Sustaining Little Saigon’s future by preserving its charming culture and bold flavors

Vietnamese Americans and visitors flock to Chua Quang Hue Buddhist temple in Santa Ana to ring in the Tet Lunar New Year with traditional songs and cultural dances — and most importantly, solemn prayers.

UPDATE: It began in 1988 with a little sign on the offramp of the Garden Grove Freeway (SR-22). The simple freeway sign marked the official birth of Little Saigon in Orange County, Calif.

As the community celebrates its 25 year anniversary, many are saying Little Saigon isn’t so little anymore. But will its future remain vibrant? Check out this news story from my friend, Anh Do, of the Los Angeles Times.

And read my perspectives about my Little Saigon. It’s not where I live, but it’s definitely where I eat and get my cultural fix.

_________________________

The mid-1970s of Orange County was vastly different than the dynamic and diverse area of 3 million that we know today.

Approximately 40 miles south of Los Angeles, Orange County’s suburban towns of Westminster and Garden Grove were examples of overwhelmingly white middle-class neighborhoods bordered by vast farmlands. But by the end of the 1970s, these sleepy towns were facing further economic decline.

During the same time, hundreds of thousands of Vietnamese refugees fled the aftermath of America’s decade-long war that ended when North Vietnamese forces captured the U.S.-backed Saigon, the former capital of South Vietnam.

My family and I (holding the teddy bear) arrive in our new desert home of Sierra Vista in 1975 after spending months at Camp Pendleton. As refugees from the Vietnam War, we joined 1.3 million other refugees in rebuilding our lives and helping to transform our new homeland just as previous immigrants had done in America.

Many of them — including my family and I — lived in makeshift refugee resettlement camps until we found sponsoring American families who would take us in and help us transition into American life.

My family lived with thousands of others at Camp Pendleton just a few miles south of the Orange County – San Diego County border.

Just like other new Americans who came before, we found new lives in the tiny town of Sierra Vista, Ariz., nestled between high-desert mountains and the Mexican border.

Not only was the arid landscape vastly different from our tropical birthplace seaside city in Vietnam, but after several years, we longed for our food and culture we left behind.

Vietnamese refugees settled in America and started restaurants offering their food classics such as fresh springrolls — instantly creating food fans with its fresh simple flavors.

Other Vietnamese Americans –resettled across the United States as part of the U.S. government’s efforts to not overburden any particular community with the influx of newcomers — began to miss the flavors of home too.

Enter Danh Quach, considered the father of Little Saigon.

After several years of living in Arkansas and Nebraska, the professional opened a small pharmacy in the heart of Orange County.

Quach soon began selling Vietnamese food and other items treasured by the refugee community. That spurred other markets and shops to open that drew even more Vietnamese American families to relocate to the neighborhood.

Considered the father of Little Saigon, Frank Jao, who came to the U.S. as a refugee, built two iconic retail centers that now serves as anchors to a thriving business, cultural and culinary treasure.

Businessman Frank Jao, who also was processed as a refugee in Camp Pendleton, saw potential and began developing acres of farmland and patchwork of run-down strip malls into the Asian Garden Mall and the Asian Village in Westminster.

The two shopping malls would rapidly become anchors of a vibrant commercial and cultural center called Little Saigon.

Business and civic leaders credit the industrial spirit of the Vietnamese that helped transform Westminster.

The gateway into Little Saigon leads residents and visitors into the charming culture of Vietnam — even though it’s thousands of miles away from Asia in central Orange County, Calif.

The Asian Garden Mall with 150,000-square-foot of shopping is the iconic center of a thriving culture where cafes, floral shops, clothing boutiques, watch stores, electronic businesses and the largest collection of gold jewelry under one roof make space for worship altars upstairs with deities of Buddha complete with burning incense and fresh floral offerings.

Bolsa Avenue and Brookhurst Street serve as the commercial and cultural axis of a thriving community lined by Asian grocery stores, doctor’s offices, photo studios, art galleries, jewelry stores, Buddhist temples and a media center, home of the largest concentration of Vietnamese TV, radio, newspapers and magazines outside of Southeast Asia.

With the largest Vietnamese community outside of Asia, Southern California now boasts more than 300,000 people of Vietnamese descent.

And on any given weekday but especially on weekends, they descend upon Little Saigon, making the streets come to a crawl with families going shopping, attending family gatherings, celebrating cultural festivals and other visiting other fun destinations. After these events, they often head to pho noodle soup restaurants and banh mi sandwich shops that are now more commonplace than fast-food places.

Vietnamese culture also is thriving. Organized in 1991, the Vietnamese American Arts and Letters Association has become a powerhouse in preserving and sharing with the general public and tourists Vietnam’s rich cultural and literary arts.

Vietnamese American actress Kieu Chinh of the Joy Luck Club and Journey from the Fall presents an award to Dustin Nguyen of 21 Jump Street fame who is diving deep into stories of the Vietnamese American experience. Little Saigon’s independent film festival is attracting worldwide acclaim with debuts of numerous award-winning movies directed and acted by former refugees of the Vietnam War.

The Tet Festival in a Garden Grove park is the largest cultural festival in Orange County where hundreds of thousands of participants come to feast their eyes and their tastebuds on the cultural and culinary traditions of Vietnam.

Vietnamese American high school students march in the traditional ao dai proudly displaying the flag of their parents’ former homeland during the Tet Lunar New Year Parade.

Artist Ann Phong’s work focuses on mixed media. The immigrant’s work “Group Hug” in 1997 represents her journey from living in refugee camps in Malaysia and the Philippines to finally experiencing the embrace of home in Southern California.

Director Tony Bui’s Three Seasons, a poetic film set in Ho Chi Minh (formerly Saigon), was the first American movie filmed in Vietnam after Pres. Bill Clinton lifted the U.S. embargo on the country. Bui was just 2 when the Vietnam War ended. The film, which captures Bui’s feelings of the sweeping changes of his ancestral home of Saigon, went on to win prestigious awards, including three of the top prizes at the Sundance Film Festival — the only film to win both Audience Award and the Grand Jury Prize.

The nonprofit has organized numerous award-winning and critically acclaimed cultural events that draw tourists from throughout the U.S.

Its art exhibitions, book fairs, recitals, plays, lectures, the Vietnamese International Film Festival, the Cinema Symposium, the annual Children’s Moon Festival Art Contest and year-long art and music classes not only cultivate the Vietnamese community but elevate it for others to enjoy.

Thousands of residents and tourists flock to annual gatherings in Little Saigon such as the Lunar New Year Parade, the Tet cultural arts festival and Buddha’s birthday — all events that boost revenues for city coffers.

The Tet Festival has become Orange County’s largest cultural festivals. The 3-day event is organized by university student volunteers with some counsel from the community’s business and civic professionals.

The largest procession of monks in Southern California occurred several months ago when more than 500 Vietnamese American Buddhist monks descended upon Bolsa Avenue in Westminster to march and chant in Little Saigon to commemorate Buddha’s birthday. Traffic stopped for the procession with onlookers getting out of their cars, bowing and chanting with the monks in unity.

Little Saigon’s meteoric rise from its humble beginnings in Westminster has urban planners scratching their hands on how to sustain its future growth. The sprawling area now encompasses Garden Grove, Fountain Valley, Santa Ana and Huntington Beach.

Westminster city officials hired a consultant team to give the community recommendations on how to strengthen the 34-acre heart of Little Saigon on Moran Street. The city hopes to implement a strategy that will enhance and sustain a cohesive cultural treasure that will help further drive tourism revenue.

Two experts from the Washington, D.C.-based Urban Land Institute hired for $60,000 by Westminster city officials worked with civic leaders, business owners, religious leaders and other community leaders and compiled a report that explored opportunities to transform Little Saigon and preserve its charming authenticity for future generations to enjoy.

The planning experts provided these recommendations to enhance Little Saigon:

  • A furniture, garden and outdoor district
  • An outdoor produce market
  • A Times Square-type media district with electronic screens and big-screen televisions
  • More business plazas similar to the Asian Garden Mall
  • A Vietnamese National Cultural and Language Center
  • A unified signage program and improved traffic with expanded parking

Statues in the heart of Little Saigon pay homage to the traditional values of family, education and achievement. Little Saigon’s growth remains questionable without the leadership needed to forge a sustainable future.

The issues the community in Orange County is facing likely parallels the topics that experts will explore at Florens 2012.

Florens 2012 Cultural and Environmental Heritage Week is a biennial event in Florence, Italy in November. The 9-day event will explore how culture can generate economy.

I’m hoping to be selected to cover the conference as part of Team Florens, so I may continue to share content on this blog and to live-tweet the event with my Twitter followers to maximize awareness and online engagement of this important gathering.

You may follow and even join the discussion on Twitter with the hashtag #Florens2012.

The selection will be made by mid-September on the five winners who will make the trip to Italy. Until then, I want to take you on this culinary and cultural tour of Little Saigon with its future yet to be written.

_______________________________

Little Saigon Reveals Its Charm with Layers of Flavor and Culture 

From the helpful guide in Sunset Magazine, Little Saigon is approximately 3 square miles and packs more than 4,000 Vietnamese American businesses, including hundreds of shops and restaurants. Check out some of my favorite places to savor and enjoy in Little Saigon.

Know Before You Go 

To get to Little Saigon, you can take either the San Diego Freeway (I-405) or the Garden Grove Freewway (SR-22).

From I-405, take the Magnolia Street exit north and stay on Magnolia; after a few blocks, it intersects Bolsa Avenue, the main stretch of Little Saigon.

From SR-22, take either the Euclid Street, Brookhurst Street or Magnolia Street, exit south. All these streets intersect with Bolsa Avenue.

Treasures in Little Saigon …

Croissant and coffee

Families and singles alike sit comfortably on a tree-shaded patio around little bistro-style tables, nibbling at pastries, talking, and reading the paper.

Croissants are properly flaky and the coffee, the supercharged café sua dá (French roast with sweetened condensed milk), will rocket-fuel your day. Lily’s Bakery: 10161 Bolsa Ave.; 714/839-1099.

Cafe sua da or Vietnamese iced espresso packs a refreshing punch with an uber caffeinated blend of French coffee slowly filtered over iced with a sweet and smooth finish to keep you going all night.

Snacks for home

Try Van’s Bakery for all sorts of Vietnamese packaged goods and candies, plus good mini croissants (only 75 cents apiece) and curiosities like coconut Belgian waffles tinted green with pandan leaves.

Van’s Bakery has three locations in Little Saigon; try: 9211 Bolsa Ave.; 714/898-7065.

Wildly green vegetables and exotic fruits

A wonderland of Vietnamese staples, stretching on for what seem like acres. The produce section transports you right to Southeast Asia: durian, persimmons, bitter melons, tamarind, sugarcane.

The herb section alone looks to be the length of a city block. Prices are unbelievable: Two fat bunches of good-looking watercress for 99 cents; Oroblanco grapefruit, five for 99 cents; $10.99 for a box of nine mangoes; beef rib-eye, $3.99 a pound. A Dong Supermarket: 9221 Bolsa Ave.; 714/657-7456.

Dragon fruit looks like an alien food, but it’s actually native to Central Vietnam. Its bright and bold color mask the fruit’s mild yet refreshing taste.

Freshly handmade tofu

If you’ve come to believe that tofu is tasteless and boring, treat yourself to a block of this tofu, so fresh it’s still warm.

Shaggy-textured and flavorful, it might just tempt you to try those tofu recipes you shelved. Very friendly staff. Dong Phuong Tofu: 15022 Moran St.; 714/894-7002.

Fragrant Pho noodle soup

Pho, one of Vietnam’s great contributions to world cuisine, is a giant bowl of noodles, bean sprouts, green onions, fresh herbs, and thinly sliced meats (or small meatballs) of your choice, all piled into hot, rich pork-beef broth. You can customize with chile sauces, lime wedges, and slices of fresh jalapeño.

Good beginner choices are beef round pho (lean and tender) and brisket. Pho joints are judged by the quality of their broth, and Pho Thanh’s is really good ― fresh but properly meaty. Pho Thanh: 9625 Bolsa Ave.; 714/839-9882.

Nothing tastes  more like Vietnam than the clean and fresh flavor of pho noodle soup. The ubiquitous savory yet nuanced soup is garnering worldwide culinary fame.

Seafood in Little Saigon is reasonably priced. This lobster dish undergoes a quick stir-fry with dozens of Southeast Asian spices, creating morsels of delectable goodness.

Fabulous fish

This is where you want to buy your seafood: Dong Loi, where all manner of creatures from seas east and west are for sale, fresh and frozen: giant freshwater head-on shrimp; live mussels in buckets; beautiful whole tilapia, pomfret, and striped bass (a deal at $4.99/pound); and live Dungeness crab and lobsters in tanks.

You can even find crawfish (frozen) and baby anchovies. Dong Loi Seafood: 13900 Brookhurst St., Garden Grove; 714/534-1410.

Candies galore

Grab fistfuls of candy ― dozens of different kinds, from chewy ginger to fragrant pandan to crunchy sesame ― from big bins occupying about a third of this store.

There’s a serious meat-jerky section too. Vua Kho Bo: 9717 Bolsa Ave.; 714/775-7166.

The banh mi sandwich resulted when colonial France collided with Vietnam. The exotic flavors of Vietnamese meats and tofu perfectly complements the tangy pickled daikon and carrots with fresh cilantro and chili peppers.

Best pastries and sandwiches in town

Along with croissants and cafe au lait, the Vietnamese absorbed another food from their French colonial rulers and made it their own: the baguette.

At the tiny Bánh Mì Chè Cali Bakery, these are beautiful loaves, crunchy yet light and soft, and still warm when you buy them. Get a couple to go, and try the classic Vietnamese sandwich: pâté and ham with gently pickled vegetables, cilantro, jalapeños if you want them, and homemade mayo, all on that great bread. Have another rocket-fuel coffee with condensed milk ― iced this time.

There are several Bánh Mì Chè Cali Bakery locations, but this is one of the friendliest: 13838 Brookhurst St.; 714/534-6987.

Chua Quang Hue temple is a religious haven for Southern California’s Buddhist followers. During special holidays, the temple hosts colorful festivals.

Places of refuge and worship 

Visitors are welcome to the ornate Chua Hue Quang Buddhist temple, with its decorative, curvaceous red roof and its giant white Buddha statue, seated on a lotus blossom and presiding inside. Chua Hue Quang temple: 7 to 7 daily; 4918 West Westminster Ave., Santa Ana.

You’ll find it here at the Asian Garden Mall

If you only have time for one stop, you might want to make this the one. Asian Garden Mall (Phuc Loc Tho) has everything from bakeries to food vendors to umpteen jewelry stores (mainly on the second floor) and knicknack stalls.

Treat the kids to freshly squeezed sugarcane juice at suite 303; they can watch the stalk being pulverized into frothy pale-green juice, with a kumquat ground in for extra flavor. Asian Garden Mall: 9200 Bolsa Ave.; 714/842-8018.

Elegant dining

Quán Hy restaurant is all bamboo, smooth, stylish surfaces, and soft shadows, and it offers a good introduction to those unfamiliar with Vietnamese food.

It specializes in central Vietnamese cuisine (from around the city of Hue), particularly noodles and rice dishes, and the menu is in both English and Vietnamese. Quán Hy, 9727 Bolsa Ave.; 714/775-7179.

Tiny banh beo dishes may look dainty from the outside, but these refined foods from the Imperial Court of Hue, Vietnam are full of flavor bursting inside the palate.

Check out these videos of a tweatup I organized with social media users and bloggers with Chef Haley Nguyen, one of the most-renowed Vietnamese American food experts in the U.S. Chef Nguyen shares her memories of how Little Saigon began and how its culinary traditions are becoming wildly popular throughout the world.

Have you experienced the scents, sights and sounds of Little Saigon? If so, I’d love to hear about you’re experiences.

What do you think the future holds for one of Southern California’s cultural jewels? What’s the best way to Little Saigon authentic yet expand the cultural hub in order to attract more tourism?

email
Opt In Image
Got a dog? Turn your pooch into a diva
Exclusive Special For The Dog Days of Summer

The handcrafted necklaces from DESIGNER DOG NECKLACE are created with Swarovski crystals and pearls accented with sterling silver, gold components and other exclusive high-end elements.

The beautiful customized jewelry comes in matching pieces for you and your pampered pooch.

You're pet will love you even more!

Tags: , , , ,

  • What a great post about Little Saigon! I had no idea about any of it. Next time I leave Middle Tennessee for a trip to Southern California, I will definitely make sure my visit includes several hours in Little Saigon. Beautiful.

  • Wow, what a great assortment of snapshots of the Little Saigon community. I’m definitely visiting a few of these places next time I’m around that neighborhood. I had no idea it was as enchanting as this.

  • johnlusher

    What an amazing post Ted! The next time I am in SoCal, I want to visit the Little Saigon community. I had no idea it was so vibrant and amazing!!

  • Jenna Francisco

    I think I mentioned this to you before, but I am very familiar with the Vietnamese community here in Sacramento because I teach English as a Second Language at a community college which is near this city’s Little Saigon, and about half of my students are Vietnamese. Their culture is such an asset to American society, especially with the focus on family, education, and community, and the history (and reasons for emigrating from Vietnam) is something important for all of us to remember. In addition to the suggestions you listed, I would suggest a museum about the Vietnamese immigration experience. Many of my older students have given moving presentations about this experience, but I worry that their stories will be lost through the generations without a museum to preserve them (including their words).

  • Great post! Makes me want to visit Orange County’s Little Saigon. Great photos as well! Hope that our traditions will continue to be handed down through the generations and having an area like Little Saigon will help in preserving our culture.