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While Chinese-restaurant menus proclaim 2011 the Year of the Rabbit, thousands of Utahns instead will be welcoming the Year of the Cat.

Utah's Vietnamese community celebrates the lunar New Year, or Tet, this weekend with traditional food, dance and traditions old and new.

Hundreds of Vietnamese refugees came to Utah in the 1970s in the wake of the Vietnam War and about 8,000 Utahns can now trace their heritage to Vietnam, said Susie Ahrens of the Vietnamese Community of Utah.

The cat symbolizes friendship in Vietnam, said Huu Tran, one of the event's organizers. Cats also symbolize striving to be your best, he said.

The lunar New Year kicks off today and is a national holiday in Vietnam. Everyone has at least three days off and celebrates by eating special foods and visiting friends and family.

Vietnamese here in the United States will have to wait, in this case until Sunday, to celebrate. The community will spend the day gathered at Northwest Middle School, for events ranging from academic awards to a hula hoop contest.

Sixty-four students from eighth grade to college will receive academic awards, Tran said. Students who received good grades get a certificate signed by Gov. Gary Herbert and a $50 cash prize.

"We value education and we want to pass this along to other generations," Tran said. "The money is just for fun. The big thing is that they've been recognized with their families and community."

Competitions like Viet Utah Talent and Miss Photogenic may not sound like activities that preserve the cultural heritage of the community, but they are important, Ahrens said. For years, the celebration was geared toward those who emigrated from Vietnam, like Ahrens. But elders realized they were not including younger generations, and came up with contests to attract a younger crowd.

"We want the children to know who we are and what we do," Ahrens said, "and hopefully keep the tradition going."

Traditional folk dances are an important part of that goal, and dozens of children participate.

Amy Nguyen, 12, will wear traditional Vietnamese dress and play a rice drum in a medley of dances to welcome the new year. The dance offers a chance to learn more about her family's religious practices, Nguyen said, and is a fun way to celebrate. The tween enjoys dressing up in her fancy clothes, but "it is a lot easier without the dresses and the drums," she said.

Celebrating is a wonderful cure for homesickness, said choreographer Thai Huong. She has been in Utah for two years and misses her former home and culture. But last year's Tet celebration made her new home a bit easier to bear, Huong said, and this Tet once again offers a chance for new beginnings. Celebrate Tet

The Vietnamese Community in Utah celebrates Tet, or New Year, starting 11 a.m. Sunday at Northwest Middle School, 1700 N. Redwood Road. The event is free and open to the public. For more information, visit