WELCOMING THE TET : Vietnamese New Year Celebrations Feature Dragon Dances and Fresh Starts, Among Other Things

<i> Rick VanderKnyff is a free-lance writer who contributes regularly to The Times Orange County Edition. </i>

It was a tumultuous January in Orange County’s Vietnamese American community.

In Little Saigon, where anti-Communist feelings run high, passions have been stirred by Oliver Stone’s film “Heaven and Earth,” by the U.S. Senate’s recommendation to lift the trade embargo against Vietnam and even by the visit of a popular Vietnamese movie actress, who was labeled a Communist tool by some local Vietnamese-language newspapers.

Meanwhile, the election of a “president” of Southern California’s Vietnamese American community, intended as an act of unification, ended up bitterly divisive.

A tough way to start the year? By Western calendars, perhaps, but in Vietnamese tradition the year is actually drawing to a close. The beginning of the lunar new year, the Year of the Dog, is Feb. 10 and marks for many an opportunity to start anew and put differences aside.


“Definitely, it’s like the new year in any culture. You have to start the new year afresh, to look at it as a new beginning,” said Van Tran, spokesman for a Tet festival planned in Little Saigon. “People make New Year’s resolutions to forget their past angers or worries.”

Orange County boasts the largest Vietnamese community in the United States, and annual observances of Tet (the festival marking the lunar new year) have grown each year. The first day of Tet falls in the middle of the week this year and will be bookended by two major celebrations: one this weekend in Huntington Beach at Golden West College, expected to draw 70,000 or more, and one the following weekend in the Little Saigon area of Westminster that could attract more than 100,000.

Another, smaller festival will be held Saturday at the Vietnamese Community Center in Santa Ana. The center caters to seniors, but the Tet celebration is open to everyone and will begin with a traditional dragon dance.

Organizers of both events say Tet is an opportunity to promote traditional culture and keep it alive among the younger generation of Vietnamese Americans, many of whom fled Vietnam at a very young age or were born in the United States.

“This is a traditional Vietnamese New Year’s celebration,” said Frances The-Thuy Nguyen, one of the organizers of the event at Golden West, which takes place Saturday and Sunday. There will be dance and music, food, art exhibits, martial arts demonstrations and games, along with carnival rides and Vietnamese pop singers.

“Our goal, mainly, is to promote cultural awareness,” she said, especially among young Vietnamese Americans. Nguyen has been involved in organizing the festival for 10 of its 13 years as a member of the sponsoring group, the Westminster-based Union of Vietnamese Student Assn., which joins Vietnamese student groups at more than 20 college campuses.


Nguyen said she has maintained her involvement since graduation from Cal Poly Pomona because she knows how hard it can be for students to maintain their cultural roots, and she wants to help. “If they’re not involved (in tradition), they will lose it,” said Nguyen, who came to the United States in 1975. “I have to kind of maintain both cultures. I didn’t speak English before I came here.”

Tran agreed that history can seem remote to younger members of the community. Tet, he said, is “an opportunity to revisit that history, especially for young people like myself, who have lived two-thirds of our lives here.”

In past years, the Tet festival in Little Saigon has been sponsored by the Vietnamese Chamber of Commerce, but this year it has been taken over by an independent committee of nine, including three non-Vietnamese. Tran said the goal is to turn what has been a largely commercial celebration back to a more traditional flavor.

The theme for the festival is “United We Build for the Future,” and Tran said that is intended to mean not only unity within the Vietnamese community but also unity between different ethnic groups. To that end, organizers have invited performers representing the Korean, Laotian, Cambodian and Latino communities to take part in the celebration.

“In the past, Tet has had a reputation that it is insular, only for the Vietnamese,” Tran said. That is an image he is hoping to erase, noting that Tet offers an introduction to Vietnamese culture for those who are unfamiliar.

“It’ll be a cultural experience for anyone who hasn’t visited the Little Saigon area,” he said. “In many ways, it’s no different from any other festival, like the Orange County Fair or the California State Fair.”


No different in its general atmosphere of festival but distinctive in its particulars.

Some Tet traditions recall those of the Chinese lunar New Year, celebrated at the same time. Children in both cultures are given money in red envelopes by their parents, and then by other relatives as they spend the day visiting. In Vietnam, the tradition is called li xi .

“I can still remember this as a child in Saigon,” Tran said. “It’s almost like trick or treat.”

Other traditions that appear similar, at least on the surface, include a dragon dance--performed only for royalty in feudal times--and the use of firecrackers, the sound of which (according to tradition) will drive away evil spirits or haunted souls.

As in China, in Vietnam the years are named for animals, in 12-year cycles (although there are some differences between the two cultures in the animals symbolized in the cycle).

In Vietnam, Tet is also heralded by a profusion of bright yellow peach blossoms, mai , and by a number of traditional foods. Chief among these is banh chung , a square cake of glutinous rice with a circular filling of pork and cooked beans, served with pickled cabbage and carrots. Also known as an “earth cake,” banh chung is a symbolic representation of the ancient view of Earth and sky.

Also popular are watermelon seeds, roasted and dyed red ( hat dua ), along with fruit preserves ( mut ), five kinds of fruit, collectively called ngu qua and sweet white rice cakes ( banh day ).

In addition to feast and celebration, Tet is a time of ancestral worship and of many wishes for prosperity and harmony in the coming year.

Dat Vo, another organizer of the Golden West festival, said that in Vietnam, Tet is a weeklong celebration, the biggest holiday of the year and anticipated much the same way Christmas is in European cultures. “In Vietnam, the children cannot sleep at night” before Tet, he said.


Here in the United States, especially when the first day of Tet falls in the middle of the week, it can be difficult for workers or students to properly celebrate--Vo remembers getting out of lab at 9 p.m. when he was a student and rushing to temple for Tet.

Many local Vietnamese Americans say they look forward to a day when they can return to Vietnam, to visit if not to stay. Although travel is becoming more common, many will not go back until there is a new government.

“We hope that someday, we can go back to Vietnam and celebrate the New Year together,” Vo said.


Amid the games and carnival rides, the food booths and contests, this weekend’s Tet festival at Golden West College will offer something new and unusual.

“My Vietnam: My People, My Homeland” is an elaborate, eight-minute slide presentation focusing on the Vietnam of today. The project is the brainchild of Costa Mesa resident Pascal Tran, a professional photographer who came to the United States 17 years ago, at age 15.

He returned to Vietnam in September and snapped 120 rolls of film in a month of travel. When he returned, he secured the underwriting of long distance phone company MCI and began work on the presentation, working with creative director Greg King and audio producer Stephen Bittle at Killingsworth Productions in Long Beach.


The result of their monthlong effort is a lush travelogue that focuses on details of everyday life in Vietnam, aspects that survived the war and almost 20 years of Communist rule: quiet rural scenes, depictions of family life, girls in traditional white dresses cycling to school.

Tran said his goal was to evoke the essence of the country for those who fled in the aftermath of the war, and to give a sense of the landscape and lifestyle to those who are too young to remember or who were born here. It is a resolutely apolitical view.

“When you mention Vietnam, people think about war,” Tran said. In the slide show, “no war will be even mentioned. There is no politics. . . . The idea is to bring Vietnam to you.”

Tran said he realizes that some may criticize him for traveling to Vietnam or may misunderstand his intentions and believe he is soft-peddling the effects of Communism. Nothing could be further from the truth, he said.

“This is an art show. That’s the way I want to look at it,” he said. “This is for me my masterpiece.”

The show will screen every 20 minutes in a tent at the festival.

Ringing in the Tet Festivals

GOLDEN WEST COLLEGE Where: 15744 Golden West St., Huntington Beach When: Saturday, Feb. 5, 10 a.m. to 10 p.m.; Sunday, Feb. 6, 10 a.m. to 8 p.m. Whereabouts: From the San Diego (405) Freeway, exit at Beach Boulevard; go south to Edinger Avenue and turn right. Turn right on Gothard Street and park at the college (on the left side of the street). Wherewithal: $3 for adults. Children under 4 feet tall get in free. Where to call: (714) 893-3139.


VIETNAMESE COMMUNITY CENTER Where: 1618 W. 1st St., Santa Ana. When: Saturday, Feb. 5, 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Whereabouts: From the Santa Ana (5) Freeway, exit at 1st Street and head east. Wherewithal: Free. Where to call: (714) 558-6009.

ASIAN VILLAGE MALL Where: 9191 Bolsa Ave., Westminster. When: Feb. 11 through 13, 10 a.m. to 10 p.m. daily. Whereabouts: From the San Diego (405) Freeway, exit north on Magnolia Street; from the Garden Grove (22) Freeway, exit south. Turn west on Bolsa Avenue, and the shopping center will be on the right (shuttles available from several nearby sites; call for information). Wherewithal: $3 general, children under 6 free. Where to call: (714) 898-9556.