Last Friday I attended Tet Fest, the annual lunar new year celebration at New Orleans East’s Mary Queen of Vietnam Church. Like so much else in this mixed up gumbo of a city, Tet Fest is an amazing gift, offered by a specific cultural/ethnic group, to the city at large.
The event is free and much larger than I imagined. I expected a few food booths and a somewhat low-budget Dragon dance inside the church, but I was wrong on both accounts. The Advocate reports that Tet Fest attracts over 20K people over the course of the weekend, and it’s held outside, in the large parking area for a big Catholic church that serves the neighborhood’s Vietnamese community, as well as its Spanish and English-speaking communities (mass is held in three languages). The church/community was actually the subject of a New York Times article last year, which discusses how devastating Katrina, in 2005, and the Deepwater Horizon spill, in 2010, was for this low-lying, fishing community.
Tet Fest is basically a Vietnamese fair. It has bouncy houses and games for the kids (want to win live goldfish?), some sort of low-stakes gambling station for the adults (I think it’s called Bầu Cua Tôm Cá), and rows and rows of both traditional Vietnamese and New Orleans-style food vendors. You can get po’boys, crawfish by the pound and raw oysters, but you can also get curry goat stew, Pandan “green” waffles (made with a sweet grass that tastes almost like vanilla), duck eggs, mung beans, pork and rice wrapped in banana leaves, and all sorts of soups, dumplings, meats and unfamiliar, porridge-style deserts. And of course, pho, bahn mi, spring rolls, sesame buns and sticky rice. There’s beer on ice if you’re interested, but since we had seriously underestimated the cold (hey, it gets cold here! And damp cold feels colder than dry cold!), we skipped that offering. There’s also plenty of tables, so you don’t have to stand and eat.
There are stage events—singers, drum teams, bands, greetings from politicians and the local bishop. For me, the absolute highlight of Tet Fest was the Dragon Dance. The dance is repeated twice, at 6:30pm on both Friday and Saturday. I’ve heard sad tales of people simply dropping by Tet Fest during the day Saturday and Sunday and missing out on the best part.
The dragon costumes are elaborate, the dance itself is athletic, and even though each “dragon” is made up of at least three dancers, the dragons really do seem to be these coherent, animated, living creatures. They wiggle their rumps and their tails. They prance. They raise their necks and “breathe fire,” to the accompaniment of live drummers.
And honestly, this was all so great. This would have been enough. But then, in traditional New Orleans (and maybe Vietnamese?) style, things got CRAZY. The dragons left the stage to interact with the crowd, and the firecrackers started. At first, they were just very bright, grounded flashes of light—and very noisy. This is to scare away ghosts and evil spirits.
Then everything became super-frenzied. The drumming intensified, the firecrackers came faster and louder, and fireworks began exploding overhead—but it was all at really, really close range. (Now I understand why the men setting up and hovering at the edge of the stage, I guess to head off any misfires, wore hard hats.) Some kids turned their heads skyward, paralyzed by awe. Others hunched their shoulders and clapped hands over their ears. I definitely saw large embers land in laps. It was a sensory assault. There was so much happening at once, it was hard to know where to look. The dragons bobbed and weaved in front of the stage and at times, through the crowd. Lasers competed with fiery sky-bursts. The production value was unreal.
Then the Dragon Dance ended, leaving the stage and seating area littered with ash and confetti, and the crowd buzzing with adrenaline that could only be satiated by flavorful hot pots, so they moved en mass to the food stalls.
Sorry for not telling you about Tet Fest ahead of time this year (hey, it was my first time!), but go ahead and mark it on your 2020 calendar. And—here’s some advance notice—in June, there’s a Pho Fest on the West Bank, so I’m guessing even in 2019, you’ll get another chance at the curried goat.
And there’s an upcoming Chinese New Year celebration at the Shaolin Institute of New Orleans (1995 Gentilly Blvd.), Saturday, February 16, from 9:30am-1pm. They’re advertising meditation, martial arts demos, cultural talks, food and games.
Anyone know of other local, open-to-the-public Lunar New Year celebrations?