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Little Saigon Shakes Off Rain, Rings In the Year of the Snake

February 05, 1989|DAVID REYES | Times Staff Writer

The last remnants of the Year of the Dragon exited in a huff Saturday as rain fell on a parade of marching bands, war veterans and color guards at the Tet Festival, the Vietnamese new year celebration, in Orange County's Little Saigon.

The rainstorm blustered lightly at first, dampening but not canceling a parade and opening ceremonies welcoming Year of the Snake. But when the rain worsened, organizers decided to postpone several events until today.

Officially, Tet begins Monday. Festivities continue today in Westminster on Bolsa Avenue from 10 a.m. to 9 p.m.

"Let's hope it gets dry soon," said a disappointed Tony Lam, festival coordinator and vice president of the Vietnamese Chamber of Commerce, which co-sponsored the festival with the city of Westminster. Police estimated attendance at about 5,000 people, well below earlier predictions.

But the weather didn't dampen the spirits of participants.

Kim Tien of Santa Ana traveled to Little Saigon with her daughter, Chandra, 1 1/2. She said she came to browse and let her daughter enjoy the firecrackers, which thundered throughout the day.

"I don't mind the rain. After all, New Year's comes only once a year," Tien said.

Those who ignored the wet weather spent the day looking at some of the more than 70 booths selling everything from Tet posters to Vietnamese food.

Tien said she enjoyed the festival's parade, which included Buddhist and Catholic religious leaders, Boy Scouts, a marching band and veterans garbed in military fatigues and stiff boots from the South Vietnamese army's Ranger units, air force and military intelligence.

Thomas Thach Nguyen, 49, a former South Vietnamese air force major who flew cargo aircraft along the Cambodian border, said he and other Vietnamese veterans decided to march in the Tet parade as a "reminder of the war."

"For us old veterans, the military spirit is still very much alive. We hope one day to come back to our country and fight and drive out the Communists," said Nguyen, who displayed his air force dragon patch on his green uniform.

Nguyen said he left Saigon, now Ho Chi Minh City, on a military cargo plane on April 29, 1975, the day Saigon fell to the North Vietnamese.

"There was fighting at the air base and the Communists were going to take it over. It was very dangerous for my crew, so we left," Nguyen said.

"Right now, there still are resistance units in Vietnam. We know that, and we want the refugee people here in Southern California to continue supporting the resistance," he said.

Despite the weather, many local and state elected officials, including Sen. Pete Wilson (R-Calif.), shared a portable stage with an altar where Buddhist and Catholic religious leaders performed a traditional Tet ceremony.

Both the "Star Spangled Banner" and the South Vietnamese national anthem were sung to kick off the ceremony as U.S. and South Vietnamese flags whipped in the breeze.

In special recognition and in keeping with Vietnamese cultural respect for the elderly, Tony Lam paid tribute to Rat Van Nguyen of Westminster, who will turn 100 in 1990. Nguyen is also called Cu Pham, a title meaning "Elder" or "Great Father." A relative said Nguyen is a great-great-grandfather.

A moment of silence was held for the thousands of U.S. and South Vietnamese soldiers and civilians killed in the Vietnam War.

Wilson placed a large wreath of palm leaves, red lilies and carnations on the altar to remember those who died.

Wilson praised his predominantly Vietnamese audience as a "courageous people" and reminders to other Americans that "our freedom must not be taken for granted."

"I know it's wet out here today and cold too," Wilson said. "But many of those Vietnamese who are our newest American citizens arrived to this country by boat. They survived. They know what it's like to be wet. And to be cold."

"It took enormous courage for you to do what you have done. It's shown courage of a special kind, one that serves as a model for other Americans," Wilson said to loud applause.

"You chose to be free," he said.

Other elected officials at the festival included Assemblymen Edward R. Royce (R-Anaheim) and Curt Pringle (R-Garden Grove); Westminster Mayor Charles V. Smith, the parade's grand marshal, and council members Lyn Gillespie and Frank Fry Jr.

Smith excited the crowd when, in Vietnamese, he wished them "chuc mung nam moi! " or happy new year!

With that, a forest of firecracker trees was set off in a raucous welcome for Xuan Ky Ty, Year of the Snake.

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