Forty Years After the Fall of Saigon, Orange County's Annual Tet Festival Goes Plural

Forty Years After the Fall of Saigon, Orange County's Annual Tet Festival Goes Plural
Chad Weaver/OC Weekly

It's about noon on Jan. 25, and hundreds of volunteers from more than a dozen Southern California schools are on their way to a shabby-looking business park in a sparsely populated area of west Garden Grove. The Santa Anas are blowing, and as the students approach the parking lots, they see fellow volunteers awaiting them, their hands holding pamphlets and pieces of paper to shield their eyes from the sun, heat and dust.

The greeters point the volunteers toward the headquarters of the Southern California chapter of the Union of Vietnamese Student Associations (UVSA), a building that also houses the offices of a company that sells e-cigarettes and an American Apparel-esque clothing factory, though it's Vietnamese making clothes instead of Mexicans. Everyone is there to help organize UVSA's upcoming Tet festival, scheduled to happen in less than a month.

Outside the building, several dozen young women congregate and socialize. They're almost dressed in uniform: dyed hair (some ombre, some with highlights), 3-inch heels, and either short shorts or knee-length dresses appropriate for the 85-degree weather. They're tying friendship bracelets around one another's wrists as they work together to make sure the Tet festival's pageant, a major part of the weekend's planned cultural programming, goes off without a hitch.

Meanwhile, on the other side of the building, a battalion of other volunteers--less flashily dressed students wearing jeans, T-shirts and hoodies--are standing next to their cars and snacking on burgers, awaiting assignments from the 20 or so festival-committee members, each of whom is responsible for something, from facilities to entertainment, from food to decorations. The committee members--most of whom are college students--are inside the building. They are halfway through a business meeting, going through an agenda displayed from a ceiling-mounted projector with a rigid, quick-step decorum normally reserved for a routine city council meeting.

The volunteers working on the pageant all have assignments. Check. The committee in charge of decorations needs more help painting murals, which sit half-finished in the backroom. Okay. Sponsorship checks are slowly starting to funnel in. Good. What does everyone think about having photo-booth-style props for the photo area? Love it.

The office space is cluttered with planning paraphernalia. There's a chalkboard wall covered in ideas, notes and doodles. Shelves are stacked with long-forgotten papers and awards. Two flags, one American and one South Vietnamese, lean against a wall. Tables are covered in red envelopes or tickets or rows of fire extinguishers primed for the event.

The final product of all this planning? The 34th annual UVSA Tet festival, the largest Vietnamese New Year celebration outside Vietnam and the longest continuous celebration in the United States. The three-day event full of Vietmericana takes place at the OC Fairgrounds. This year, the festivities will include a cultural village (with hundreds of volunteers teaching children about Vietnamese culture), pho-eating contests, mock weddings, lion dances, the Miss Vietnam of Southern California pageant and more. More than a thousand volunteers are required to pull off the event, and for many young Vietnamese Americans, it's the first way they'll learn about the culture they inherited from their parents.

Last year, the festival attracted more than 30,000 attendees. It was a historically dismal number, although better than expected given a last-minute venue change. The students did the best they could with limited time to prepare, but it felt underattended and overly roomy compared to the chaotic crowds and tight spaces of previous festivals. But now, with a full slate of preparation and new layout designs that'll take advantage of the extra room, there's excitement. This year, as community members are better informed of the new location, as well as its added parking space, the organization hopes attendance will double.

The staff hopes they'll be able to return the event to its peak, when the festival was located in the heart of Little Saigon and attracted more than 100,000 people to the 36-acre Garden Grove Park with ease. Despite the drop-in attendance, this Tet festival is already one of the OC Fairgrounds' most popular events, placing fourth in attendance behind the Orange County Fair, Orange County Pet Expo and the Orange County Night Market.

 

Cross into old Vietnam
Cross into old Vietnam
Courtesy UVSA

Thirty-seven years earlier and thousands of miles away, several hundred people, perhaps just more than 1,000, are crowded in the auditorium of an elementary school in Arlington, Virginia. They're trying to make their way inside the building, where smoke from burning incense floats over the crowd and into the bitter, sub-freezing cold. The people waiting aren't used to this kind of weather, and some still wear the donated jackets and heavy coats given to them when they were relocated to this part of the United States. They're mostly Vietnam War refugees, part of the educated first wave of departures that left the country by airlift during the infamous April 1975 fall of Saigon.

It's Feb. 6, 1978, and the refugees--most from the Washington, D.C., metro area, but many freshly arrived by bus from other East Coast cities--are about to celebrate the beginning of Tet. Only two Tet holidays have passed since the fall of Saigon, and the organizers were unprepared for such a turnout. Parking is nearly impossible to find, but there's a palatable anticipation as people find places to sit. The crowd gazes forward, toward the front of the auditorium, where they expect to soon see religious leaders open the ceremonies for the most important Vietnamese holiday of the year.

But after a few minutes, instead of lion dances or firecrackers to scare away evil spirits and ward off bad luck, a tall American county worker appears. It's Arlington Deputy Fire Marshall Willis T. Swartz. "Out!" he yells forcefully. "Get out!"

In its excitement, D.C.'s Vietnamese community has filled the auditorium four times past its maximum capacity. They exit the auditorium quietly; dejected, many revelers go home having incorrectly heard that the building will be closed. But as the crowd thins, the faithful who remain are allowed to celebrate. Swartz, whose gruffness makes him more intimidating than he actually is, apologizes for the inconvenience and leaves to check on other celebrations. The ceremonies begin again.

Across the United States, similar celebrations are starting to kick off. At this point in history, they're small, for the most part attracting just dozens of attendees; only a few attract hundreds. They take place mostly in houses of worship or in borrowed rooms from local schools such as the one in Arlington. The celebration is simple. There's Vietnamese food; spiritual leaders give sermons. Occasionally, there'll be dancing.

These festivals are a shadow of the celebrations in Vietnam, where the country effectively shuts down for half a week as people visit family and loved ones. There, it's a family holiday akin to Thanksgiving in the United States. Everyone is expected to return home. During the first night, nearly the entire country makes the short pilgrimage to their preferred houses of worship. They return home shortly before midnight, when firecrackers will begin sounding off. The next few days are full of eating, drinking, dancing and explosions.

The first events held by groups that would go on to become the UVSA happened in 1982, just as new waves of boat people began to land on American shores. (Prior Tet celebrations were hosted in Orange County during the late '70s, but they were mainly small one-time affairs organized by churches or single colleges.) The event took place on Hoover Street in Westminster and featured a small collection of food stalls and cultural performances. It was organized by students, but while today's students are in their 20s and just barely legal to drink, these students were slightly older. They came to the country in their teens or twenties and needed to restart their lives without knowing any English.

"People joined the UVSA for a lot of different reasons back then," remembers Frances Nguyen, a Westminster businesswoman and the first female president of the UVSA. She came to the United States in 1975 at the age of 12, knowing only Vietnamese and French.

"They wanted to learn about their culture," says the petite woman. "They were proud Vietnamese. But they also joined for fun; they joined to have friends. They joined because they felt comfortable surrounded by Vietnamese."

Frances Nguyen became involved in the organization while attending university--first at UC Irvine, then at Cal Poly Pomona. She attended her first festival in 1982, when she signed up to volunteer for two hours at a food booth. She ultimately volunteered for two 10-hour days.

"We were very small then. It was very new," she says. "We had no funds. If we could even raise $40,000, it would've been a miracle. Everyone had to chip in from their own pockets. Everyone had to do five jobs."

Despite the small size of the event, which bounced from Hoover Street to Santa Ana's Centennial Park after a year, it provided a touchstone for a community still stinging from forced relocation and gave the community something to be proud of, something to celebrate.

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"It was something that the old Vietnamese community was very excited about," she says. "It brought families together. They were excited--so happy it was being done by the young people. They were hoping the youth would take over in preserving Vietnamese culture. It was like the torch had been passed down."

And though the event was mostly for the community back then--roughly 85 percent of the attendees were Vietnamese--organizers wanted to include Americans in the celebrations as well, realizing the United States was now their country and that these Americans were now their neighbors.

"We want to create an atmosphere from the old times in Vietnam," Dang Ngo Ngoc Uyen, then-president of the UVSA, told the Los Angeles Times in 1985. "We try to create an opportunity for the Vietnamese to get together, to talk, to enjoy Vietnamese food and music. We want to make it like a showroom for American people, too. We'd like very much for Americans to come and taste our food and see how we play music and dance."

As the Vietnamese population in Orange County grew, so did the festival. By 1985, the event was already attracting more than 30,000 people. In 1988, the event drew more than 100,000. The celebration became one of the main attractions of Little Saigon. Vietnamese Americans from across the United States would come to Orange County to visit family during the holidays. Those families then would go to the festival.

The space the event took up grew accordingly. What was once one closed street in Westminster became a major park in Santa Ana, then a larger major park in Garden Grove. The festival transformed its surroundings into a fenced-in version of markets in Vietnam, replete with hundreds of food stalls, multiple stages, martial-arts performances, lions, dragons and flowers.

The UVSA became a model for similar organizations in North America. Vietnamese youth groups in San Jose, Houston, Washington, Vancouver and other cities invited members of the student group to speak to them and help them to organize. And for a time, despite its growing size, the event managed to avoid the internal politics that often plague Little Saigon happenings, in part because of the organizers' strict adherence to the Vietnamese concepts of elder respect.

Through the '90s, the UVSA made strong efforts to avoid overlapping with other Tet celebrations, even if it meant hosting its event after or before the actual holiday. When asked to make comparisons between this event and others in the community, UVSA organizers would actively avoid doing so. "Can we just say that ours is an effort put together completely by student volunteers?" Paul Hoang, a member of the planning committee for the 1997 festival, asked Times reporter Lily Dizon. "If we say any more, [it] may touch the elders, and, well, we want to avoid the conflicts."

The festival did eventually conflict with others. In 2001, while bidding to run Garden Grove's annual Tet festival, the UVSA beat out the Vietnamese Community of Southern California, which had organized the event for the previous two years. Parking near the venue was stretched thin each year, and half-hour-long lines formed outside the fences that ran toward the event's makeshift gates on a nightly basis.

The event became an easy way for businesses to market themselves to a Vietnamese clientele, and many families spent their time at the festival waiting in line for whatever swag bags were available. The hundreds of thousands of feet beat Garden Grove Park into a packed, muddy pit, often marred with copious droppings from police horses patrolling the venue. Chaos or no, year after year, the crowds continued to come.

"Other festivals, they pop up here and there, they run for a couple of years, and then they go out of existence," says Phong Ly, a 30-year-old past president of UVSA who moved from Vietnam to the United States while he was in high school. "But over the years, we've built a reputation in the community, and because of that reputation, the community trusts us."

 

Pageant girls in full ao dai
Pageant girls in full ao dai
Courtesy UVSA

When the UVSA's second five-year contract with the city ran out in 2013, Garden Grove made multiple expensive contingencies a requirement for the organization to renew its contract a third time. The first was that UVSA donate $75,000 per year to an organization called the Vietnam War Museum of America Foundation, a nonprofit with a stated goal of building a museum in Garden Grove. At the time of the negotiation, former Garden Grove Mayor Bruce Broadwater and now termed-out City Councilwoman Dina Nguyen both sat on the foundation's board of directors.

The UVSA pushed back. Since the festival's inception, the student group had donated extra proceeds to local nonprofits. In the '80s, the money went to support the boat people leaving Vietnam, and in the '90s and 2000s, any income funded mini-grants given to Boy Scout troops, scholarships and after-school programs. The UVSA was concerned that sending money to a third-party nonprofit directly jeopardized its charitable giving.

Garden Grove eventually dropped that demand, replacing it with a demand that the student group pay the $75,000 directly to the city, which would have made the Tet festival the most expensive event to organize in the city by a factor of nearly four. (The Strawberry Festival, which runs a day longer and also includes a parade, costs organizers $35,000 per year to organize.) According to a report by former Nguoi Viet Daily News managing editor Hao-Nhien Vu, with the payment to the city, the Tet festival would cost a total of $150,000 per year to run.

The UVSA rejected that offer, moving the festival to Costa Mesa with a month of lead-in time. To fill the void left in Garden Grove, the Vietnamese Community of Southern California stepped in to host the event once again. Both festivals took place on the same weekend, as they will this year. Though both organizers contend that they're not directly competing, they're vying for the same sponsors and attendees. And though the UVSA has no involvement in the Garden Grove festival, many in the community believe the students are working under the Vietnamese Community of Southern California.

"Last year, I got multiple calls from people saying that they heard we were working with the Vietnamese Community," says Nina Tran, the current president of the UVSA. "I got a few of those calls this year, too."

Since the UVSA left the city last year, Garden Grove has gone through a major political overhaul. Dina Nguyen and Broadwater have both left office, and new Garden Grove Mayor Bao Nguyen has invited the student group back. "We really need options, so I'd like them to reconsider," Bao Nguyen says. "I want to have the best festival yet in Garden Grove."

But that invitation may be too late. The UVSA is focusing on not only producing a great testament to Vietnamese culture, but also building an event that everyone in Orange County can enjoy. Much of the programming this year isn't meant for a purely Vietnamese audience--a short-film competition and a "Youth Night" have no connections to Vietnamese culture; rather, they're ways to showcase what's currently hip with the kids. And, for now, it makes sense to many to have the Tet festival at the Orange County Fairgrounds. "We've done a lot of things to try to make this event mainstream," Frances Nguyen says. "The new venue is closer to a lot of other communities now. People might not want to go to Little Saigon, but Costa Mesa is okay."

And to a few members of the community, the fact that there are two events is proof the Vietnamese community is maturing, that it can support an endeavor both for itself and for the rest of Orange County. "Having two festivals is a sign of growth," agrees Bao Nguyen. "On one hand, people say there should only be one festival because Tet is about the community coming together. . . . The OC Fairgrounds is a great venue. Having something there is saying that it's available to everybody. That's very meaningful."

 

Forty Years After the Fall of Saigon, Orange County's Annual Tet Festival Goes Plural
William Vo/OC Weekly

The next meeting at UVSA headquarters happens two weeks later and is much calmer. It's another warm Sunday, and there are only 12 days until the event. The directors stare at laptops, looking over another agenda. This meeting is going noticeably faster. Gone are the pageant girls, who are already prepared for their part of the festival. Gone are the other volunteers. In the backroom, the murals have been finished and are waiting to be loaded into trucks and driven down the 405, out of Little Saigon and into the fairgrounds.

The students go over the final sponsorship tallies, which total well into six digits. They tie up loose ends such as booth placements, how they're going to take aerial photos of the event, how they're going to feed the volunteers, and what the official hashtag is going to be. While discussion continues, several directors slide tickets into red envelopes to be given away later.

To a lot of people, the fact that there are two simultaneous Tet festivals in Orange County is a sign that the second generation of Vietnamese Americans that everyone's always talked about--the more liberal, more American than Vietnamese generation--is finally coming of age. And looking around the room, that makes sense.

Nearly every director is American-born. Some aren't even Vietnamese, but Filipino or white. Almost none of them speaks Vietnamese as a first language. Many were losing the ability to read and write in the language until Pham asked her committee members to write emails in Vietnamese (with liberal use of Google Translate).

"I feel relieved. I feel like I've brought my torch to the next generation, and they're still carrying it," says Frances Nguyen. She has been with the UVSA for 34 years and has seen it through inception, growth, maturity and change. "I'm an 'older person,' so my job is to keep reminding them of our purpose, but of course I have to let them be independent. Just like the American people, they need to be independent."

Party hardy
Party hardy
William Vo/OC Weekly

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