A traditional lion dance during the La Vang Lunar New Year Festival at the Dulles Expo Center on Saturday. (Valerie Plesch for The Washington Post)
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Ben Tonhat did not grow up wanting to be a lion, but on Saturday, he got to be one anyway.

The cybersecurity and engineering major at George Mason University donned a fuzzy canary-yellow costume lion head with a pink cardboard tongue sticking out of its mouth and pranced and prowled around the Dulles Expo Center, accompanied by an enthusiastic contingent of drum thumpers and cymbal clashers. The cacophonous dance in the 100,000-square-foot venue helped announce the beginning of the La Vang Lunar New Year Festival, one of the largest annual gatherings in the Mid-Atlantic for Vietnamese immigrants and their families.

Lunar New Year doesn’t actually arrive until Feb. 10, but for Vietnamese Americans in Virginia, there was no time like the present to start celebrating Tet, their most important holiday.

“It’s a huge deal in our community and it’s pretty fun to be a part of it,” said Tonhat, who has performed with the lion troupe for the past two years. “It all connects me more with my culture and I like that.” As he and another lion made their way through the hall, young children deposited dollar bills in their mouths for good luck.

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More than 20,000 people were expected to attend this weekend’s festival to listen to Vietnamese folk and new music, purchase traditional clothing and New Year’s gifts and eat everything from shrimp and crab soup, pho and banh mi to bubble tea, spring rolls and a Lunar New Year specialty: sticky rice with pork and mung beans wrapped in banana leaves.

Reaching young Vietnamese Americans such as Tonhat is one of the main goals of the event, said organizer Thinh Dinh, 60, a Nuclear Regulatory Commission engineer who spends many evenings and weekends teaching Vietnamese to teens and preteens at Our Lady of La Vang Mission in Chantilly. The congregation, which has put on the event since 2016 and is raising funds to build its own church, is a popular social and spiritual center for many Catholic Vietnamese Americans in northern Virginia.

“We want to present an event for the whole Vietnamese community,” Dinh said. “It’s a time to remember our ancestors and get together with family. Here it can be isolating for Vietnamese so it’s a chance for them to come out and meet other Vietnamese and anyone else who wants to experience our culture.”

At the opening ceremony, a dozen men and women stood side by side wearing traditional tunics called ao dai — the men in midnight blue, the women in bright fuchsia. They walked to the stage accompanied by solemn drumming and the slow beat of a gong. There, they paid respects and gave thanks to their ancestors, an integral moment of Lunar New Year festivities.

Celebrations of Lunar New Year in the United States take on extra meaning for Asian American communities and their families because it is a way of maintaining traditions and passing them to the next generation, said Xinqian Allison Qiu, a doctoral candidate in American Studies at the University of Maryland. Her research includes a focus on Lunar New Year celebrations.

“We want to celebrate with a large surrounding of people who cherish the same heritage, to celebrate the same culture,” said Qiu, who came to the United States 15 years ago and now lives in Washington with her family. “It’s a very important way of showing the heritage of resilience and then it’s also their way to tell America that this is my country as well.”

Hung Cao, who is running in the Republican primary to challenge Sen. Tim Kaine (D-Va.), campaigned for votes but attended the event mostly to celebrate with other Vietnamese Americans. “We are all proud to be American, but we want to hold on to our heritage as well,” he said. The new year, he said, brings a fresh start. “Tet is something that brings us all together.”

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Peter and Bella Ta drove up from Spotsylvania County with their three young children, Lillian, Natalie and Gabriel. The Tas are transplanted Californians who have lived in Virginia for four years. In California, they said, huge celebrations in the Vietnamese community were regular events, but they are less common on the East Coast.

“It really reminds us of California and it’s really nice for our kids to experience this cultural aspect the same way we did when we were younger,” Peter Ta said. “It’s good for them to have an experience of Vietnamese traditions.”

Phuong Dinh, 36, a physician from Warrenton, arrived at the Dulles Expo Center a little after noon Saturday with her husband, Michael Egan and their young children in tow. “I want to make sure my kids know a little bit about their culture and their background,” she said. Dinh added that she and her mother, Phuong Nguyen, are teaching the children Vietnamese. Laughing, Dinh pointed to her husband and said, “We’re trying to teach him too.”

For Nguyen, it’s essential to make sure that the next generation of Vietnamese Americans, including her grandchildren, know more about their history and where their immigrant grandparents came from.

“I think our culture is so beautiful and our language is beautiful,” Nguyen said. “If we can introduce it to the young children, hopefully they can carry it on.”