On the last day of practice, contestants of Miss Vietnam Florida 2018, waved their parasols as they rehearsed the opening dance. Their facial expressions ranged from confusion and intense concentration. With one week before the big day, there were still a few hiccups in the opening routine. “Even if you’re lost, smile!” Bao Anh Do exclaimed. Do, earned the title of Miss Vietnam Florida 2010, and most recently Miss Eco U.S 2017. Do and her fellow past members of the Royal Court were tasked with giving feedback and advice before the big day. The contestants sat in a dimly lit corner of the dance studio, while past members of the Royal Court of Miss Vietnam Florida sat at the head of the table.
“Do not break in new heels the weekend of pageant,” Do insisted. “Practice walking your dog or at the supermarket in heels.” Among other things the members of the class of 2018 were advised to speak slowly, loudly and to enunciate into the microphone, to wear bright colored make-up because dark colors have an aging affect on stage, above all, they were told always smile no matter what. Overall the class of 2018 didn’t think of themselves as the “pageant types.” Yet through this pageant, they explored the duality of their identity as Vietnamese-Americans. Perhaps the most poignant advice came from Do: “If you’re here just to win that crown, you’re here for the wrong reasons.”
Founded in 1997, the annual Miss Vietnam Florida pageant bridges the generational gap between American-born Vietnamese women and their immigrant parents. It’s one of many pageants that occur within immigrant communities across the nation; In Miami, you’ll find Miss Cuba, there’s also Miss Texas Czech Slovak, Miss Nigeria USA, and so on. All of these explore the evolving concept of what it means to be American in a country with an increasingly diverse population.
The Miss Vietnam Florida class of 2018 ranged between the ages of 17-27. The majority of the contestants balanced work and school obligations. Among them were an aspiring biomedical engineer and mental health counselor, as well as an EMT in practice. Their hobbies include shopping, make-up, singing, cooking, serving the church, rock climbing, kickboxing, and playing the ukulele. This year a total of 16 contestants competed in the pageant. This contrasts with the past, when it was a struggle to recruit enough contestants each year.
“A lot of girls are intimidated,” first-time pageant director, Cecilia Nguyen, 30, said. Contestants train for 2.5 months as they attend weekly practice sessions in which they learn dance choreography and how to present themselves on stage. In addition, contestants raise money for charitable causes. This year they raised $6,200 to help the Central Florida Vietnamese Association buy a property to host meetings and events.
“You gotta milk every second on stage!” 2017’s 3rd Princess Kelsey Phan shouted. “Always look at the audience, it’s like you’re flirting with the audience!” The studio featured a wall-length mirror where contestants either confronted their self-image or saw the reflection of their watchful peers. Contestants like Anh Thu Nguyen, 18, were often reminded to slow down.
“It’s very confrontational,” Anh Thu Nguyen said. “You get to observe others and compare and see how I can improve and be one with whatever the other girls are doing.” Traditional ideals of Vietnamese beauty value a woman who is fair-skinned, slender and gentle, with long black hair. “I am not like that,” Anh Thu Nguyen, 18, stated. “Growing up my family told me that I was, you know, fat, because you have to be really skinny…They always tell me to be more quiet and more still.”
Today, the Vietnamese community is in the midst of a cultural shift that accommodates Westernized values for the American-born generation. From 1997 to 2010, contestants were required to speak Vietnamese. Nowadays, contestants can answer in English and/or Vietnamese.
Contestant Duyen Tran, 18, hopes to become fluent enough to speak and write to her family in Vietnam: “I can’t even say my name in Vietnamese. That’s kind of sad right, when you can’t say your own name in the way that it’s meant to be said.” On the other hand, contestant Nhung Hồng Phan, 22, is a natural at speaking fluent Vietnamese as she was raised in a traditional household.
This variation among the contestants challenges the notion of where they “fit in,” on the spectrum of what it means to be Vietnamese and American. The pageant may have figured out how to adjust its grading system to bridge the generational gap. However, contestants’ parents had mixed feelings that ranged from excitement to skepticism.
For years, Carol Nguyen, 22, expressed her intent to participate among family and friends. Carol’s family would say “You shouldn’t do it; you’ll embarrass yourself.” For Carol Nguyen, these comments instilled feelings of self-doubt. However, as a prospective grad student Carol Nguyen saw this as her last opportunity to be involved in her local Vietnamese community. In the end, Carol Nguyen was pleasantly surprised when her mother took time off from work to attend as an act of support. “Especially because she didn’t feel I fit the standard,” Carol Nguyen said.
Francine Hoang, 17, joined the pageant to show appreciation towards her family and their homeland. Her family, however, perceived the pageant as merely a beauty competition. As time progressed, they became excited to see the friendships Hoang built with fellow Vietnamese women. Especially since it’s difficult for Hoang to find Vietnamese peers in her hometown of Palm Coast. As for the reigning Queen of 2017, Tram Nguyen said her parents were indifferent to her participation in the pageant. “I think they understood that this is something I wanted to do for myself,” she said.
The 2018 Tét festival in Orlando took place on Saturday, February 18, at the Central Florida Fairgrounds and featured an array of traditional food and performances. At the center of it all is the 7-hour Miss Vietnam Florida pageant show. The audience remained at a steady 350 headcount as people perused vendors, sipped on boba tea, played games, and sat in massage chairs while the show carried on throughout the day.
At interludes, break-dancers, Vietnamese singers and traditional hat dancers took over the stage. Meanwhile, contestants frantically scrambled to change from their delicate Áo dàis into elaborate evening gowns in a small dimly lit dressing room they all shared. Within four walls of black curtains, the dressing room contained a fold-out table, littered with suitcases and curling irons, and one mirror. Once contestants were dressed, it was a matter of practicing their routines. Hoang spun her color guard flag. Julia Le played Flight of the Bumblebee on the marimba. Dalena Nguyen prepped her homemade coffee mousse samples for the judges. Kristen Nguyen did a series of stretches to prepare for her Taekwondo demonstration.
The question and answer segment was considered the most nerve-wracking part of the competition for most contestants. Contestants picked random questions from a fishbowl on stage that were then read aloud by Tram Nguyen, Miss Vietnam Florida 2017. Meanwhile, co-MC Mau Bui translated the questions in fluent Vietnamese.
“What qualities do women possess that make them great leaders?” Tram Nguyen asked. “Confidence, perseverance, and vision,” Melissa Dam answered.
“If you were to win $100 million dollars, what would you do with the money and why?” Tram Nguyen asked. “There is a lack of medication and poor sanitation in Vietnam and I think it’s really important that as a Vietnamese-American we are still taking care of those that live in Vietnam,” Dalena Nguyen answered.
“What qualities do you think that the Miss Vietnam Florida Queen should possess?” Tram Nguyen asked. “I believe that Miss Vietnam Florida should one, be open minded…two, patience…and last, she must remember, cherish, and show pride to her quê hương (homeland),” Francine Hoang replied, “because your quê hương, makes you who you are, especially if you’re Miss Vietnam Florida!”
While the top five contestants waited for the final results, they huddled together backstage. The crown within their grasp, contestants Jennifer Tran and Melissa Dam unexpectedly found their eyes welling up with tears. For most, joining the pageant wasn’t about the competition. It was about having fun and finding a sense of belonging among Vietnamese-American peers. Nonetheless, in this moment, earning the crown imbued a deep sense of honor within Nhung Hồng Phan, a finalist.
Miss Vietnam Florida 2017, Tram Nguyen, crowned Francine Hoang, a 17-year-old high school senior as Miss Vietnam Florida 2018. In the front row, her family and church community erupted in rambunctious cheer. A man, waving a calendar with photos of the contestants, accidently ripped it in half as he cheered. “That’s my sister!!” her little brother, Cardin Hoang, exclaimed. Members of the audience rose from their seats, ascended the stage and engulfed Hoang with hugs, kisses and selfies. Kim Anh Dang, Hoang’s mother, reached up towards her daughter and they held hands for a brief moment, beaming with pride “I love you!” Dang said. “I came here when I was the same age as her (17) no family, nothing, only me. I always told her to be strong, independent. The independence in her, she learned that from me.”
Hoang feels that she may never truly understand the scope of the difficulties and hardships that her mother endured as a refugee of the Vietnam War. “I know the least I can do is to honor and learn more about my culture as a Viet-American so that my family and I are close to Vietnam no matter where we are.”
Her Royal Court consists of Melissa Dam, Jennifer Tran, Nhung Hồng Phan and Kristen Nguyen.
Together they will recruit and mentor the next class of contestants for Miss Vietnam Florida 2019.