Song Thuan, representing the village elder, leads the colorful procession during Heavenly Emperor presentation on day one of the 2014 Tet Festival-Year of the Horse at the Orange County Fairgrounds and Events Center on Friday.

Song Thuan, representing the village elder, leads the colorful procession during Heavenly Emperor presentation on day one of the 2014 Tet Festival-Year of the Horse at the Orange County Fairgrounds and Events Center on Friday. (Don Leach / Daily Pilot / February 7, 2014)

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The tapping of hammers still sounded and students still bustled around yellow- and red-striped tents, as the first gaggles of stylishly dressed teens and families meandered through the gates of the Tet Festival of Southern California.

As in years past, some made a beeline for the food — pho, banh mi, boba tea, green papaya salad — while others stopped to play games or browse through stacks of DVD's. Not far away, young women prepared to compete in the 2014 Miss Vietnam of Southern California pageant, set to take place that evening.

But Friday afternoon, for the first time, they weren't in Garden Grove, near the heart of Little Saigon, the Southland's Vietnamese community, celebrating the lunar new year.

Instead, festival-goers descended on the OC Fair & Event Center in Costa Mesa.

The move stemmed from controversy over how much the city of Garden Grove had spent subsidizing the event since 2002.

Organizers hope that the new location — with more parking and greater accessibility for residents from around the county — will draw a larger crowd of first-time visitors.

Norman Kruse, 65, said he read about the festival's new home and decided to give it a try after years of occasionally visiting the event to eat.

Friday, the retired Russian interpreter from Santa Ana sat with a friend finishing up ears of grilled corn and iced coffees.

"It's more inviting here, somehow," he said.

Some, however, said the change in location made it more difficult to convince friends and relatives to make the trek.

Van Nguyen, 68, said that while he and his wife were able to drive from Los Angeles, he worried about aging festival-goers who may have trouble navigating an unfamiliar bus route.

He said he hopes that next year, the event moves back to its former location — no matter the cost.

His wife, Kim Nguyen, 61, added that the celebration serves as an important gathering for "the older generation."

For Natalie Nguyen, 26, who stood grilling long skewers of barbecue pork just behind a row of food stalls, the new venue served as the impetus for her and a few friends to open up a booth of their own.

Nearby, customers lined up outside the window of "Oh Thit!" — as they decided to call the business, playing on the Vietnamese word for meat.

In its previous incarnations, the festival could get "a little hectic," Nguyen said.

At the fairgrounds, things were "less chaotic," she said, giving her team a chance to test the waters before deciding whether to expand to other food festivals, such as the popular 626 Night Market.

Westminster resident Johnny Ho, 18, said he goes to the Tet Festival every year.

For him, the jury was still out on the new digs, though the night was young.

"It just started," he said with a shrug.

The festival, which is hosted by the Union of Vietnamese Student Assns. of Southern California, runs through Sunday.

If You Go

What: Tet Festival of Southern California

When: 10 a.m. to 10 p.m. Saturday; 10 a.m. to 9 p.m. Sunday

Where: OC Fair & Event Center, 88 Fair Drive, Costa Mesa

Cost: $5, or $1 with Orange County Transportation Authority bus pass

More information: tetfestival.org