Features & Columns

Music, Dance, Fashion Take
Stage at Ao Dai Festival

The 2016 incarnation of the Ao Dai Festival erupts Sunday, both
inside and outside the Fairmont San Jose.
A NEW DAY: Graceful ao dai gowns have a cultural significance that recently led to legislation.

Casual observers might know the ao dai as a traditional long gown worn by Vietnamese women, but it's much more than just attire. The ao dai symbolizes many things: liberation, struggle, empowerment and obstacles overcome.

Its history goes far outside the scope of this page, but one can go as far to say it's now a symbol of national pride and serious inspiration for artists, painters, photographers, poets and newspaper columnists.

The 2016 incarnation of the Ao Dai Festival erupts Sunday, both inside and outside the Fairmont San Jose. An elaborate multi-dimensional ceremony in the Circle of Palms area kicks off the evening, followed by the ticketed event, an even more elaborate dinner and fashion show inside the hotel ballroom. Music, dance, visuals and storytelling will rule the evening, all to benefit the Friends of Hue Foundation Children's Shelter in Central Vietnam.

Jenny Do is a long-time San Jose attorney and leader in the Vietnamese-American community who runs the Hue Foundation. She also heads up the myriad teams behind the Ao Dai Festival. Perhaps more than anyone, Do has mainstreamed the ao dai as a symbol of pride. So much so, that she even took a delegation to Sacramento last week to cheer on state Sen. Janet Nguyen (R-Long Beach), who helped pass a resolution to officially designate May 15 as Ao Dai Day. Nguyen was the first sitting senator ever to wear an ao dai on the state Senate floor. The resolution passed unanimously.

'It was so emotional when it passed, when it happened,' Do said, her voice choked with emotion. 'We were counting every single vote, watching as the votes came.'

After the fall of Saigon in 1975, Do explains in an essay, she remained in Vietnam for nine years of hunger and misery, with barely any decent clothes. While suffering through a period of so-called 'educational reforms,' intellectual erosion and being a victim of the 'new economic zone,' Do could not fathom better days. Throughout those nine years under the communist regime, she never saw Vietnamese women wear the ao dai anywhere on the streets.

'When I was a child, I remember my mother was very beautiful when she put on the ao dai,' Do writes. 'She looked radiant, graceful and noble in that long traditional dress. But without it, during those dark nine years, I did not find such beauty in her when she wore other torn outfits.'

Do dreamed that one day she would again see these graceful dresses beautify a city. It was a simple dream, but as every year went by, it felt further out of reach. That dream has become a reality, thanks to the senators and legions of folks helping to make the Ao Dai Festival a success.

This Sunday, the outdoor phase of the evening—free for everyone—will unfold in the Circle of Palms between the Fairmont and the San Jose Museum of Art. The 'Princess Coming-of-Age Celebration' will introduce the mythological tale of 'Son Tinh (mountain), Thuy Tinh, (water).' It features traditional Vietnamese music and the latest fashions of ao dai designers, and is usually a grand-scale, multisensory experience. The luminous color palette of the Ao Dai celebration—attire, props, dragon troupes, horses and the overall pageantry—blooms like a floral display amid the palm trees and surrounding beige landscape.

In the story, the princess has reached the age of marriage, so her father calls for prospective suitors (ao dai designers) to battle for his daughter's hand. The dressmaker who dazzles the princess with the most beautiful ao dai will win her heart and become her husband. Expect a rocking experience with a slew of stilt-walkers, horses, vibrant banners and zithers.

Once inside, everyone with a ticket then attends the dinner, fashion show and auction. The entire affair benefits the Hue Foundation's Children's Shelter, a very worthy cause.

Ao Dai Festival
Sunday, May 15