Update: This story has been updated with information about plans for more security at this weekend’s festival.
If not for the Union of Vietnamese Student Associations’ annual Tet festival, 25-year-old Emmerick Doan said he believes he would not know as much about his Vietnamese culture and history.
“Being a part of the festival has really opened my eyes to (Vietnamese) culture, tradition and customs,” Doan, this year’s festival chairperson, said.
The festival was started in 1980 as a fundraising event in Little Saigon for incoming Vietnamese refugees and political prisoners. It has since grown in size to a three-day celebration, now housed at the OC Fair & Event Center in Costa Mesa , with Vietnamese food, entertainment and culture on offer.
And the Jan. 27-29 festival has become another way for next-generation Vietnamese Americans to stay in touch with the Vietnamese side of their identity.
It is one of several celebrations around the Lunar New Year that incorporate the area’s youth. Westminster School District has students participating in the UVSA’s festival as well as the city’s parade Sunday morning. On Tuesday, members of Westminster High’s Vietnamese/American Culture Club visited several campuses to present traditional performances.
Since the UVSA is composed of student volunteers from different age groups, Doan said it “gives us an opportunity to go back to our roots and go back to the blood that has made us who we are.”
This year’s festival theme is “Road to our Homeland.”
In addition to 30 food stalls and more than 100 exhibitor booths, the biggest draw at the festival is a replica of a traditional Vietnamese village.
“The village actually takes up approximately 30% of our entire event (space),” Doan said. “It is a square area that has replica structures of what you would see in a traditional, rural village – like straw huts. There’s lanterns, there’s boats, a marketplace.”
The village will have a relic of a temple of literature based in Hanoi. Volunteers will also showcase Dam Cuoi Dau Xuan, a traditional Vietnamese springtime wedding ceremony and host a Vietnamese language spelling bee competition within the village.
Following the mass shooting in a Monterey Park ballroom as Lunar New Year was celebrated last weekend, organizers of the Tet festival this weekend at the fairgrounds said they have been working closely with local law enforcement and venue officials on increased security. Metal detectors and bag checks will be implemented at the door.
A moment of silence to honor the 11 who died and others affected will also be taken during the event’s opening ceremony at 1 p.m. on Saturday.
On the first night of the festival on Jan. 27, the Le Ruoc Thanh Hoang ceremony will take place, with firecrackers (fake) mounted on a long stick of bamboo lit. The community will pray together and ask for the village to be safe and protected from evil spirits.
Doan started volunteering with the festival in 2015. However, his earliest memories attending the event are as a child with his father. While he loved playing the different carnival games, the cultural village was always his favorite, he said, teaching him over the years about different aspects of Vietnamese culture and history.
“You can’t really get that experience anywhere else,” Doan said.
On Jan. 28, the festival will host the Miss Vietnam of Southern California contest, where 20 participants will compete for a spot on the royal court. There will be three categories: evening gown, traditional dress and a proverb section, where participants choose a Vietnamese proverb and explain why it matters to them.
A traditional Vietnamese garment competition will also be open to all genders during the festival.
This year in the Vietnamese zodiac calendar, it is the Year of the Cat. However, in the Chinese zodiac calendar, it is the Year of the Rabbit. Some, like Doan, believe that this is because the Chinese word for rabbit sounds like the Vietnamese word for cat.
Cats are significant in Vietnam, Doan said, because many farmers would use the animals to get rid of pests and rodents.
“There’s a lot of history behind the cat and its usage in Vietnamese culture,” he said.
Like Doan, 10-year-old TinhNhu Alana Tran is also excited for Year of the Cat celebrations.
She is a fifth grader in the Vietnamese Dual Immersion Program at DeMille Elementary in Westminster, which kicked off celebrations Tuesday, Jan. 17, by watching the traditional dance performances by the Westminster High School students. Soon, she’ll perform on stage at the UVSA festival.
“I started performing with them since I was in kindergarten,” Tran said. “I will be singing the song ‘Ve Que An Tet.’”
Volunteering at the festival at the activity booths and as a performer, she said, helps her “connect with traditions that other people do” and learn about Vietnamese history.
Her favorite part of the UVSA celebrations are learning about different cultural elements at activity booths within the cultural village, such as “how to greet people in Vietnamese, how to draw stuff (like lanterns) that is culturally related to Vietnam.”
More than 70 students from DeMille Elementary’s Vietnamese Dual Immersion program – the nation’s first such program – will perform as part of the UVSA Tet celebrations. Tran’s father, HongTien Tran, will also coordinate art and craft booths set up within the cultural village by Westminster School District teachers, staff and volunteers.
“It’s (UVSA Tet Festival) a vehicle for us to teach our children, the young ones, about the tradition and get them to engage and integrate into their ancestral culture,” HongTien Tran said.
More than 40,000 people are expected to visit the festival over the three days, from Jan. 27 to 29, with more than 60,000 expected to tune in online from countries like Denmark and Canada. Tickets are priced at $8 and will be available at the door. Parking at the venue will cost $12.
For more information, visit the festival website .