It’s been a tense and grief-filled week for Asian American communities living in California because of recent mass shootings, but that tension could not really be felt at the 41st annual UVSA Tet Festival, held at the OC Fair & Event Center this past weekend, Jan. 27-29. UVSA is the Union of Vietnamese Student Associations of Southern California, a nonprofit that has branches at colleges and high schools across the Southland.

Thousands of people gathered at the OC Fairgrounds to celebrate the Year of the Cat, as predicated by the Vietnamese zodiac. In other Asian cultures, particularly Chinese and Korean, it’s the Year of the Rabbit.

Many attendees dressed in ao dai, the traditional and colorful Vietnamese garment often made of silk chiffon fabrics. (For men, they are sometimes called ao gam.) Folks lined up in unusually long lines outside in the parking lot and at the entrance of the festival, since organizers implemented additional security measures this year, including metal detectors, bag checks, security and police presence, and a ban on any kind of weapons, real or fake.

“Immediately after what had happened (last) Saturday and that following Monday, UVSA decided to take immediate measures to make sure we ensure the safety of all of our staff and attendees,” said Emmerick Doan, this year’s chair of the festival.

“So we worked closely with OC Fair & Event Center, along with the O.C. Sheriff’s Department, to make sure we have law enforcement here, and to keep everyone safe.”

While some people were surprised at the long lines and wait time to enter, most attendees accepted them as part of big public gatherings these days, especially so soon after the fatal shootings in Monterey Park and Half Moon Bay.

“I think it’s worth it, because when we’re thinking about the safety and security of our staff and attendees, I don’t think there’s anything more important than that,” Doan said.

Inside, lion and dragon dances greeted attendees, and many posed for pictures in front of decorated archways, Lunar New Year props and at stations in the traditional Cultural Village. The words “Chuc mung nam moi” – Vietnamese for “happy new year” – were emblazoned on booths and were spoken by singers, emcees and attendees alike.

The theme for this year’s UVSA Tet Festival was “Road to Our Homeland.”

“This is my first time out with my family as a unit with parents and kids, because before this, it was just my wife and I when we first moved to OC,” said Jason Nguyen, 38, a musician and music scholar who lives in Santa Ana. “So it’s great to be able to give the kids a sense of Vietnamese cultural activity going on, especially after the pandemic, give them some action, something to be enthusiastic about, something fun.”

Quyen Ngo, an actor, trainer and organizer, came down from Koreatown, Los Angeles to meet Nguyen and friends Saturday at the USVA Tet Festival. She was dressed in a peach-colored ao dai.

“It feels a little ritualistic. I grew up in San Jose, up north, and I used to go to Tet festivals up north as a child,” said Ngo, 32. “So it’s just something that’s kind of imprinted in my memory, in my childhood. My favorite thing is the lion dancing happening all throughout, because that’s what the kids are here for.”

Throughout the festival, there were booths selling Vietnamese and Asian foods, snacks and drinks; other booths selling toys, beauty products, clothes and souvenirs; and organizations sharing information on local services and amenities. Students from Cal State Fullerton, Cal State Long Beach, UC Irvine and other area schools occupied booths and played games with willing attendees, raising money for their groups and other causes.

Three stages offered a platform for singers to croon, dancers to showcase their talents, amateur models to show off their ao dai, and contestants in pho and other food eating contests to compete. Some of the rides and games you’d typically see at the OC Fair were also operating in a carnival area.   

The “Royal Court” for Miss Vietnam of Southern California, 2023:

Queen: Jolynna Dang Ngoc Hien

First Princess: Lauren Nguyen Kim

Second Princess: Doan Thi My Linh

Miss Ao Dai: Michelle Ngo Lam Tuong Vy

Miss Photogenic: Megan Doan Uyen Vi

Miss Congeniality: Julie Do

A Miss Vietnam of Southern California contest took place Saturday on the main stage indoors. Jolynna Dan Ngoc Hien of Baldwin Park (UC Irvine student) was crowned the queen, and the first princess was Lauren Nguyen Kim of New Britain, Connecticut (a student at Loyola Marymount University). (See sidebar for other winners.)

“I feel like it’s very important for students to come together, especially to celebrate their culture,” said Harrison Nguyen, a third-year marketing student at CSUF. “As you know, UVSA is oriented toward students, and we all come together to celebrate a common cause.

“Especially after the pandemic, a lot of people just yearn for community. They yearn for a place and a safe space to dress and be themselves. This is the most honest version of me, where I can be myself.”

Tai Trinh, a second-year psychology major at UC Irvine, volunteered at a booth with some of her UCI classmates.

“It’s important for us to celebrate culture and our cultural traditions, and pass them on to the next generation,” said Trinh, 19. “It’s not so crowded this year, so it’s nice to actually see everyone here.”

Approximately 3,000 people attended Friday, and between 15,000-20,000 attended Saturday, according to festival chair Doan. He estimated that a similar number, between 15,000-20,000, attended on Sunday.

No major incidents were reported at any of the Lunar New Year festivals or parades that took place in Orange County over the past two weekends.    

Richard Chang is senior editor for Arts & Culture at Voice of OC. He can be reached at

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