran Van Luyen's late father, buried six years ago in what was once South Vietnam, sat yesterday on a table in the middle of the rented suburban Maryland house the Tran family now knows as home.
Tran, 42, studied it silently for a moment, then let his eyes flick over the traditional offerings of sweet rice cake, fruit and burning incense that surrounded it. Satisfied all was in order, he abruptly turned to his wife and nine children, who were standing in two rows in front of the table, and began to lead them in a soft rolling prayer chant that seemed to come from far away.
The traditional Vietnamese and Chinese New Year had come again. It was the fifth one the Trans have celebrated in their adopted country. All around the Washington metropolitan area, in other suburban homes and in city apartments, thousands of other Vietnamese were paying similar homage.
Tet, as the holiday is known, entered the American vocabulary as a word filled with shock and horror: In late January 1968 the North Vietnamese and Vietcong used the cover of the holiday preparations to infiltrate Vietnam's major cities and provincial capitals. Over the next two months, in the some of the most ferocious and widespread fighting of the Vietnam War, nearly 3,900 U.S. troops were killed, along with some 5,000 South Vietnamese troops, 58,000 Communists and 14,300 civilians. In the end, the Tet offensive brought down a president and shook America's self confidence.
To the Vietnamese, however, Tet remains a time to renew old friendships, remember forebears, eat special foods and decorate streets and houses with flowers. These people, who fled the destruction of the South Vietnamese government in 1975 and later, say that Tet the one celebration that reminds them of their roots.
Now they cling fiercely to the traditions of Tet with a mingled sense of joy and loss.
"We have taken the manners of America without any trouble," said Tran yesterday as he drove his family in a large van to a community celebration for 1,000 in Arlington. "But we want our children to always remember who they are. They must speak Vietnamese at home and keep the traditions. I don't think we will ever go back to my country again."
Tran, who is one of an estimated 8,000-10,000 Vietnamese in the Washington area, remembers Tet as a time when everyone took three or more days off to visit friends and walk streets filled with flowers, and when the children set off strings of firecrackers for the new lunar year.
Indeed, the fact that nearly 50 percent of the South Vietnamese army was off duty for Tet in February 1968 was a major factor in the initial success of the communist offensive.
And throughout the war years, many of those firecrackers manufactured in homes were filled with powder taken from grenades and ammunition smuggled to families by soldiers, an irony that was not lost on many who celebrated the holiday that is dedicated to peace and prosperity.
Tet celebrations after 1968 were muted in South Vietnam. There were no more mass leaves, and a government-imposed austerity drive did away with the more ostentatious forms of celebrating.
Nonetheless, Tran and others interviewed said, they would prefer to be in their home country with all the members of their family at this time of year.
"But we do the best we can here," said Tran. "In Bien Hoa [where Tran was a teacher -- one of the most respected professions in his country] we had neighbors. Neighbors were very important. Here, our neighbors are not interested. We cannot go to their doors and visit on Tet as we did in Vietnam. Our Vietnamese friends live all over the area, so it is difficult to visit them too."
So Tran and his family celebrate Tet first at a Catholic service in Washington the night before, visit with fellow Vietnamese worshippers after the service, and then head home to await the new year.
"It is very important that the first person who enters your door on the first of the year bring you good luck," said Tran.
Not taking any chances, the Trans purposely waited until after midnight before returning home so that they would be the first to enter their door.
Yesterday morning the children, who range in age from three to 16 (the youngest was born in the Washington area and is the only American citizen among them), excitedly dressed in their best clothes -- which for some included the traditional silk gown that covers pants underneath -- and waited before the picture of their grandfather for the family service.
After the prayer, one by one the family members bowed in front of the makeshift altar, holding sticks of burning incense in each hand. Having thus honored the memory of their ancestors, Tran and his wife sat in two chairs in the middle of the living room, where they accepted and returned formal expressions of wishes for a good year from their children.
Then Mrs. Tran handed each of her children a small red envelope, called a "li xi" (pronounced lee-see). The children excitedly opened the envelopes, and found $2 in each one.
"We would give them more money if we had it," said Tran, who now works as a vault teller for the Citizens Bank of Maryland near his New Carrollton home. "Perhaps someday . . ."
Then came the holiday meal of pickled onions, fried rice, coconut candy, noodles, pressed meats, egg rolls, fish sauce and banh chung, the traditional sweet rice cake.
"It took my mother 12 hours to cook it in the oven," said Duc Tran, the 16-year-old son. "Twelve hours!"