Orange County is home to the largest Vietnamese population outside of Vietnam, making Tet – the Vietnamese version of the Lunar New Year – a widely celebrated holiday across the county.
The first new moon of the Lunar New Year reigns in importance among Vietnamese cultures and those in many other East and Southeast Asian countries. It’s a time for festive feasts and traditions rooted in abundance, prosperity and good fortune. This year Tet begins on Jan. 22 with celebrations typically lasting three days. Many in the county are celebrating the Lunar New Year this weekend; many others are also celebrating next weekend, Jan. 27-29.
The Chinese zodiac set the precedent of 12 animals in the zodiac, which include last year’s tiger and 2023’s rabbit. The Vietnamese zodiac only has one variation to it, swapping the rabbit out for the cat. There are many reasons why this change might have been made to the Vietnamese zodiac, including the similar pronunciation between the Chinese symbol for rabbit (“mão”) sounding like the Vietnamese word for cat (“mẹo”).
Vietnamese feng shui also regards the cat as holding better cultural relationships with other animals in the zodiac such as the dog, rat, tiger, etc. Others think it might just be because the rabbit isn’t as familiar in Vietnam with its typically warmer weather; the cat is more commonly seen throughout. Previous cat years belong to 2011, 1999, 1987 and 1975, with each year channeling the general auspicious spirit of the cat.
Vietnamese homes typically decorate for the new year with kumquat trees, bonsai, chrysanthemums, marigolds, paperwhites and orchids to welcome relatives and friends. Feasts often consist of banh chung (packed sticky rice with meat filling or a bean spread), mứt (dried candied fruits), hanh muoi (pickled onions) and more. Most notably, elders are known to give red envelopes with money to children as a symbol of good luck at this time, a tradition adopted from the Chinese.
One of the largest local celebrations of the new year is the annual UVSA Tet Festival, which takes place at the OC Fair & Event Center. Founded in 1982, the nonprofit group Union of Vietnamese Student Associations started as a way to fundraise for refugees fleeing Vietnam after the end of the Vietnam War in 1975. The UVSA Tet Festival began in parking lots and small parks around the county and proceeded to grow until settling into its decade-long home at Garden Grove Park, until eventually moving to the OC Fair & Event Center in 2014 to accommodate more guests and staff.
This year’s weekend festival celebrating the Year of the Cat takes place from Jan. 27-29, and serves as a way for both old and young generations to honor Vietnamese culture, history and traditions. For many families who haven’t been able to return home since fleeing Vietnam, the team of volunteers at UVSA hopes to provide a safe space to celebrate the biggest Vietnamese holiday as authentically as possible. Collaborating with over a dozen Southern California Vietnamese community organizations, the Cultural Village and administrative team of UVSA is able to present historically accurate costumes, music, decorations and more.
Emmerick Doan, the UVSA Tet chairperson, explained the importance of seeking out the support and knowledge of local Vietnamese community leaders.
“Our team sits down with members of the community to discuss ideas for the next year, which structures and focal points within Vietnamese history to focus on, and how to make sure it is represented accurately at our festival,” Doan said.
The UVSA team is debuting a new design for the festival’s front gate, replicating O Quan Choung, a gate to the ancient imperial Citadel of Thanh Long. A Temple of Literature replica will also be newly on display inside the Cultural Village.
Where to Celebrate Tet
OC Tet Festival
When: 5-10 p.m. Friday, Jan. 20; 10 a.m.-10 p.m. Saturday, Jan. 21; 10 a.m.-9 p.m. Sunday, Jan. 22
Where: Mile Square Park, 16801 Euclid St., Fountain Valley
Little Saigon Tet Parade
When: Live performances start at 8 a.m., Parade begins at 10 a.m. on Sunday, Jan. 22
Where: Westminster, Bolsa Avenue, eastbound from Magnolia Street to Bushard Street
Admission: Free; premiere seating available for purchase
SteelCraft Lunar New Year Festival
When: Noon-10 p.m. Saturday, Jan. 23
Where: SteelCraft Garden Grove, 12900 South Euclid St., Suite 150, Garden Grove
Admission: Free, but make a reservation here for a free entry to the festival’s raffle
UVSA Tet Festival
When: 4-10 p.m. Friday, Jan. 27; 11 a.m.–10 p.m. Saturday, Jan. 28; 11 a.m.–9 p.m. Sunday, Jan. 29
Where: OC Fair & Event Center, 88 Fair Drive, Costa Mesa
Admission: $8, available for purchase day of at the main entrance
Lunar New Year with the Pacific Symphony
When: 8 p.m. Saturday, Jan. 28
Where: Renée and Henry Segerstrom Concert Hall, 600 Town Center Drive, Costa Mesa
Admission: Tickets starting at $56, purchase here
For a festival admission fee of $8, you can also shop from local vendors, purchase a variety of foods from 30 booths, or participate in pho eating contests and modern dance competitions.
Entertainment is abundant at the festival, which attracts over 50,000 guests each year. Friday performers include young Asian American artists such as GhostDragon, the JRod Twins, Dolly Ave, Han Holiday, JR Aquino, theoneDNA and Minh Tuyet. The opening ceremony will be held on Saturday, featuring Miss Vietnam of Southern California Pageant, followed by the annual Spring Wedding and Grand Concert with A-list Vietnamese singers including Lam Nhat Tien, Ngoc Ha, Loan Chau and Hoang My An.
Other Lunar New Year Celebrations
For over two decades, the city of Westminster’s Little Saigon Tet Parade has been a staple for local Vietnamese communities looking to celebrate the Lunar New Year. This year’s free parade takes place on Jan. 22. Those who are there early can enjoy live music at the stage area performed by students of the Garden Grove Unified School District starting at 8 a.m.
The opening ceremony, featuring lion dances, firecrackers and a ribbon cutting, starts at 8:30 a.m., with the following parade commencing at 10 a.m. starting at the intersection of Bolsa Avenue and Magnolia Street, heading eastbound on Bolsa Avenue. The parade flows through Bushard Street and heads southbound until its final destination, Bishop Palace.
The highly attended parade (over 10,000 annual visitors) honors the beliefs and traditions of the Vietnamese Americans living in Little Saigon and surrounding cities, the biggest concentration of this community in the country.
You can expect to see an array of floats, marching bands, traditional lion dances, multicultural attire, elected officials and other local businesses and organizations.
In 2020, a political divide caused the Westminster parade’s operator of many years, the Vietnamese American Federation of Southern California, and its Garden Grove councilman leader, Phat Bui, to split off and organize a competing Tet parade in Garden Grove. This year, there will be no dueling city parades.
Also in Little Saigon, the annual Flower Festival displaying traditional flowers ends its run today just before the new year at the Asian Garden Mall. Each year, visitors can shop for a variety of flowers, teas, candies, artwork and more in anticipation of the new year. To welcome the arrival of the Year of the Cat, the mall will host a firecracker celebration at noon Jan. 22.
In Fountain Valley, the OC Tet Festival takes place again from Jan. 20-22 on the Freedom Hall Lawn at Mile Square Park. The annual event, sponsored by Supervisor Andrew Do, CalOptima Health and OCParks, will feature lion dances, cultural performances, a firecracker ceremony, Vietnamese food vendors and carnival rides. OCParks public information officer Danielle Kennedy said the ultimate goal of the Tet festival is to provide a free space for families and the community to commemorate the Year of the Cat.
Costa Mesa’s Renée and Henry Segerstrom Concert Hall will host a Year of the Rabbit celebration performance on Jan. 28 at 8 p.m. The event will blend traditions from both the East and the West for a night of festive music and dance conducted by musical director Carl St.Clair.
SteelCraft Garden Grove’s first-ever Lunar New Year Festival falls on Jan. 21 this year and will feature magicians, dancers, singers, traditional drummers and lion dancers. The all-day festival, running from noon to 10 p.m., will also have various food vendors, a car show, pet costume contests and a cosplay contest featuring a cash prize.
In Santa Ana, the Bowers Museum held its monthly free family festival in honor of Lunar New Year on Jan. 15. Kelly Bishop, vice president of external affairs at Bowers Museum, said this year’s festival embodied the museum’s mission of spotlighting global cultures by bringing together diverse communities to celebrate the different aspects of Asian culture. The festival brought the youth and families together with art projects, face painting, lion dances and traditional music.
The Lunar New Year is a highly regarded time for festivities, family gatherings and ancestral worship celebrated by several cultures across Asia and those who have moved to other parts of the world, with many of these communities being in our own county.
Doan of UVSA said it’s important to recognize and respect the cultures of our neighbors and their traditions, regardless of the amount of information you may or may not know about Vietnamese culture already.
“Come in with an open heart and mind, and you won’t leave disappointed,” Doan said.
Crystal Henriquez is a contributing for Arts & Culture at Voice of OC. She can be reached at email@example.com.