Vietnamese community gathers to honor its mothers

A grandmother calls to her grandson, hushing him as she pins a flower on his surf shirt.

Parents guide their children to an altar perfumed with incense and kneel together to pray.

They all turn to see a procession, heralded by gongs and graced by monks trailed by worshipers balancing offerings on their heads.


Westerners celebrate Mother’s Day. On Sunday, Buddhists came together at Hue Quang pagoda in Santa Ana, ushering in Le Vu Lan, honoring mothers and wearing a pink or red rose if their own mom was still alive and a white rose if she had died.

“We remind each other that all the things we want to do for mom — all the things we want to express to mom — now is the time,” says Katie KieuDung Nguyen, hugging her daughter. “My own mother taught my daughter these cultural ways. We want to carry them on as she and her brother grow up.”

In praise of motherly love, Thao Vy, her second-grader, said, “It’s so much fun when everyone gathers to cut cakes, and those cakes are made by mothers. I am lucky to have my mom because moms give birth to us, and they give milk to us.”

As Vietnamese Americans pay tribute, their relatives and friends fly back to California for a taste of cultural belonging. In the swarm of sweat and chants, more than 1,000 people made their way to the temple, which is situated in a working-class neighborhood, for one of the area’s largest Vu Lan gatherings. Similar celebrations will be held across California in the coming weeks.

Nguyen and her family, who live in Tustin, are regulars at this temple. They sat with their aunt from Columbus, Ohio. In Columbus, “we don’t get this,” says Ton Nu Dung Dai, waving her hand at the spectacle of a red-gold stage decked in blooms. “We don’t have a sense of community. We don’t have a big group to welcome the holiday like today.”

Volunteers set up chairs under a canopy, shaded from the blistering sun. Others folded fliers into fans, reclining to listen to sermons and songs, wriggling their toes free of flip-flops.

“I see both Mother’s Day and today as a moment we can treat mom,” says Anthony Huynh, 21, who is studying radiology at Orange Coast College. He’s thankful for lessons learned from Sunday school at the temple along Westminster Avenue. “What it takes to be a good person in life, what it takes to be a good son, this is what we’re taught.”

Phi Nguyen, majoring in environmental science at UC Davis, says: “We’re all here because we think tradition is important. With immigrant parents working so much, the temple is kind of a second family to us — and not just to older kids — the younger kids, too. We try to be on our best behavior, especially for today.”

The crowd deepens as they talk, raising their voices above the melodies. Soon, the monks, wearing saffron robes with roses, walk out, receiving alms such as rice and items for their meals.

Organizer Banh Huy Cuong says he expected at least 2,000 guests.

Around him, vendors sell all sorts of vegetarian delights — rolls, steaming noodles flecked with tofu and mushrooms, sesame balls and mung bean and tapioca desserts. Ladies hawking religious paintings and meditation CDs fill one corner, men signing up to donate bone marrow stand in another.

Wherever there’s huge activity, “I come to the scene,” says Tho Chau, a specialist in healthcare plans for seniors. “Occasions like this draw many out-of-towners because there’s no place like Orange County when it comes to hosting Vietnamese cultural events.”

Images of Buddha burnish the celebration. As children show filial piety, Vu Lan, in keeping with the lunar calendar, allows the different generations to honor the dead through ritual. As the lost souls of their ancestors are believed to return to earth at this time, it’s customary to offer food, clothing and other items to hungry spirits as well as prayers for their salvation.

“As a mother or a father, we can tell our sons or daughters about the holiday. But where they really go into detail is at the temple. They practice it, so the children can see it with their own eyes,” says Phuong Lam, taking youngsters Elizabeth and Benjamin, ages 4 and 6, with her to witness the rites. Her husband, Khoa Nguyen, teaches Vietnamese to many American-born students at the pagoda. “You can go camping with other children here,” she adds. “You can learn scouting and cultural skills.”

Nearby, Lucy Truong, mother of two, reflects on her childhood. “Every night, I followed my mother to the temple, even when I was sleepy. After prayer, she would sip tea and I would hear her talk. It was our special time.”

Truong is the youngest of 10 siblings. For more than two decades, she has been separated from her mother, now 80, who lives in Vietnam.

“My father is no longer alive,” she says, “but that I still have my mom is something I’m so grateful for. You always feel close to your mother. You always do anything you can for your mother.”