Like her apartment, Lan Nguyen's stories these days are small and sparsely furnished. She tries to offer a description but can't find the right adjectives. She searches for a verb and settles instead for a smile.

The stories she tells about her life in Vietnam before moving to Salt Lake City four months ago are outlines, headlines. You have to fill in the depth of her pain and joy yourself.She brings out a little plastic bag and sets it on the sofa.

"My husband made these in . . . jail?" She is not sure if jail is the right word.

"It was a concentration camp for (South Vietnamese) army officers," explains Nguyen's neighbor, Khiem Thien Tran. "He was there for nine years."

Nguyen pulls four thin wooden blocks from the bag, each one carved and painted. On two of them a woman holds a child. "He missed his wife and daughter," she says about her husband's time in prison. She laughs, embarrassed, uncertain how to fill in the details.

Nguyen's husband, Hy Doan, was released from prison in 1984; in 1989 a second daughter was born; and last December the family moved to Salt Lake City to ensure a good future for the girls. The family is making new memories now.

But Nguyen doesn't want her daughters to lose touch with their past. An American ice cream truck may cruise past their west-side apartment every afternoon now, but dinnertime still smells like Vietnam. Thao may play the piano in the West High School symphony, but it is still her homeland she hears when she and her mother play the koto, a traditional Vietnamese 17-string instrument.

Nguyen brought eight kotos with her when the family moved to the United States in December. Her husband made most of the yard-long instruments himself, inlaying intricate mother-of-pearl pictures into the sides.

This weekend, Nguyen and her daughter Thao, now 16, will share the koto's Vietnamese sounds with Salt Lakers at the sixth annual Living Traditions Festival.

The festival, which runs from Friday evening through Sunday (see box), celebrates Salt Lake's often unseen and unsung ethnic diversity. From Afghani silk embroidery to Thai dancers and Swiss sausage, the festival embraces cultures and cuisines that make Utah's capital less homogenous than it appears at first glance.

Unlike other arts festivals in the state, which have a more contemporary tone, Living Traditions features only traditional arts and local artists. Unlike other arts festivals, the only thing for sale will be food - with the profits used to support cultural and educational programs in the community.

The festival, sponsored by the Salt Lake City Arts Council and Utah Arts Council Folk Arts Program, is free to the public.

Like past Living Traditions festivals, this year's also features two international acts: the Ballet Folklorico Quetzalli de Veracruz, from Veracruz, Mexico; and the Jolly Boys, a Jamaican band that plays what it calls "pop'n'mento," a jazzed-up version of mento, the grandfather of reggae.

The Utah Arts Council will also present two 1991 Governor's Folk Art Awards - to the Utah Travelers, Utah's oldest gospel group, and to radio station KRCL, whose volunteer staff has provided Utah with a variety of ethnically diverse programs for the past decade.

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(Schedule)

Festival schedule

The Living Traditions Festival runs Friday evening, May 17, through Sunday evening, May 19, on the grounds of the City-County Building at Washington Square, between 400 and 500 South, State Street and 200 East.

Friday: The festival opens at 5 p.m. with food from 21 countries and music from Salt Lake's Greek community. Ballet Folklorico Quetzalli de Veracruz will perform at 7:15 p.m.

Saturday: Noon to 10 p.m. Craft demonstrations (Armenian needlework, Russian toymaking, Tongan quilting, etc.), more food and 22 performing groups on two stages (Swiss Chorus Edelweiss, Hawaiian Hula, Latin American Dance Music, American Gospel music, etc.). Special guests: The Jolly Boys sing and play music from the Caribbean.

Sunday: Noon to 7 p.m. More crafts, more music and dance, and still more food.