Tet festival binds all Vietnamese

Characterized by lion dances, fireworks, live music, carnival games for the kids and an abundance of mouth-watering food, the annual Tet celebration is the largest festival for the tight-knit Vietnamese community in eastern New Orleans.

Marking the lunar new year, the three-day event at Queen Mary of Vietnam Church is a gathering of close friends and family, as well as a chance for the rest of the city to experience a glimpse of Vietnamese culture.

This year brings in the year of the snake — considered a symbol of luck.

The food is always one of the biggest draws, with golden heaps of crispy banana fritters, rows of pork and shrimp spring rolls and steaming bowls of noodle soup.

In one tent, a vendor showed an adventurous non-Vietnamese visitor how to open a Balut — a fertilized duck egg. She demonstrated by tapping the top and bottom of the large egg before peeling it to reveal the warm duck embryo.

All of the food is prepared and sold by volunteers to raise money for the church in an effort that requires weeks of preparation.

Another booth offered dessert cups filled with creamy concoctions of coconut seaweed, sweet Mung bean, and soy custard.

Kids ran wild in the church’s parking lot — spraying each other with silly string and happily making loud noises by throwing bang snaps onto the pavement.

A group of Tulane University medical students handed out information to create awareness about the prevalence of Hepatitis B among Asians. “One in 12 Asians have Hepatitis B and two-thirds don’t know it,” said student Sunni Wong. “One-fourth develop liver cancer,” she said, adding that it is something easy to test for and identify early, but that outreach is needed in the Vietnamese community where many people face insurance and language barriers.

In two tents at the entrance, a gallery of photographs paid homage to the mass exodus of Vietnamese to the United States following the fall of Saigon in 1975 and the communist takeover.

New Orleans remains home to one of the largest Vietnamese communities in the nation.

Chau Luong said he arrived in 1981 when he was about 20 years old. “I live here but my heart is still in Vietnam,” Luong said. He said the Tet celebration is a chance to reflect on the past and to celebrate tradition and get together with friends and family, including some who come every year from other states.

“The older generation likes to look to the past and the young people look to the future,” Luong said.

Luong said the community is characterized by a strong emphasis on family and respecting elders, and that because of the concentration of Vietnamese and their Vietnamese-American children and grandchildren living in a small area of the city, the population maintains their culture and tradition.

“We are very together,” Luong said. “It is a community that gives back and is not selfish.”

Leaving Vietnam more than 30 years ago at the age of 13, Henry Nguyen said that he left a life of poverty and starvation in which he was unable to attend school.

Nguyen said his mom and dad could work all day and night without being able to earn enough to put food on the table. He said he felt fortunate to come to New Orleans where he raised three children and started a business.

Following Hurricane Katrina, members of the Vietnamese community in New Orleans rebuilt quickly on their own.

Of the Katrina recovery, Nguyen said that he attributes that to fact that “the Vietnamese take pressure better than Americans. We went through a lot worse than that.”

Hanh Pham, who grew up in the area and lives in Slidell, said she attends the festival every year and enjoys visiting friends and relatives whom she sees only at the Tet festival.

And, of course, Pham said, she comes for the food — a cuisine she said she sees growing in popularity across the region.

The festival continues on Sunday from noon until 10 p.m. at 5069 Willowbrook Drive in eastern New Orleans.