The Tết Festival: Orange County's Little Taste of Vietnam

Mile Square Park is the one of the largest recreational parks in Orange County. What began as a military airfield in World War II, has since been converted into a tranquil spot for sports and relaxation. Mile Square is now home to an 18-hole golf course, a banquet hall, paddle-boats, bike trails, picnic facilities, and plenty (and I mean plenty) of neighborhood squirrels and ducks. I would highly recommend Mile Square Park for long dog walks, a leisurely nap beneath the shade of a tree, or a romantic picnic by the lake. Yet, in defiance of its laid back ambiance, Mile Square hosts large events that are nothing less than eccentric and monumental. 

Mile Square Park is situated at the base of an area in Orange County referred to as “Little Saigon”. Little Saigon is respectively enclosed by the streets Magnolia, Euclid, Trask, and Mcfadden. More than 189,000 Vietnamese Americans reside in Little Saigon, making Westminster home to the largest community of Vietnamese Americans outside of Vietnam itself! This area is a hub for Vietnamese culture, filled with delicious restaurants, flourishing businesses, temples, and marketplaces.

What is Tết?

This year (2016), Mile Square Park hosted a festival in celebration of Tết, the Vietnamese New Year. Tết, short for Tết Nguyên Đán (translated from Sino-Vietnamese to read “Feast of the First Morning of the First Day”), is a welcoming of Spring which typically occurs between late January and early February. Tết is closely aligned with the Chinese New Year, often falling just an hour behind it. Because the Lunar New Year is based on the Lunar Calendar which dictates the months in accordance with the phases of the moon the exact day Tết falls on often varies. This year, it fell on February 8th along with the Chinese New Year. 

Tết is a time to ask for luck and prosperity with the coming of the New Year. Each region of Vietnam has their own custom, but the main traditions practiced during Tết involve spending time with the nuclear family, honoring those who have passed (by either cleaning their graves or offering fruit and food at their altar), and giving gifts of money to the children in small red envelopes. Orange, peach blossom, and kumquat trees are sometimes brought into the house and placed in decorative pots, and large portions of traditional foods are often home cooked and abundant. 

What To Expect

Over 100,000 people attended the four-day celebration at Mile Square park that took place on the weekend of February 12th. When Andrew and I first arrived, we were stuck in traffic for half an hour just to get past the park. Then, when we finally found parking, we had to walk two miles through the fog to find the festival. Don't let that deter you though; it was loud, bright, and beautiful! The festival welcomed many popular Vietnamese performers, a whole roundabout of food trucks and stands, carnival rides, games, and a few altars set out for offerings. 

The food at Mile Square's Tết festival was widely varied and incredible. (I have to admit, I may have eaten a smidge too much, but what else can you do with that many delicious options?)  There were small traditional stands that served Vietnamese cuisine such as Pho, Cà Ri Gà, and even some tasty fried squid which was served at Monkey Quain. Then, of course, there were the more popular food trucks that served anything from Mexican to American Cuisine. One of my favorite stands mainly served grilled corn.  You could choose between corn on the cob or cups of sweet corn and dress them to your liking with a barrage of condiments and spices. That same stand also served loaded tater tots with cheese, bacon, and green onion. Let’s just say I was a repeat customer. Another stand we visited served delicious Bahn Bao (or steamed pork buns) with a hard-boiled egg in the center. They were extremely fluffy and satisfying. 

Of course, there was more to this festival than just the food. The live performances were equally as intriguing and fun as the cuisine! On Saturday the 13th, the Vietnamese singer, Andrew Do, was performing. He had a beautifully smooth voice and that sailed over bright and animated melodies with ease. There were also a large group of ladies masterfully Hula dancing on stage, and towards the end they brought some smaller children to dance with them. All of that was packed into one evening of the second day! Some events that we sadly missed included fashion shows, the Miss OC Tết awards, the Traditional Ritual Grand Ceremony and ribbon cutting, lion and dragon dances, folkloric dancing, comedy skits, chess and soccer tournaments, martial arts exhibitions, magic shows, firecracker displays, and all sorts of other fun activities! Next year I can assure you we will be taking time off to attend all three days, from open to close. 

Towards the back end of the festival, was a small recreation of the Chùa Một Cột, a historic Buddhist Temple built in Hanoi by Emperor Lý Thái Tông in 1049. It is regarded as one of the most iconic temples in Vietnam, alongside the Perfume temple. This was crafted beside a walkway that showcased a carrying yoke made of bamboo holding two baskets, traditional to Southeast Asia for transporting goods by foot. Many people were trying to hold it up and failing, myself included. I conjured some good laughs after catapulting one of the baskets off the front end of the pole during a photo. 

Many families were also enjoying themselves at the small carnival towards the Northernmost section of the festival. There was a large Ferris wheel, some smaller roller-coaster rides, caramel apples, hand-dipped corn dogs, and many fun games to play. Between this section and the large stage there was a smaller stage that held separate performers and announcers in fabulous traditional clothing, and many booths and small shops for perusing. 

Overall this was an exhilarating and beautiful event. Somehow hidden in the middle of our quiet city was this big and boisterous event celebrating the luck and longevity we hope for in another great year to come. 

Cheers to those who celebrate the Lunar New Year, and cheers to new adventures and discoveries! We wish everyone the most fulfilling and exciting 2016.