Tet festival

A tree of traditional Vietnamese conical hats are hung for the upcoming Tet festival at the O.C. fairgrounds beginning Friday. (Don Leach, Daily Pilot / February 6, 2014)

The colorful Tet festival is going mainstream, moving beyond the borders of bustling Little Saigon to a sprawling county fairgrounds where it is expected to attract thousands who never ventured into the Vietnamese American district.

Nora Simmons is among those who will be a first-time visitor to the Lunar New Year celebration, the largest Tet gathering outside Vietnam, when it begins Friday.

The Mission Viejo resident admits that exploring the Vietnamese cultural enclave that stretches across the face of central Orange County seems intimidating and she worried that it's a "wild place."

"We're scared to go where we've never been because there could be unknown danger," said her friend, Laura Ames. "At the fairgrounds, we can navigate ourselves."

Though Little Saigon is as suburban and orderly as most of the county, organizers of the festival agree that moving the three-day event to the Orange County fairgrounds in Costa Mesa is likely to draw a larger, more diverse crowd.

"We are looking to expand and share our culture with everyone," said Nina Tran, president of the Union of Vietnamese Student Assn., the nonprofit organizing the event.

"Our group has been doing the festival for more than 30 years and every time we move, we move to a bigger venue because we're growing," she said.

Still, it was controversy that drove the Tet Festival out of Garden Grove, one of the central county cities that falls inside the boundaries of Little Saigon.

Garden Grove had been the event's home since 2002, but the organization split with the city last fall in a dispute over finances.

City Council members insisted the group help make up $800,000 they claimed the city had spent subsidizing the event in past years. Union members dispute the amount.

A proposed five-year contract up for renewal was rejected, leaving the group to search for a new home. It was the third ethnic celebration to be canceled or relocated from the city in the last year.

Tran said she is intrigued to see the fairgrounds transformed by the color and music of Vietnam, the rows of food carts serving smoked squid, shrimp rolls and beef jerky salad on green papaya and the stalls with fortune tellers.

Simmons said she is open to giving it a try.

"I'm curious about Little Saigon, though I can't see myself entering an area where I'm not familiar with the shop signs or where I might feel unsafe," she said. "Now maybe I can try a new food at the same spot where I've eaten hot dogs many summers at the fair."

anh.do@latimes.com