Saturday, February 3, 2018

Viatnamese Tết Festival at the Orlando Fairgrounds.

(Thor) When Pam Schwartz and I arrived at the Tết Festival, I immediately sat down to sketch the preparations for the dragon dances. As a drummer and symbol set the beat, the acrobats practiced leaps and standing on each other's shoulders. They all put on bright green t-shirts and bright pants which matched the colors of the dragons. There was a blue, red and yellow dragon each. A red rope was hung from a bamboo tree with a red beam that had two red tassels. Long red strips were unrolled on the ground and each was tied up to the rope from the bamboo tree. At the top of everything were octagonal firecrackers. An electronic firing device was rigged up in a Tupperware and the fuses snaked to various places on the field. After rehearsing, the dragon dance performers told everyone gathered to go to the main hall to see the show on stage. Pam and Lesleyanne Drake went on a food tour as I sketched.

(Pam) While Tom sketched the fantastical dragon heads outside, Ricky Ly of Tasty Chomps offered a free food tour at the Central Florida Fairgrounds during the 2018 Vietnamese Tết Celebration. He gave a small group of foodies a bit of background on Tết before taking us inside the food court. As we browsed from stand to stand he pointed out different dishes and Vietnamese specialties. I tried to pick up and remember each of the unique names as he said them, but it was nearly impossible through the roar of the main stage to our backs. From colorful gelatin desserts and fried banana cakes to pork on stick and a variety of delicious looking noodle soups, the stands were an absolute feast for the eyes.

Lesleyanne Drake and I, both incredibly passionate about food, began making a mental list of all the things we NEEDED to try before we were too full to go on. We began with a few light bites because we knew Tom could join us for the main course. The more friends you bring to a food fair, the better. You get to try more dishes at a lower cost and don’t fill up quite a fast as you would otherwise. It’s a win-win situation for all! The first thing we ate I had no anticipation of liking, was Chuoi chien, or fried bananas. It was light and crispy on the outside but warm and gooey on the inside. It was surprising because I really hadn’t planned to like it, I like bananas…just not things made from bananas. We also tried a pork skewer (there were just pans and pans of them all over the place) and egg rolls to start.

For the larger portions of our meal we divided and conquered, myself getting Mi Quang (a pork and prawn noodle soup with delicious chewy turmeric noodles, topped with peanuts and these incredible little sesame crackers that soaked up the broth and tasted delicious), Lesleyanne got Nam Vang (a Cambodian-Chinese inspired soup with assorted types of noodles, a quail’s egg, a little heat, and all sorts of fixings), and Tom focused on two types of pork, one from the north (the favorite choice) and one from the south, as well as a Bánh Tôm (a sweet potato and shrimp fritter). We were all surprised by how “airy” the fritter was. There were many MANY more things we wanted to try, but we will have to reserve those for next year. I grabbed a Cà phê sữa đá (coffee with sweetened condensed milk) and we all got a bag of Chuoi chien to go.

(Thor) As I tried dishes with Pam and Lesleyanne the dragons took to the main stage but their performance was brief. They were followed by groups of female dancers and then the Vietnamese national anthem and the United States national anthem. Everyone in the audience remained standing for a long ceremony for the ancestors. When we went outside there was a large crowd gathered where I had sketched before. It was time for the main dragon dance ceremony. The crowd surrounded the field. It was too crowded to see from my previous vantage point, so we went to the far side where the crowd was thinner.

The dragons came alive, with one acrobat in the head and one in the rump. A fourth dragon was animated by a group of acrobats with poles. It is the year of the dog, so an actor in a dog costume rudely sniffed and bumped the rumps of the dragons.

The fuses were lit and the entire field erupted with the rapid blaze of firecrackers. All of the red streamers were long lines of firecrackers wrapped in red paper. A huge plume of smoke engulfed us, and I could feel the hot shrapnel hitting me. We had misjudged the wind direction. We turned away from the smoke and many ran back for cover. Pam and I stood our ground squinting into the smoke. The rapid fire explosions seemed to last forever. Then they all lifted upwards towards the top of the bamboo tree. The silence afterwords was deafening. Then the dragons danced among the ruins looking down at the red carnage. They then broke free into the crowd and made their way back to the main stage. Our small group decided that we had seen enough for one day.

Prints are available for each sketch for $250 and many originals can be purchased for $400. White museum grade shadow box frames are $100 more. You can e-mail Thor at

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