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U.S.-Vietnam Thaw Is Talk of Tet Festival : Culture: Huntington Beach merrymakers reflect contrasting views on the latest turn in the countries’ relations.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Spellbound children clutched their ears Saturday as firecrackers exploded, drums pounded and dragons frolicked at a Tet festival celebrating the Vietnamese lunar New Year.

Brightly colored dragons slithered through the smoky air at Golden West College, bearing good fortune for the New Year amid crackling red strings of firecrackers meant to scare off evil spirits.

The dragon dance is one of the most popular events at the two-day festival, a mix of ancient Vietnamese tradition and American culture where dried fish and spring rolls are sold alongside Coca-Cola and cotton candy.

“In as much as we need to assimilate into mainstream society . . . youth should still proudly carry on our culture,” said Thiet Nguyen, a festival co-chairman.

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Based on the lunar calendar, which progresses according to phases of the moon, Tet heralds the arrival of spring and celebrates ancestral worship and prosperity for the New Year. Tet, which falls on Tuesday, is short for Tet Nguyen Dan, which means feast of the first day. It will be the first day of the lunar year 4693, year of the boar.

The festival drew about 50,000 people Saturday, according to organizers from the Union of Vietnamese Student Assns. It will continue today from 10 a.m. to 10 p.m. at the college.

Orange County is home to the largest Vietnamese population outside Vietnam, and the festival was underway as the Clinton Administration announced a major development in relations with its homeland. Twenty years after the fall of Saigon, the United States and Vietnam are on the verge of exchanging diplomatic missions, an expected first step toward normal relations.

Revelers offered mixed reactions to the change as they gathered to celebrate one of their homeland’s major holidays.

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“I think they should normalize relations. It’s mostly for the people. It’s senseless to keep on like this. The people are the ones who suffer because of the economic embargo,” said Anthony Pham, 30, of Anaheim, as his daughter, Tracy, clamored for another bite of his sandwich.

Tony Cao, 29, of Santa Ana, said he had mixed feelings about the agreement. “It’s good because it will help the Vietnamese to live in Vietnam, but it’s also bad because there are still the human rights issues,” he said.

Some Vietnamese community leaders said they oppose the policy because it does not hold any guarantees. “I think Clinton should have consulted with the Vietnamese American community,” said Tony Lam, a Westminster councilman. “We were never consulted on the issue. We’re very bitter that we were left out. The normalization is good if the MIA issue is taken seriously, only if the political prisoners are released and the religious leaders are free to exercise their religious freedom.”

Thong Nguyen, coordinator of the Garden Grove-based Movement of Human Rights for Vietnam by 2000, said the action comes too soon. “I doubt it will change anything. The only changes you will see will be on the surface,” he said. “Businesses may profit, but the percentage of the population that will benefit is very few. If the Clinton Administration establishes normal relations with Vietnam, for me, it will be a political move rather than looking at the real issues.”

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Despite some heated conversations about the latest political development in U.S.-Vietnam relations, most people at the festival enjoyed the chance to relax under sunny skies, many cooling off with ice cream cones and cool slices of fresh pineapple.

Vendors offered dried fish, beef kebabs, barbecued pork meatballs, fresh mango and green papaya with beef jerky, and many women wore ao dai, brightly colored tunics worn on special occasions over flowing white pants. Children lined up for red li xi, envelopes filled with lucky money.

Others devoured pizza, churros, pretzels, snow cones, and 7-Up as they used camcorders to record images of their children riding on a Ferris wheel and playing dart games.

“Mostly we want to make sure he keeps up the Vietnamese tradition and keeps it within his lifestyle. And it’s fun,” said Chi Diem Dang, 25, of Laguna Hills, as her nephew, Christopher, 5 asked to see the dragon dance.

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Kim Nguyen, 18, of Westminster, said attending the festival is a way of preserving her heritage. "(On New Year’s) we will have a get-together at my grandma’s house. It’s like Christmas or Thanksgiving,” she said. “It’s important to keep our culture, to have respect for elders.”

Ancestral worship is an important part of the holiday. At the festival, two men bowed before an altar of fruits and candles to pay respects to ancestors.

Tina Gurney, 34, of Westminster came to the festival at the invitation of a friend. “She called and I said, ‘Cool, red envelopes. Let’s go,’ ” said Gurney, who carried shopping bags full of free calendars, booklets and red envelopes to show her second-grade class.

Proceeds from the event, which organizers expect to total about $25,000, will go to the operation of the Union of Vietnamese Student Assns., and to pay for community tutoring and funds for local churches.

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In Santa Ana on Saturday, about 600 people attended the Community Tet Festival sponsored by the Vietnamese Community of Orange County Inc.


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