South Tempe Vietnamese festival spreads culture

The annual Vietnamese Tet Festival at Holy Spirit Catholic Church in South Tempe presented a new culture to a new audience. — Photos by Tony Gutiérrez for

At first glance, Matthew Mortensen might seem out of place at the annual Vietnamese Tet Festival at Holy Spirit Catholic Church in South Tempe, being a White man.

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But Mortensen, wearing a blue áo dài — traditional Vietnamese tunic — with a decorative dragon, joined his fiancée in running one of the game booths that saw children of every culture participate.

“It’s a really good mix of Vietnamese, White and all sorts of cultures here,” Mortensen said.

Tet — or the Lunar New Year — originated in Vietnam as a celebration to do away with the old year and welcome the new. This year marks the Year of the Tiger. Traditionally, all debts must be paid, offenses are forgiven and hostilities are ceased.

Holy Spirit pastor Monsignor Peter Dai Bui sports an áo dài.

“When we celebrate a new year, we always reflect back on the year that has just passed and thank God for all of God’s blessings that we receive in life,” said Holy Spirit pastor Monsignor Peter Dai Bui, himself wearing an áo dài over his clerical collar. “Then we look forward to the new year, which is also a blessing from God, and this new year comes with so many opportunities to know and love God, and to build community, to work with one another (and) to grow personally in the community.”

While Mortensen said he appreciates the Vietnamese food, he has fully immersed himself in the culture. Even though he still has trouble understanding the language, he goes to Mass with his fiancée, Francisca Bui. Holy Spirit currently offers Mass in English or Vietnamese.

“Not only are we uniting our two communities, because we have an English-speaking community and a Vietnamese-speaking community, but it’s also to bring awareness of our culture, that Lunar New Year only happens once a year,” Francisca Bui said. “A lot of our English-speaking community doesn’t really know that this is what we do.”

Francisca Bui is president — or adult leader — of the Vietnamese Eucharistic Youth Movement in Tempe, a youth ministry begun in Vietnam in 1929 that spread across the globe as Vietnamese refugees fled their homeland after the fall of Saigon in 1975. Bui, who was born in Phoenix, remembers participating in the movement when her father, Thomas, headed the ministry in Phoenix. When the Tempe chapter was established, she started volunteering and took over the ministry in July 2021. Part of her role is to help the youth connect with their Vietnamese heritage.

Seventh-graders Kayla Nguyen and Emily Nguyen (no relation) joined to be the head and tail, respectively, of the Yellow Dragon during a dance performance that was bookended by fireworks and a live concert.

Dragons are a big part of the celebration.

“It’s really fun, but it’s also really nerve-wracking because you have to do a lot of stuff and move around a lot,” said Kayla Nguyen, who attends  Kyrene Traditional Academy in Chandler. “When we’re older, we’ll be like, ‘Yeah, we did a dragon dance.’”

The girls, both 13, learned about the dance from a Bible-study teacher. Emily Nguyen, who attends Santan Junior High in Chandler, joked that she liked the idea of getting money in a red envelope by participating, another Tet tradition. Doing the dance helped her connect with her culture “because my ancestors did it,” she said.

Chris Kieu, 37, who attends Our Lady of Mount Carmel Catholic Church in Tempe, said he remembered receiving those envelopes as a child when he was growing up in Vietnam.

“As a kid, we usually got these red envelopes with money in it. That’s the one thing I looked forward to,” he said. “Now, it’s just to celebrate coming together — friends and families — to eat food and just have fun.”

Ray and Rose Gamboa have been parishioners at Holy Spirit since 1979. Although they are members of the church’s English-speaking community, coming from a Hispanic background, they see many similarities with the Vietnamese culture.

“You see the bond with the community, and they’re just always there for each other,” Rose Gamboa said.

School children in costume help welcome Tet, the Vietnamese new year.

The Gamboas brought their grandsons, 8-year-old Leo Abel and his 6-year-old brother, Milo, who were excited about the fireworks at the church, 1800 E. Libra Drive. They occasionally attend Mass in Vietnamese, although they don’t know the language.

“It’s a great way to learn Vietnamese,” Ray Gamboa said. “It’s incredible just to watch the reverence of the way that the Vietnamese Masses are.”

The Tet Festival was placed on hold last year because of the COVID-19 pandemic. Christian Nguyen, who is a member of the worship team at the parish, organized some friends to perform for the festival.

“After 2020, and most of 2021, people are itching for some sort of community-building thing,” Christian Nguyen said. “This is the perfect opportunity to do that, and it’s a fresh start for everybody, leaving the past behind.”

Although Tet is not inherently a Catholic celebration, but rather an occasion recognized by all Vietnamese, there are ways to tie their Catholic Christian faith with the cultural meanings behind it, according to Francisca Bui. The celebration starts with a Mass to pray for Vietnam and for their ancestors.

“We pray for our homeland, our ancestors, those who have passed before us, and we also pray for our family, as well,” she said. “Not only are we celebrating the New Year, we also take the time to remember those who have passed, our saints and our faith.”

The history of Catholicism in Vietnam has been one of persecution, according to Msgr. Bui, recalling the Vietnamese Martyrs from the earliest missionary days to the Vietnam War. Msgr. Bui, himself, came with his family to the U.S. at age 5 to escape persecution.

Children found activities at the festival.

“The faith of the Vietnamese community, the Catholic faith, has grown so strong that they are willing to shed their blood for their faith when they encounter persecution,” he said. “In the very same way, here, that faith has been passed on from generation to generation. That’s what we’re also celebrating.”

In the church hall, the dancers and musicians performed in front of two flags — the U.S. flag and the flag of the Republic of Vietnam, or South Vietnam.

“That is very significant for us because we Vietnamese who are in diaspora, we still believe that our country is not a Communist country, but a free country,” Msgr. Bui said. “We want that, and we still dream of that and that’s why we always have that South Vietnamese flag.”

Tet — or the Lunar New Year — originated in Vietnam as a celebration to do away with the old year and welcome the new. Traditionally, all debts must be paid, offenses are forgiven and hostilities are ceased.





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