Vietnamese Tet Festival brings lunar new year to Sacramento

Ricky Lam, who says he has operated his mobile Buddhist temple for 10 years, was on hand Sunday for the Vietnamese Tet Festival hosted by the Vietnamese American Community of Sacramento.
Ricky Lam, who says he has operated his mobile Buddhist temple for 10 years, was on hand Sunday for the Vietnamese Tet Festival hosted by the Vietnamese American Community of Sacramento. rbyer@sacbee.com

A barrage of explosions erupted on the corner of Stockton Boulevard and Florin Road, and the smell of gunpowder filled the air Sunday along with the rat-a-tat of thousands of red firecrackers representing luck, prosperity and Tet – the Vietnamese lunar new year heralding the Year of the Goat.

An estimated 15,000 people – roughly half the region’s 30,000 Vietnamese Americans, many of whom fled their country after the Vietnam War – turned out to celebrate the food, music, dances and traditions of their ancient culture and the freedoms of expression, belief and equal opportunity they have availed themselves of here. Dozens of American flags stood next to the gold-and-red flags of the former South Vietnam.

Tet, which began last week and lasts for a month, has been a critically important time of new beginnings for more than 4,000 years, said Tet Festival President Tim Do, a refugee who captained a 15-foot fishing boat carrying 70 people out of South Vietnam in 1978. “We believe the way you begin the new year is good for the whole year,” he said.

“We have to have a nice smile and … be friendly and offer best wishes and best dishes,” said Do, whose wife was preparing Vietnamese food at one of the dozens of food booths. To start fresh, Vietnamese clean their houses, wear new shoes and clothes, and cut their hair, said Do, who sported a buzz cut, his face burnished from the dozens of hours he spent erecting the festival tents, stage, fences and booths for nearly 100 vendors. “Yesterday I was here at 4 a.m. – I welded everything,” he said. “Seeing the smiles on everyone’s face here makes me feel good. If you do good, it means good luck for the rest of the year, definitely.”

Do, 57, a self-made millionaire who started with nothing and once slept on the decks of Vietnamese fishing boats in Seaside, has built several key buildings in Sacramento’s Vietnamese community, including the 12,000-square-foot Vietnamese Community Center on Elder Creek Road, a Vietnamese Baptist Church and the Vietnamese Buddhist Temple on Power Inn Road. His latest project is a Vietnamese Buddhist temple on Power Inn Road.

He wished one and all “chuc mung nam moi,” Happy New Year in Vietnamese.

Do has been able to steer clear of the community politics and rivalries that several years ago turned into dueling Tet festivals. He said his secret is that he’s a committee of one.

“I call him ‘the mayor of Little Saigon,’” said Hao Phan, a retired state worker. “Tonight, after everybody’s had a good time and walked away, he will do all the cleanup himself.”

Do puts in so much time for a purpose. Surveying the dozens of young people manning booths and dishing out pho, spring rolls, barbecued chicken and pork skewers, he explained, “I want our kids to learn about working.”

He also wants them to learn Vietnamese culture, so he and other parents give their children red envelopes with lucky money to carry everywhere they go. “It’s not for spending.” Do said. “And every new year kids have to go to their parents’ home and make them a cup of tea wishing them a healthy year.”

Do thinks he has been able to unify the local Vietnamese community because he was born in 1957, Year of the Rooster, and “roosters get along with everyone,” which means they can mesh well and enjoy a successful marriage with any other astrological sign. “My wife is Year of the Pig,” the optimistic one.

When Vietnamese consider marriage, parents always take into account astrology, Do said. “I’m sure it works. This is the Year of the Goat, the calm, dreamy one, but snakes and goats don’t get along,” he said.

An array of Vietnamese churches, temples and causes were on display Saturday and Sunday, including Ricky Lam’s rolling Buddhist temple, a mobile home containing an altar and lined with racks of CDs and books such as “Everyone Can Be a Buddha.” Lam, who fled Saigon in 1979, goes from city to city in California urging people “to find peace inside, seek in, don’t seek out.”

When he first came to California, Lam, 55, said, “I was a bad boy, a very big gambler, living in the casino parking lot in San Jose.” But he said he saw the cards in his poker hands miraculously change before his eyes and he then decided to give up meat and become a monk.

On Sunday, clad in yellow monk’s robes representing the permanence of gold, Lam said karma helps govern this life and the next. “Without reincarnation there’s no protection, no equality for people. We believe if you do something bad, you’ll come back as something bad; that’s guaranteed!”

Along with the smells of fresh barbecue and firecrackers, the parking lot was filled with emblems of Vietnamese culture: women wearing umbrellalike straw hats known as non la, and ao dai, long flowing dresses in blues, whites, reds and pinks. A few South Vietnamese Army veterans sported dark blue uniforms, including Nguyen Tat, who served from 1972 to 1975 with the U.S. Army Rangers.

Sunday’s events included a lion dance performed by about 25 dancers ages 5 to 35, said Theo Nguyen, director of Dieu Quang Lion Dance Team from the Elder Creek Vietnamese Buddhist Temple. “We scare away evil spirits and bring good luck to businesses and households,” said Nguyen, 31, whose team performed amid long trails of red firecrackers. “I’ve been doing this since I was said 6,” said Nguyen, who works for CalPERS. “We do this to benefit the community and out of respect for Tim Do.”

Throughout the festival, people were raising money for Vietnamese orphans, disabled children and other causes. Nancy Le, 21, a UC Davis senior, was raising money for the Vietnamese Club of Davis to build water wells in poor Vietnamese towns.

“This is a celebration for the diasporic Vietnamese community who escaped political persecution and built a better life here,” Le said.

Call The Bee’s Stephen Magagnini, (916) 321-1072. Phillip Reese contributed to this report.