Rain almost ruined the biggest Tet parade in the country Feb. 9 in Little Saigon.
But by 9:30 a.m., the precipitation stopped, the sun came out, floats and convertibles rolled down Bolsa Avenue, and the marching bands played on.
The seventh annual Little Saigon Tet Parade, organized by the Vietnamese American Federation of Southern California, celebrated the lunar new year, which was technically Feb. 5, and the Year of the Pig. Millions of Asians around the world recognize the lunar new year, including Vietnamese, Chinese and Korean American communities in Southern California.
For much of the day, Bolsa Avenue in Westminster was shut down between Magnolia and Bushard streets, as men and women dressed in ao dai — or traditional, colorful Vietnamese garments — strolled down the street, waved and greeted each other with “happy new year!” in English and Vietnamese.
Veterans from the United States and South Vietnam wore their military uniforms, high schoolers donned their marching band or color guard outfits, and young people in lion or dragon costumes snaked and danced down the street.
“Back in Vietnam, it’s a big holiday,” said Phat Bui, chairman of this year’s Little Saigon Tet Parade. “We do this to welcome the new year. When we first arrived here, we were humble and just surviving. We now have settled down. It’s time for us to remember our past and celebrate the new year.
“We celebrate the human rights we enjoy in the United States,” he continued. “After 43 years of escaping from atrocities by the Communist government, we now enjoy freedom and human rights and the opportunity to bring our communities together. We want to show our heritage, and our success in this community.”
About 98 different organizations participated in the parade, Bui said. Only a couple of groups dropped out because of the rain, which poured quite heavily between 7:30 a.m. and 9 a.m., when the groups were supposed to line up.
Organizers estimated about 13,000 to 15,000 spectators lined the street. That’s less than the 20,000 attendees that typically attend this parade year after year.
Nonetheless, organizers said the event was broadcast by more than 20 local TV stations, most of them ethnic media. Websites such as YouTube and social media sites such as Instagram, Facebook and Twitter shared the event with tens of millions of viewers in Vietnam and 3 million Vietnamese worldwide. In 2016, the firm Harsh Tracking reported 12.8 million impressions related to the Tet Parade.
For Sydney Ly, the first-runner up princess for the Miss Westminster pageant, Tet and the parade have always been a family affair.
“For me, Tet has always been a really happy time in my family,” said Ly, 17, who was born and raised in Westminster. “The Tet Parade is a really happy way to bring the whole community together, which I think is super special. You get to see small businesses, big businesses. It’s a way to really advertise for the city, help the smaller businesses grow, while also seeing fresh faces and everything Westminster has to give.”
Ly and the other princesses, including Miss Westminster Malia Merrill, rode on a float near the end of the parade and waved to cheering spectators. They threw rolled up, blue tote bags at eager viewers along the street.
Each Tet Parade has a theme, and this year the parade celebrated Quang Trung (also known as Nguyen Hue or Nguyen Quang Binh), the Vietnamese warrior who united his people and defeated Chinese invaders. This year people in Vietnam and the U.S. are recognizing the 230th anniversary of the Ngoc Hoi-Dong Da victory over Chinese Qing invaders.
At the same time, organizers aim to make the Little Saigon Tet Parade a celebration for all area communities to enjoy and participate in.
“We invited the local Filipino and Indian communities, and people from Laos, Cambodia and the Latino community,” said Alan Vo Ford, an organizer and member of the parade’s finance and float judge committees.
Indeed, Alex Gonzalez, 34, brought his wife and four kids to watch the event. He and his wife are originally from Mexico.
“We’re here to celebrate the new year,” Gonzalez said in Spanish. He works in a local restaurant and lives in Garden Grove. “It’s entertaining, the kids enjoy it, and it’s beautiful.”
Each year, the parade’s committees raise about $150,000 to support the event. The money comes from businesses that wish to sponsor the parade and get some exposure in the process, as well as private donors. Raffle tickets at $15 apiece also help pay for costs. About $60,000 goes to the city of Westminster’s public works department, which assists with the logistics of the parade.
This year, the group known as Viet Rainbow of Orange County, or VROC, which consists primarily of LGBTQ members, participated in the parade with a solid turnout and a warm reception.
It hasn’t always been that way. In the second year of the Tet Parade, VROC was not allowed to participate because of too much “public display of affection,” according to Bui.
“We want this to be a family friendly event,” the parade chairman said. “We had a discussion, and during the third year, they were able to come back.” They’ve been back every year since.
Ngoc Anh Ha, 27, a member of VROC, said “it’s very significant” that the organization is represented every year. “We’re part of Vietnamese America too,” she said.
For several groups of American veterans of the Vietnam War, participating in the parade is an important reminder of sacrifices made decades ago.
“When the American Vietnam veterans came home, they were spit on, they weren’t appreciated,” said Robert Harrison, 72, a former Marine who fought in the Vietnam War. He’s a member of the nonprofit service organization, Vietnam Veterans of America. “We find that the Vietnamese community is embracing us, and it’s nice to be thanked. The basic Vietnamese people (here) appreciate the Vietnam vet.
“We’re trying to bring together South Vietnamese and Americans, and different people have opened up to us.”
Richard Chang is a contributing writer for Arts & Culture at Voice of OC, focusing on the visual arts. He can be reached at [email protected].