There were couples from Anacostia, high school sweethearts from Potomac, elderly ladies from Arlington and lots of children at the fifth Vietnamese Cultural Festival last Saturday on Capitol Hill.
Some gathered to celebrate their native culture and once again taste the succulent dishes of their homeland. Others, such as Dr. Vincent Hill, who works at the East of the River Health Center in Anacostia, came to find out more about the country that had such an impact on America.
"When I was coming up, the war in Vietnam was so important to black Americans. We fought and died over there but were never really in the decision making part," Hill said. "Now with the war over, I'd like the opportunity to familiarize myself with these people and their remarkable culture."
Pat Kim, who accompanied Hill, looked at him. "You might add," she said, "that this is a fun date, too."
Other guests agreed. There was general enthusiasm about the food, prepared by the festival's sponsor, the Vietnamese-American Buddhist Association. The favorite was spring rolls: crispy rice dough creations filled with shrimp, pork, rice, noodles and vegetables. The rolls were wrapped in mint, surrounded by lettuce and dipped into a zesty fish sauce.
But there were other attractions as well.
"It isn't only the food," said Chester Smith of Woodbridge, Va., who met his wife in Vietnam in the late 1960s. "I'm taking the kids (four of them) to the fireworks on the Mall because we're an American family now and it's our heritage. But at the same time, my children are half Vietnamese, too, and we think it's important that they keep a part of their culture.
"That's why we bring them to these festivals when we can, so they can have the traditional food and meet other Vietnamese-American kids like themselves."
"Yeah," said Eva Smith, 10, "but Mom doesn't cook this for us enough." Her sisters, Lusi, 12, and Beverly, 9, and her brother David, 11, were busy eating spring rolls.
On the other side of the room, Stephanie Soley, 16, who is half Vietnamese and half French, was helping her date Erik Halliday, 17, with his first exposure to Vietnamese food.
"This sure is different," said Halliday, a Churchill High School graduate. "But it's a good change of pace from the hamburger and pizza routine." Added schoolmate Cecilia Gorriz, 16,: "It sure isn't tacos and beans either."
Stephanie's mother, Eliane, and her stepfather, Michael Smith, of Potomac were enthusiastic about the festival.
"A lot of Americans have funny ideas about Vietnam and the food," Michael Smith said. "But we approach this just like any other transcultural event, be it a meeting of the Alliance Francais, the Junior Classical League (Latin) or our church barbecue. It's an experience I value as an American and one my wife and daughter shouldn't miss as Vietnamese. Besides, I can't eat enough of these meat pies."
After the dinner, which cost $12 for adults and $6 for children, association president Le Thanh Nghiem said profits would benefit refugees from Vietnam and a Buddhist temple in the city.
"But most of all," said the 86-year-old Le, "we want to foster better relations among people of different nationalities, to promote the Vietnamese culture and to bring back some memories to Vietnamese as well as Americans who happen to know Vietnam."
After dinner, the first entertainer was a woman who played a guitar and sang a folk song she had written. The performance touched a cord for Hung La Van, 47, of Arlington, who attended the festival with his wife Anh and their children, Nancy, 8, and Anh Dao, 9. The family left Saigon in April 1975.
Hung, who works in the Arlington Police Department, said the song "says she shall return to her home in Vietnam to be reunited to her family there and live happily ever after--something many of the people in this hall could understand."
The singer was followed by a brisk flute recital by Thanh Ha, native dances by Laotian Ruangdeth Praseuth and traditional Vietnamese folk songs. The festival ended with a fashion show featuring country clothes of Vietnam.
An Le, Le Thanh Nghiem's grandson and an engineering professor at George Washington University, summed up his feelings about the evening: "It's a lot of fun to get everybody together here, and I suppose it isn't too much different from a bull roast in Richmond or a clambake in Cape Cod . . . yet for us Vietnamese it's more than that.
"Everyone in this room owes something special to this country, and by coming out to eat with us and meet with us, we hope you see that our contribution to America will have some meaning, too."