Toting iPhones and Nikons, young Vietnamese-Americans clustered around old military medals and fading memorabilia on Saturday from a war they didn't know, but will never forget.

The exhibit was displayed at the annual Tet festival, a happy celebration of the dawning of the Lunar New Year on the San Jose Fairgrounds.

But the exhibition showed images of a different Tet, long ago and far away, when the peaceful holiday cease-fire was broken by a bloody surprise attack by Communist forces. The violence and destruction of the "Tet Offensive" campaign 45 years ago threw the former South Vietnam into turmoil and revealed a terrifying truth: even massive American support could not protect the anti-Communists.

"To progress, you need to learn from your history," said UC Berkeley graduate Ray Ho, 29, of San Leandro, whose father, a pro-U.S. soldier, was imprisoned before fleeing with the family to America. Ho earned a degree from UC Berkeley and is now a successful businessman.

San Jose student Anthony Tran, 17, gazed at the heartfelt display, saying "It is important to remember the sacrifices that were made. It is motivational for young people."

They showed a reverence for the ways of the old country, but no longing for the place left behind.

Pair of flags

The celebration offered plenty of pho, traditional dancing and silky tight-bodiced dresses called ao dai. It honored "The Year of the Snake," an animal believed to be a good omen because it means your family will not starve. It is the biggest annual event hosted by the Coalition of Nationalist Vietnamese Organizations of Northern California.

It reflected the reality of generations past. Vietnamese did not come here for economic opportunities; they were refugees. Those connected with the U.S. regime were imprisoned or tortured.

Festival flags -- American and pre-Communist Vietnam -- flew side by side on the stage, as the nations' national anthems were sung. Outside, a banner proclaimed: "Human Rights and Freedom."

In the aged war display, sponsored by San Jose's Museum of the Boat People and the Republic of Vietnam, a bitterness is palpable. It honors the hundreds of thousands of South Vietnamese who perished trying to escape after the U.S. military withdrew.

While elders may still long for their homeland, their children have embraced their adopted country.

Startling photos

Befitting the holiday -- the full name, Tet Nguyen Dan translates to "Feast of the First Morning" -- the youth were buoyant and prosperous, dressed in Levi jeans, Armani Exchange sweatshirts and Sac State baseball caps.

Among the most popular vendors at the festival: Golden Trust Bank, Akimax investment management company and realtors promising "First Time Home Buyers and Down Payment Assistance Programs."

Above the din of teenagers' Tae Kwon Do competition, one of the hundreds of visitors -- Vo Qui Hien -- was pensive.

With his 1-year-old daughter and wife, he gazed at photos of battlefield bloodshed and rows of fading "Presidential Unit Citations." It evoked distant memories of a Saigon he left as a child.

"We need to understand the significance of the history, that led to our exodus," Hien said.

"We hope that one day our children can contribute to the freedom of the country, and its democracy, by helping influence leadership over there."

Contact Lisa M. Krieger at 650-492-4098.