VISITING LITTLE SAIGON — HAPPY ASIAN-PACIFIC AMERICAN HERITAGE MONTH
Southern California is home to several ethnic enclaves and since the region’s largest and fastest-growing racial minority are Asian, perhaps it’s not surprising that most of the recognized neighborhoods are specific to various Asian populations. In Los Angeles County there’s Cambodia Town, Chinatown, Filipinotown, Koreatown, Little Bangladesh, Little India, Little Osaka, Little Tokyo, and Thai Town. Orange County is home to Little Arabia (Arabs being geographically Asian if not — by most people’s reckoning — racially so), Little Seoul, and Little Saigon — the latter of which is little in name only.
Some of these neighborhoods (e.g. Chinatown, Little Tokyo, Little Ethiopia, and Thai Town) are broadly popular and attract tourists of all ethnicities in search of food, trinkets, and Instagrammable moments. Others attract tourists but almost exclusively of a single ethnicity, drawn to an area in search of goods and sensations that remind one of home. I would place Little Saigon firmly in the last category as you rarely see non-Vietnamese (aside from the occasional creeper) — which is a shame because there’s so much to enjoy for visitors of all backgrounds. In observance of Asian Pacific-American Heritage Month, I explored the region with my friend and educational consultant Quynh Nguyen and her friend, Peter Vo — to whom I owe a great deal of gratitude for their help on so many levels.
VIETNAMESE-AMERICAN IMMIGRATION HISTORY
Today Vietnamese-Americans are a huge minority in this country; Vietnamese is the sixth-most spoken language in American homes. There are more than a quarter-million Vietnamese speakers in the Southland alone and two-thirds live in Orange County. In fact, 40% of all Vietnamese living in the country live in Orange County, predominantly in the North Orange County communities which Little Saigon has effectively absorbed.
The first Vietnamese came to the US in the late 19th Century. In the 1910s, Hồ Chí Minh was among the small number of Vietnamese menial workers who pursued work in the US. Hồ held a series of jobs in Boston and Brooklyn before ultimately returning to Vietnam where he lead the Communist revolution.
It wasn’t until the McCarran Internal Security Act that most Asians even had the option of becoming naturalized American citizens but from its passage in 1950 until 1974, only 650 Vietnamese were reported to have moved to the US, mostly students, diplomats, military trainees, and the wives and children of servicemen.
It was also 1950 when the first American military advisors arrived in Vietnam, to assist in the French occupation of Indochina. In the first two years of the 1960s, after a decade of occupation, American troop numbers escalated dramatically. Following the Gulf of Tonkin incident in 1964, the first American combat troops were sent to the country in 1965. Eight bloody years of war and atrocity followed in which likely more than a million people lost their lives.
Direct American military involvement in Vietnam ended in 1973. On 30 April 1975, the fall of Saigon to the North Vietnamese marked the end of the war and the beginning of a mass exodus to the United States. The first wave of Vietnamese immigrants, the so-called 75ers, comprised of roughly 175,000 refugees, each of whom were processed in four processing centers in Fort Chaffee in Arkansas, Fort Indiantown Gap in Pennsylvania, Eglin Air Force Base in Florida, and — across the border from San Clemente — Camp Pendleton in San Diego County.
Most of the 75ers had close ties with American forces or were part of the petit bourgeoisie and thus faced deadly retribution or “re-education” from the conquering Communists if they remained at home. About half of the 75srs were Catholic and most came from urban centers, were well-educated, and in many cases, spoke English fluently. The then-previous census, undertaken in 1970, revealed that just 6% of Orange Countians were born abroad and a poll held in 1975 showed that only 36% of Americans were in favor of allowing Vietnamese refugees to stay in the country. However, once the door was open it never closed and now one-in-three Orange Countians was born abroad and white Anglos are one of the region’s minorities.
The second wave of refugees arrived beginning in 1978. By 1980 there were still fewer than 60,000 Asians of all ethnicities living in the entire state of California. However, after President Carter passed the United States Refugee Act in 1980, immigration from Vietnam increased and more than half a million Vietnamese came over the next two decades. Like the first group, the second wave included both ethnic Vietnamese and many Vietnamese-born Chinese of various ethnicities. However, unlike the 75ers, many of the second wave were poor, came from rural villages, were less-educated (although often had endured “re-education”), were in most cases Buddhist, and made the transpacific journey via small fishing boats, which accounted for their often being mocked as FOBs (“Fresh Off the Boat”).
Like the 75ers, the second wave settled primarily in North Orange County and the San Gabriel Valley (namely Alhambra, El Monte, Monterey Park, Rosemead, and South El Monte). Following them was a final, less-often recognized wave of immigrants who came after the 1988 passage of the American Homecoming Act. Both post-75 groups were less likely than the 75ers to speak English at the time of their arrival in the country, which largely accounts for some of the assimilation difficulties that distinguish them from the 75ers.
BEGINNINGS OF LITTLE SAIGON
Little Saigon was first established in the suburb of Westminster. Before the influx of Vietnamese, Westminster was a community of roughly 60,000 people; mostly white, working-class, and having arrived in the area following the post-World War II suburbanization of North Orange County that fanned out from the nexus of Long Beach. Pre-war residents were few in number and primarily engaged in the agricultural operation of nurseries, orange groves, and strawberry fields (as far as I know, Allan Kayano‘s, strawberry farm – planted in 1952 – is one of the last in operation).
The Garden Grove Freeway tore through Westminster in 1965 and by 1970 the suburb was already in a visible state of decay and financial decline. Hoping to reverse the suburb’s moribund course, the Westminster Mall was constructed in 1977, and in neighboring Garden Grove, which faced many of the same issues, a downtown redevelopment program was launched.
When the Vietnamese arrived at Camp Pendleton, some in Westminster and Garden Grove argued that Vietnamese resettlement in their communities might energize their town’s meager economies. One of the first Vietnamese-owned businesses to open in Westminster was a pharmacy and doctor’s office which opened on Bolsa Avenue in 1977 at a time when that street was home to a few bean fields, junkyards, auto shops, and not much else. Soon there were several Vietnamese establishments along Bolsa including Dr. Pham Van Hoang‘s medical office, Hoa Binh Market, and the office of Tony Lam (who would later become the first elected Vietnamese official in the country). In 1978, Nguoi Viet Daily News (Nhật-báo Người Việt) began publishing a Vietnamese-language newspaper from a home in Garden Grove. Eventually, Nguoi Viet would expand into Nguoi Viet Online.
Two of the biggest entrepreneurs responsible for the establishment of Little Saigon are Frank Jao (趙閥), a Haiphong-born 75er, and Dan Quach, who immigrated to Bolsa via Nebraska in 1977 or ’78. Jao founded Bridgecreek Development Company in 1978 and the company opened the Bolsa Mini Mall in 1979. Jao, born to a Chinese father and Vietnamese mother, would eventually gain a polarizing reputation as a sort of Donald Trump of Little Saigon.
By 1981 there were about 350 Vietnamese businesses operating in Westminster and a petition circulated urging the city to “deny granting any license to any Indochinese refugee attempting to set up any business in this Viet town area.” Part of the hostility was no doubt part of Orange County’s rich tradition of racism but it also seems that the businesses weren’t generating quite the tax revenue that one might expect, although that probably came as less of a surprise to anyone who’d ever done any business within a cash-only/no-tax-charged immigrant community. Meanwhile, over in Los Angeles, a group of Vietnamese businessmen was at the same time trying to create a rival Viet Town residential and shopping district.
Within the Vietnamese community of Garden Grove and Westminster, most referred to the Vietnamese area as either “Cho Bolsa,” “Khu Bolsa,” or simply, “Bolsa.” One of the first to call the area “Little Saigon” was Little Saigon News (Sàigòn Nhỏ), launched by editor/publisher Hoang Duoc Thao in 1985. Before that, the Los Angeles Times had published an article titled “Boom on Bolsa: Vietnamese Create Their Own Saigon.” The original Saigon had officially been renamed Thành phố Hồ Chí Minh (Ho Chi Minh City) back in 1976 so the Little Saigon name came pre-loaded with additional subtext.
Tony Lam advocated, as did Frank Jao and others, calling the area Asiantown. Nonetheless, in 1988, a group of community leaders and then-governor George Deukmejian ordered Caltrans to install signs naming and providing directions to Little Saigon Tourist Commercial District, a 2.5 kilometer-long stretch of Bolsa, which they did on 17 June
POLITICAL AND GENERATION GAPS
Much as with refugees from other nominally-communist dictatorships like the USSR and Cuba, Vietnamese refugees have tended to align themselves with the Republican Party presumably because it’s ideologically closer to Fascism and therefore further from Socialism (and the perversion of that employed by Vietnam’s totalitarian regime). Tony Lam is a Republican. So too is Tri Ta, Westminster’s first Vietnamese mayor, as is Michael Vo, the mayor of Fountain Valley. But even if the Republican party continues to be strong within both the Vietnamese community and Orange County, both Vietnamese Americans and Orange Countians seem to be gradually but perceptibly drifting to the Left. Although they don’t yet win as often as their GOP counterparts, there are an increasing number of Vietnamese Democrats running for office in Orange County.
Anti-Communist rallies still take place in Little Saigon although as time passes and political scars slowly heal, younger Vietnamese in the community seem far less-likely to show up at protests than the aging Vietnamese who experienced firsthand the atrocities committed in the name of political ideologies. This was not always the case and Little Saigon is, at least in Southern California, widely recognized for dramatic political disagreements and displays. On the day of our exploration, we saw Jeeps driven by uniformed veterans flying the flag of their fallen capital rolling down Bolsa.
Disagreements are a central part of and functioning democracy but the disagreements have sometimes gone too far. Right Wing arsonists killed journalism Tap Van Pham in 1987 simply because he’d run ads for a Montreal-based money transfer service in his entertainment magazine, Mai (and thereby skirted the US’s embargo against Vietnam which President Clinton lifted in 1994). Responsibility for the murder was claimed by the Vietnamese Organization to Exterminate the Communists and Restore the Nation, who also claimed responsibility for the 1982 murder of Houston newspaper editor, Nguyen Dam Phong, the murder of San Francisco‘s Nguyen Van Luy in 1994, and the 1986 murder of Van Khan Tran in Westminster.
The most well-known of the politically-charged incidents in Little Saigon was the so-called HiTek Incident. In 1999, Truong Van Tran — the owner of VHS rental store (HiTek TV and Video) as well as “the chosen one” in the Vo Vi cult — displayed an image of Hồ Chí Minh and the flag of the Socialist Republic of Vietnam at his shop in the Bolsa Marketplace. Hundreds of people protested and when the police stepped in, they noticed that he was dealing in pirated goods and he was jailed for that offense.
Other high-profile (if less-notorious) protests have involved the design of a proposed mall bridge for being “too Chinese,” the design of archway for the same reason (both were proposed by Chinese Vietnamese businessman, Frank Jao), a campaign stop from John McCain (after he unapologetically referred to Vietnamese as “gooks”), Irvine‘s consideration of declaring its friendship with Nha Trang, the queer community’s participation in the annual Tet Parade, and the partially exposed intergluteal clefts of the girls working at lingerie cafés.
Unlike most ethnic enclaves, Little Saigon has effectively spread across several cities — in this case a huge swathe of North Orange County — and established pockets that pay no apparent mind to official city boundaries. Besides Westminster, the cities have been slow to acknowledge this reality. In 2003, Garden Grove finally recognized a portion of its city as Little Saigon and Santa Ana did the same in 2004. The official borders of Little Saigon are currently a small area hemmed in by Euclid Street, Magnolia Street, McFadden Avenue, and Trask Avenue but parts of Fountain Valley, Huntington Beach, Midway City, and Stanton shouldn’t be overlooked just because they’re not officially recognized. The main drag of Little Saigon is still Bolsa (which becomes West 1st Street as it passes into Santa Ana) and I still know a lot of residents in the area who refer to the whole region, whatever the address, simply as “Bolsa.”
GETTING THERE AND AROUND
Little Saigon is located relatively close to the Santa Ana Regional Transportation Center (aka “The Depot”) which is served by Amtrak and Metrolink. There are two old right-of-ways still converge at Magnolia Park, one of which was formerly used by the West Santa Ana Branch of the Pacific Electric Red Car Line that connected Orange County to Watts until 1950. Hopefully, in the not-too-distant future, we’ll see the return of convenient passenger rail and one of those right-of-ways is most likely going to be used by Metro for their planned West Santa Ana Transit Corridor. Little Saigon is also rather flat and therefore easily bikeable and walkable provided you’re physically able. Walkscore gives the neighborhood a score of 57 out of 100.
The Depot and the whole area are also served by the buses of Orange County Transit Authority (OCTA). Another transit option is Xe Đò Hoàng, which has operated low-fare shuttles that have connected more distant Vietnamese communities and cities since the early 1990s. Currently, Xe Đò Hoàng’s routes connect Chinatown, El Monte, San Francisco, San Jose, and Arizona. There are other shuttles too, like Xe Đò Lộc, which connects Little Saigon and Las Vegas. As far as I know, all of them offer Vietnamese sandwiches as a meal and thus are sometimes nicknamed bánh mì buses.
LITTLE SAIGON SHOPPING CENTERS
The main tourist attractions of Little Saigon are often found in shopping centers and on weekends it’s common to find people posted up and passing time in the vast parking lots surrounding them. Sometimes the shopping centers are the attraction – although none compete financially with nearby South Coast Plaza. One which tried and famously failed was New Saigon Mall, built in 1997 and demolished less than five years later. I have a fascination with strip malls and that I can’t put into words (although I suppose it’s somehow related to my love of business parks and anonymous corporate mid-rises).
ASIAN VILLAGE CENTER
Another of Frank Jao’s well-known shopping centers is Asian Village Center, built in 1985. Behind Asian Village Center is a long relief mural depicting the legendary Vietnamese heroes including the Trưng Sisters (Trưng Trắc and Trưng Nhị), who rebelled against Chinese rule in the 1st Century CE. Another nearby piece of public art is the Vietnamese Cultural Court, a sculpture garden including a statue of Confucius and his disciples that memorably appeared in The Fast and the Furious (2001) — although I had to be reminded.
Fast and the Furious trailer — Vietnamese Cultural Court at :54
ASIAN GARDEN MALL
Across the street is Phước Lộc Thọ (known colloquially in English as “Asian Garden Mall”), which was built in 1987 (and opened in 1988) with the considerable financial support of Indonesian-Chinese and Taiwanese investors and is as close to a recognizable icon as Little Saigon has. It was this mall that Jao had hoped to connect to Asian Village Center with a bridge of a “too Chinese” design. We, like the others, were forced for now to use a lowly crosswalk. Inside the mall, on the second floor, there are a lot of jewelry shops (of which you are told not to take photos). On the ground floor are a performance area and several eateries. Apparently inspired by the recent upsurge in Southern California night markets, Phước Lộc Thọ now holds its own small one on Fridays, Saturdays, and Sundays. More night markets, please.
TODAY PLAZA AND OTHERS
Almost as iconic as Asian Garden Mall is Khu Siêu Thị (Today Plaza), anchored by T & K Food Market at one end and the “too Chinese” archway that did get built. It too was featured in The Fast and the Furious in a minor bit of geographic license). Other Little Saigon shopping centers include Garden Grove Shopping Plaza, Wesminster Colony Plaza, and a lot of others — the names of which I accidentally deleted.
LITTLE SAIGON MARKETS
One of the major draws of ethnic neighborhoods are the markets, which invariably carry countless products that you will never find in the “ethnic” aisle of your local, neighborhood Albertson’s, Food 4 Less, Ralph’s, Trader Joe’s, Vons, Whole Foods (and the reason that my own garden includes bitter melon, burdock, chayote, purple yam, and tomatoes allowed to ripen to the point where they have more flavor than snowballs). It used to bother me that if I wanted, say, good green tea I had to go to Little Tokyo or Koreatown; if I wanted mock-tendons I had to go the Thai Town; jars of fried gluten and peanuts in MSG-laced soy sauce mean a trip to the San Gabriel Valley, and if I wanted gooseberries or dill pickle potato chips I had to go to another state — but now I relish the excuse to travel. If all of those things were available across the street, I might be tempted never to leave my neighborhood.
The Chinese-American chain 99 Ranch Market began in Little Saigon in 1984 but was replaced in 2005 by Siêu thị Thuận Phát, part of the Shun Fat Supermarket chain. Other markets in the community include A Dong Supermarket, ABC Supermarket, Cho Ben Thanh Market, Dalat Supermarket, Green Farm Market, H Mart, Hoa Binh Supermarket, Mom’s Supermarket, My Thuan Supermarket, Nguoi Viet Supermarket, Quang Minh MiniMarket, Saigon City Supermarket, Saigon Supermarket, Trai Cay Ngon, and Westminster Superstore.
LITTLE SAIGON EATS
If you’re more inclined to leave the cooking to the pros, Little Saigon is home to a vast array of restaurants representing all kinds of Vietnamese specialties as well, of course, as non-Vietnamese food. Vietnamese cuisine is without a doubt one of the world’s most highly-refined cuisines. It’s the result of a fusion of indigenous ingredients and techniques, 1000 years of Chinese influence, 100 years of French influence, and is often characterized by a green, pungent, herby freshness and balance of tastes. There are regional specialties from the north, south, and central regions as well as specialty dishes.
In the fairly recent past, Vietnamese food has been cautiously embraced by non-Vietnamese. Everyone seems to want it known that they love phở. They love to squirt loads Huy Fong‘s hot sauce into it too. Although I have nothing against whitewashed Vietnamese food and certainly recommend catering to one’s one palate rather than eating in the pursuit of authenticity, it strikes me as strange that the vast majority of residents of Central Los Angeles seem more than happy to pay way too much for the least interesting takes on Vietnamese for perhaps for no other reason than that they’re lazy when there are amazing Vietnamese places just over the hills or behind the Orange Curtain. Even comedian and self-described “sandwich expert” Aziz Ansari only just had his first bánh mì – an event which he and his fellow Food Club treatment (albeit jokingly) as being worthy of considerable pomp and circumstance.
If you’re a meat-eating omnivore and you eat for any reason other than merely to prevent starvation I can see no reason why you wouldn’t have plunged face-first into Vietnamese food around the time that you started eating solid food. Why knaves routinely forgo bánh canh, bánh xèo, bò 7 món, bún bò Huế, bún riêu, cá nướng, cơm tấm, hủ tiếu mì, or lẩu in favor of yet another sriracha-bombed bowl of mediocre phở at some boring Silver Lake eatery is to me one of life’s great mysteries.
If you’re a non-meat-eating omnivore you’re in luck too. While there are many Vietnamese restaurants where there is nothing vegetarian on the menu, in most cases, if you ask, they’ll make you something vegetarian and to your liking. 80% of Little Saigon’s Vietnamese are Buddhist and naturally, the Awakened One was a vegetarian so not eating animals is not at all a foreign concept, even if few Vietnamese are themselves full-time vegetarians. There are also a healthy number of specifically vegetarian restaurants in Little Saigon – my favorite is Bo De Tinh Tam Chay. If you like fake meats, you’re in luck too, but if you’re a true herbivore (aka vegan) or member of the Kale Kinwa Kombucha Klan (the KKKK) then you might have a bit more trouble… but you’re no doubt used to that by now and can deal.
In the past I’ve eaten at the bánh mì chain — San Jose-based Lee’s Sandwiches and Little Saigon-based Bánh Mì Chè Cali – the McDonalds and Burger King of bánh mì – as well as the global vegetarian chain, Loving Hut. I’ve also enjoyed Banh Cuon Tay Ho, Banh Mi Cho Cu Bakery and, I think, Grand Garden for Emily Ryan‘s wedding. On the day of this visit, Quynh picked up pork from New Duong Son BBQ, I snacked on some truly delicious, handmade tofu from Lò Bánh Cuốn Tàn Tàn Tofu Co., and we all ate lunch at Ha Noi Avenue (or simply “Avenue” – opened by the original owners of the currently-being-remodeled-and-under-new-ownership Ha Noi Restaurant).
Of course, there are non-Vietnamese restaurants in the vicinity too – there are Vietnamese-influenced Cajun chains (and Cajun-influenced Vietnamese joints) like The Boiling Crab, Cantonese restaurants, Teochew/Chiuchow restaurants, Mexican restaurants (Alerto’s!), Thai restaurants, and In-N-Out Burger but since this is an entry on Little Saigon and not the cities over which it’s spread, my focus here is on Vietnamese restaurants, the looong list of which includes (subject, of course, to frequent change ) the following:
Amazon Restaurant, An Lac Duyen, An Nam Food To Go, An’s Restaurant, Anh Hong Restaurant, Anzxi, Asia Restaurant, Au Lac, Ba Le French Sandwiches, Banh Canh Ba Mien, Banh Canh Que Em and Que Anh, Banh Cuon Hong Mai, Bao Hien Rong Vang, Ben Ngu, Binh An, Binh Dan Restaurant, Binh Duong Restaurant, Binh Minh Restaurant, Bistro Pho Fleur, Bo De, Bonjour Saigon Restaurant, Boulangerie Pierre & Patisserie, Brodard Chateau, Brodard Restaurant, Bun Bo Hue So 1,
Bun Cha Ca 84, Bun Ngoc Restaurant, C & C Express, Ca Mau Restaurant, Cafe Anh Dao, Cafe Artist Restaurant, Cafe Chez Rose, Cafe Dang, Cafe Picasso, Cafe Quynh, Cajun Islands, Cali Restaurant & Bakery, CaliPHOnia, Canton Restaurant, Cao Diem Mi Gia, Cay Dua Restaurant, Cha Oc Gia Huy Food to Go, Che Che Che, Chim Runc, Chim Rung Restaurant, China Chef Mi La Cay, Cho Lon Cafe, Cho Tam Bien, Co Ba, Com Ga Nam An, Com Tam Thien Huong, Com Tam Thuan Kieu,
Com Tam Tran Qui Cap, Com Tam Tran Quy, Dac Biet Vietnamese Restaurant, Dai Phat Restaurant, Dakao Food to Go, Dat Thanh, David’s Vietnamese Restaurant, De Nhat Bun Bo Bolsa, Dem Sao Quan, Diem Hen, Diem Hen Ech Xanh, Dinh Thieng, Dinh Thieng Restaurant, DO Restaurant & Lounge, Dong Khanh Restaurant, Double Bamboo Restaurant, Duc Huong Cha Lua, Dzui Restaurant, 888 Caravan, 828 Pho, Emerald Bay Restaurant, Favori Restaurant, 405 Hu Tieu Nam Vang,
Golden Elephant, Golden Lion, Golden Sandwiches, Grand Com Ga Hai Nam, Hai Yen Restaurant, Hao Vi BBQ, Hien Thanh Restaurant, Hien Vuong Dakao, Hoa Binh Restaurant, Hoa Sen Vegetarian Restaurant, Hoang Trang Restaurant, Hong An Restaurant, Hong Huong Restaurant, Hong Lan Food to Go, Hong Mai Restaurant, Hong Phat, Hot Pot City, Hot Vit Lon Long An, Houng Houng Food Togo, Hu Tieu Thanh Xuan, Hue Oi, Hue Thuong, Hung My Vi Restaurant, Huong Binh Restaurant,
Huong Giang Food to Go, Huong Giang Restaurant, Huong Huong Food To Go, Huong Huong Food to Go-Bakery, Huong Vy Restaurant, I On Hot Pot & Grill Teriyaki, iLounge Cafe, Ion Hot Pot, Ion Lounge, iPho Restaurant, Jumbo Pot, Kang Lac Bakery, Kao Binh, Kasey’s Noodle & Grill, Kim Dung Restaurant, Kim Hong Eggrolls, Kim Huong, Kim Long Hue Food to Go, Kim Su Seafood Restaurant, Kim’s Restaurant, Kobe House USA, Lam Van, Lan Huong Quan Food to Go,
Lang Ngon Restaurant, Lau Ngheu Oc, Le Croissant Dore, Le V Cuisine, Lien Hoa BBQ Deli, Lien Hue 2, Little Saigon Food To Go, Little Saigon Noodle, Lo Banh Cuon Tan Hoang Huong, Long Phung Restaurant, Lua Bistrot, Luc Dinh Ky Restaurant, Luc Dinh Ky Restaurant Tap 2, Luu Luyen Restaurant, Lynda Sandwich, M & Toi Vietnamese Restaurant, Mai Phung, MAMA K’s Kitchen, May Bon Phuong, Mi La Cay, Minh Oi, Minh Phung, Mirada, Mitasie 3, Mon Ami Cafe Restaurant,
Moonlight Restaurant, My Canh, My Nguyen Restaurant, My Vi Ga Restaurant, My Vi Mi Gia, My Vi Mi Gia #2, Nam Giao Restaurant, Nam Phuon Deli Express, Nem Nuong Khanh Hoa, New Trieu Chau Restaurant, Ngoc Chau Restaurant, Ngoc Hue Restaurant, Ngoc Thuy Vietnamese Restaurant, Ngon Restaurant, Ngu Binh Restaurant, Nguyen Anh Quan, Nguyen Huong, Nha Hang $1.99, Nha Hang 135, Nhu Y Ca 8 Mon Restaurant, #1 Restaurant, Oc & Lau Restaurant,
Ocean Blue Restaurant & Lounge, OngTa, Pagolac Restaurant, Phat Bistro, Phat Ky Mi Gia Restaurant, Phi Lu Vietnamese Bistro, Pho 100ºC, Pho 135, Pho 2000, Pho 45, Pho 54, Pho 79, Pho 86 Restaurant, Pho 88, Pho 99 Noodle and Grill, Pho A-9 Restaurant, Pho America, Pho and Rolls Vietnamese Cuisine, Pho Asian Grill, Pho Banh Mi Che Cali, Pho Binh Restaurant, Pho Bom, Pho Cali Restaurant, Pho Crystal Noodle House, Pho Dakao, Pho Dem Restaurant, Pho Hai,
Pho Hoa Noodle Soup, Pho Hoa Soan Ben Them Cu, Pho Hoa Thai II Vietnamese Restaurant, Pho Hoa-An, Pho Jimmy, Pho Kieu, Pho Kim Ngan Restaurant, Pho Kim Quy, Pho Kimmy, Pho Lamson, Pho Lighthouse, Pho Lu, Pho Nam Dinh, Pho Nguyen Hue, Pho O.C., Pho Pasteur Hien Vuong, Pho Quan, Pho Quang Trung, Pho Quyen, Pho Song Hai, Pho Tastee, Pho Tau Bay Ltt Restaurant, Pho Thang Long, Pho Thanh Lich, Pho Thành Restaurant, Pho Today, Pho Trang, Pho Vie, Pho Vie II,
Pho Vietnamese Noodles, Pho Vinh Ky, Pho Vinh Ky 2, Pholicious, Photastic! Soup and Sandwiches, Phuc Loc Food To Go, Phuoc Thanh, Phuong Hoang, Phuong’s Restaurant, Quan 9999, Quan Bun Ban Mai, Quan Bun Song Huong, Quan Chu Cuoi, Quan De Thui 54 Restaurant, Quan Duyen Restaurant, Quan Gio Bar & Grill, Quan He Pho, Quan Hen Restaurant, Quan Hop Restaurant, Quan Huong, Quan Hy Lac Chay, Quan Hy Restaurant, Quan Long Hoa, Quan Minh Ky, Quan Sao Dem, Quan Vi Da,
Quan Vy Da, Quan Vy Restaurant, Que ME, Queen Egg Rolls Honloan Food, Quynh Huong, Rex Lounge, Rice Paper Vietnamese Bistro, Roll Bar, Royal Restaurant and Banquet, S Vietnamese Fine Dining, Saigon 9, Saigon Capital Bakery, Saigon Cuisine, Saigon De Pho, Saigon Deli Restaurant Pho Cong Ly, Saigon Pearl Seafood Restaurant, Saigon’s Bakery, Sasha Deli, Song Ling, Song Linh Restaurant, Song Long, Song Thuy, Song Tra Quan, Starfish Restaurant, Tai Buu Paris,
Tan Cang Newport Seafood, Tan Hoang Huong Bakery, Tan Hoang Huong Sandwiches & Coffee, Tan Hong Mai, Tan Mi A Dong, Tan My Food to Go, Tan Phat, Tao Nhan Cafe, Tasty Sandwiches, Tay Ho 4 Restaurant, Tea Party Lounge, Teo Sandwiches, Thach Che Hien Khanh, Thach Che My Linh, Thai Binh Lo Cha Lua, Thai Pho, Than Mai Restraunt & Food To, Thanh Ha Restaurant, Thanh My Restaurant, Thanh Nien, Thanh Noi Restaurant, Thanh Restaurant, Thanh Son, Thanh Tam Bakery,
Thanh Thanh Food to Go, The Boiling Noodle, The Eiffel Cafe, Thien An, Thien An Restaurant, Thien Dang Vegetarian, Thoang Cafe & Restaurant, Thuan Kieu Noodle & Grill, Thuy Nga, Thuy’s Food To Go & More, Tip Top Sandwiches, Tip Top Sandwiches and Grills, Top Baguette, Tram Chim, Tren Restaurant & Bar, Trieu Chau, 2 Tango Restaurant & Lounge, Uoc Restaurant, Uyen Thy Bistro, Uyen Thy Quan, Van Hanh Vegetarian Restaurant, Van’s Bakery, Van’s Restaurant, Vegan Cuisine, Vien Dong Restaurant, Viet Pho, VN Noodle, Vua Kho Bo, Westland Restaurant, Window Quan Nhau, Wonder Pho, Yen’s Kitchen, Yo Yo Restaurant, and Zen Vegetarian Restaurant
DRINKING IN LITTLE SAIGON
There are many places oriented around a variety of drinks in Little Saigon – if a few hundred less than there are restaurants. Peter said that the latest craze are boba houses, which seem to have taken over the lives of teenagers not just in Little Saigon but everywhere. Quynh and I started our tour by grabbing pandan juice from New Duc Huong, which was perfect. Later she grabbed a cane juice from Nuoc Mia Vien Tay.
We ended our tour at Sugars – a bikini bar in Garden Grove near Little Seoul. There’s another bikini bar in Westminster, Green Girl Saloon but as far as I can tell, there aren’t a whole lot of regular bars in the neighborhood and if you want beer (or cognac) you’ll more likely end up at a lounge.
Even more notorious than the bikini bars are the aforementioned lingeries cafés. I was taken to one such café on a single occasion although I can’t remember which one it was. It was in a strip mall and it was there that I tried my first durian shake as I watched men gamble as they relaxed in a smoke-filled room lit by televisions and served by girls who seemed to be sporting more silicon and tattoos than clothing (does that narrow it down?)
An investigative piece of FOX journalism, “Sexy Coffee House”
On rare occasions there have been incidents such as in 1993 (21 years ago, mind you), when three people were shot at a lingerie cafe in Westminster. In 2011 the suspicious city of Garden Grove launched a probe into the activities taking place in the cafés. The OC Weekly claimed that there are over fifty lingerie cafes in Garden Grove (and put a picture of a girl in underwear on the cover of the issue). Huffington Post counted 37. I know of fewer than a dozen in the whole region but I also haven’t launched any probes into them — but I do suspect that the numbers are being inflated sensationally — and that some of the concern is as much racially motivated as morally.
Anyway, the ones that I know of are Cafe Chi Chi, Cafe Di Vang 2, Cafe Di Vang III, Café Dien Anh, Cafe Lu, Cafe M Cutie, GZ Cafe, Suoi Tien & Cafe, Temptation Cafe, and Starz Cafe. Whatever the number, ordinances have been passed in Garden Grove requiring the staff to fully cover themselves and now the local chapter of the morality police will have to find something else to worry about.
If you’d rather order your cà phê sữa đá, (super sugary) bubble or milk tea, shave ice, or juice from a server in more modest attire, there’s Almond Haus, BAMBU Desserts & Drinks, Boba Corner 2, Cafe Chez Rose, Club Boba, Coffee Factory, Coffee Lovers, Coffee Time, Coffee Zone, Craved Tea House, Eighteas, Fusion Tea Bar, Golden Papaya, Gypsy Cafe, The Gypsy Den, Happy Bee Fruit Paradise, Hot Vit Lon Long An, i4Coffee, iLanet Coffee, Juice Station, Q1 Tea Lounge, Roasting Water, 7 Leaves Cafe, Sippa Coffee, Snow Monster, The Snowflake Factory, Sweetea Lounge, Sweet Elle Café, Tapioca Express, Tastea, Tea Party Lounge, TeaZone Lollicup, Tebo Tebo Tea Lounge, Thirstea Zone, Tobara, Tra Teahouse, Q1 Tea Lounge, and Volcano Tea House & Coffee.
MUSIC IN LITTLE SAIGON
There used to be several Vietnamese cabarets in North Orange County including Au Baccara, CAN, Club MVP (Many Vietnamese People), Club Rex, Đêm Màu Hồng, Diamond, Majestic, the Palace, Queenbee, Ritz, Saigon Cabaret, and Từ Đó but all have closed. Majestic became Avec, which is currently trying to bring back the dance popular with an older set. On several occasions I’ve written a bit about the Vietnamese New Wave scene in which German Eurodisco and Italo-disco performers – almost completely unknown in mainstream America – are feted like proper stars.
My first exposure to the “New Wave” (in the Vietnamese sense) scene was at the Shark Club, where it was spun by DJ Alpha. I later met DJ BPM, Italo Chris, and other enthusiastic veterans of the scene. I got to see Italo-disco star Gazebo perform at Galaxy Theatre (where he changed the line from “Masterpiece” from “All Sunset Boulevard has been waiting the star” to “All Bolsa Ave…”). Galaxy has since become the Observatory.
At Avec, I saw Den Harrow (Tom Hooker and Miki Chieregato), Ken Laszlo, Fred Ventura, and Linda Jo Rizzo perform. I’ve also been to Bleu XO, Q’s Lounge, and lately R3 Social Lounge for New Wave events like a performance from Fancy (which I recorded a few songs of on my phone — apologies about the sound quality). Savage is coming on 6 June of this year although I’ll be out-of-town. I’m still holding my breath for performances from Sandra and CC Catch. If you’re interested in New Wave, consider following Keep on Music.
Lynda Trang Đài’s “Supermarket Love Affair” — a reflection of the importance of supermarkets!
Other clubs include Can Asian Entertainment Bar & Grill, Rendezvous Nightclub, and Rex Lounge. Local performers that I know of include Tommy Ngô, TQ, Trizzie Phuong Trinh, and Lynda Trang Đài. Lynda Trang Đài was born Lê Quang Quý Trang Đài in Da Nang in 1968. Virtually unknown outside of the Vietnamese community, she famously attracted attention, controversy, and rumors for her relatively racy performances.
If you fancy having a go yourself, there’s always karaoke – although not having been to any karaoke bars in Little Saigon I’m not sure what songs the books generally include and in what language(s) they’re generally written. Anyway, neighborhood karaoke places include Cafeoke Ding Dong Dang, Elvis!? Karaoke Studios, Idol Karaoke, Karaoke Nice, Ozzie’s, and Shanghai’d Room. It should be noted that one can also often engage in karaoke at the aforementioned lounges — just call ahead.
There are many music stores in Little Saigon, with large selections of music sold on audio cassette and compact disc. Many of the stores selling music are multi-media and customers can also buy movies, games, phone cards, and more. Stores focusing primarily on music include Bien Tinh Music, Cao Dao Music, Huong Music, Lan Song Xanh Music, and the incredibly cramped Nguyet Cam Music. If you’d like to take music lessons, there’s Little Saigon Music Academy and I’m sure others.
LITTLE SAIGON MEDIA
Little Saigon is home to a pretty large consortium of Vietnamese-oriented media production and consumption. Attempting to sort out what their specialities are has proven about as difficult as doing the same with Prestige Worldwide — especially as I probably know fewer than 100 words of Vietnamese. Any, there are companies called Vân Sơn Music and Entertainment and Trung-tâm Asia. One company that I was already familiar with is Thúy Nga, founded by Tô Văn Lai in Saigon but long headquartered in Westminster. Their most famous production is the Vietnamese variety program, Paris By Night. They also produce Văn Nghệ Magazine, and audiobooks, and VietFaceTV.
I’ve already mentioned a couple of Vietnamese newspapers and magazines. Other notable rags include Viet Bao (largest Vietnamese Newspaper circulation in the US), Chi Linh Weekly Magazine, Vien Dong Daily News (Nhật báo Viễn Đông), Thời Báo Magazine, and Tòa soạn báo Việt Weekly.
Television stations and production companies are also many and those that I know of are Little Saigon TV,Saigon TV, Saigon Broadcasting Television Network, VHN-TV, and VNA TV. Little Saigon radio stations including Little Saigon Radio KVNR AM 1480 and Saigon Radio KALI FM 106.3.
MOVIES IN LITTLE SAIGON
Although the Vietnam War is only rivaled by World War II in popularity as a Hollywood setting for war films, very few Vietnamese depictions of Vietnam ever even make their way to American art houses. Reflecting this reality, Amoeba has a small Vietnamese film section in which one can usually find up to three Trần Anh Hùng and maybe one or two Charlie Nguyen films. Vietnamese Cinema is almost exclusively made by and for Vietnamese audiences. Even in a World Cinema class that I took, the only Vietnamese director whose films we watched was Trịnh Thị Minh Hà.
Of course there are a few video stores in Little Saigon with the sort of mainstream Hollywood titles that you can find in any Redbox or streaming site. There are also stores catering to other ethnicities (hello Spanish Video, Filipino Video Gen Merchandise, and Sarangbang Video).
There are far more video stores selling popular Vietnamese films, music, television shows (and maybe a Korean Drama or Chinese film – usually overdubbed by a single Vietnamese actor). Most of these shops aren’t listed in any directory that I’ve seen and don’t have much of a web presence (except for maybe on VNListing or Saigon Net) but if you look for them, they’re everywhere and include Bich Thu Van, Cuoi DVD, Danh DVD, De Nhat, Ha Trang Video, Hai Yen’s Video & Video Game Rental, Han Nam Video, Hi-Lite Video T.A. Music, Hong Van Video, Jungle Video, Lang Hai DVD, Loan Anh Video Rental & Sale, Saigon Nho Video, Superstar Video, Tien Video, Video In, and Video Nguyen.
Garden Grove was once home to Edwards Thu Do Cinema, which replaced the Edwards Westbrook Theater and in the early 1990s showed Chinese, French, and Vietnamese films. [Click here to read about the Los Angeles’s Secret, Foreign Language Cinema Scene]. In 1994, director Trần Anh Hùng and star Trân Nu Yên-Khê attended the opening of Mùi đu đủ xanh (The Scent of Green Papaya). Sadly, the theater closed around 1996.
Loew’s opened the Fountain Valley Twin in 1971. General Cinema took over in 1973 and Edwards made it the Edwards Twin Cinema in 1978, which closed around 1998. In 2008 that long-dormant theater re-opened as the Star Performing Arts Center, which has since been re-named the SaiGon Performing Arts Center and features Vietnamese music, celebrities, and entertainment.
Little Saigon itself has rarely been acknowledged by Hollywood. In Gleaming the Cube (1989), Christian Slater‘s brother is Vietnamese (and played by Thai actor Art Chudabala) and the film includes scenes shot in Garden Grove. In an episode of The OC (“The Dearly Beloved”), Jess had a drug deal with some gangsters from Garden Grove, all of whom were played by Asians (led by Pinoy actor Darion Basco). Our guide, Peter Vo, has written several screenplays that were filmed around Little Saigon, including First Morning and Spirits: A Vietnamese Ghost Story (Oan Hồn). There’s also the annual Viet Film Fest, first organized by the Vietnamese American Arts & Letters Association (VAALA) in 2003.
ART & MUSUEMS
There are at least ten museums located around the Little Saigon area although as far as I know, only the Bowers Museum in Santa Ana ever presents or hosts any events or exhibits having to do with Vietnam. The closest thing to a Vietnamese-American museum is probably Garden Grove’s VietArt Center, which in 2007 hosted a traveling Smithsonian exhibit, Exit Saigon, Enter Little Saigon.
MISSION CONTROL – VIDEO GAMES IN LITTLE SAIGON
No list of cultural institutions in Little Saigon would apparently be complete without the mention of Mission Control, a much-missed Garden Grove video game arcade popular with teenagers of all stripes. Some of those stripes were members of various gangs and in 1994 a youth named Huy Nguyen was shot. Vietnamese gangs have long had a hand in video gaming and sometimes installed games at various locations that with the flip of a switch could be transformed into illegal gaming machines. Whilst Mission Control survived that shooting, its ultimate demise probably owed more to the exodus of gamers away from arcades to home systems for which you can rent games at Hai Yen’s.
LITTLE SAIGON BOOKS
If you’d like to learn more about Little Saigon from a book, there are several (although, surprisingly, none yet in the Images of America series) that you could check out, including Ann Le‘s The Little Saigon Cookbook: Vietnamese Cuisine and Culture in Southern California’s Little Saigon, Anh Do‘s My Little Saigon, James M. Freeman‘s Changing identities: Vietnamese Americans, 1975-1995, Karin Aguilar-San Juan‘s Little Saigons: Staying Vietnamese in America, Nhi T. Lieu‘s The American Dream in Vietnamese, Nghia M. Vo‘s The Viet Kieu in America, Steven R. DeWilde‘s Vietnamese Settlement Patterns in Orange County’s Little Saigon. There’s also a web magazine, diaCRITICS, which covers Vietnam and the diaspora (and has, it should be noted, published my work on one occasion).
There are also numerous bookstores in Little Saigon including Duc Me Hang Cuu Giup Book Store, Nam Hoa Center, Nha Sac Bookstore, Tu Luc Bookstore, Tu Quynh Books, Van Book Supply, and Van Khoa Books. You could also go to one of the local libraries: Garden Grove Chapman Library, Garden Grove Regional Library, Golden West College Library, Santa Ana Public Library, Stanton Library, or Westminster Branch Library. Not included among these is Westminster’s The Library, which is a Gentlemen’s Club and not a place where a gentleman (or lady) can check out books.
ARCHITECTURE & HOUSES OF WORSHIP
There are a few examples of interesting architecture sprinkled amongst the fading, bandage-colored boxes, single-story ranch homes, and generic McMansions. The shopping center at 9039 Bolsa Ave incorporates into its a design that looks to me like a Japanese fire lookout tower. There are restaurants whose buildings were obviously originally built by a chain – for example a Vietnamese restaurant in an old Taco Bell. The charming Kwan Yin Apartments in Westminster have a cod-Chinese aesthetic that pre-dates the protestations of area structures looking too-Chinese.
Other than those examples, most of the most visually appealing buildings in Little Saigon are either malls or Buddhist Temples and in a few cases, Christian Churches. We stopped by Chùa Dược Sư where they were selling vegetarian food in the back – something Quynh said is common practice at many temples (I believe that they do it at Chùa Dieu Ngu too).
In the past, whilst exploring Garden Grove, I visited Chùa Quan Âm Orange County. Other houses of worship include Cao Dai Church, Chùa Bảo-quang, Chùa Huệ-quang, Chùa Phổ-đà, Nhà thờ Đức Mẹ La-vang (Our Lady of La Vang Church), and Tinh Xa Giac Ly.
LITTLE SAIGON FESTIVALS AND OBSERVANCES
The biggest festival in Little Saigon is Tết Nguyên Đán (usually shortened simply to “Tết”), the Lunar New Year (often referred to as Chinese New Year although it’s also observed in Korea, Mongolia, Taiwan, Tibet and, historically, Japan). For over a decade the biggest one was held annually in Garden Grove Park but this year it moved to Orange County Fairgrounds.
When we visited it seemed like there was another observance taking place at a park that may’ve had something to do with the 39th anniversary of the Fall of Saigon. There are also several beauty pageants –Vietnamese Little Saigon Beauty Queen, Miss Vietnam Little Saigon, and Miss Vietnam of Southern California. I’m sure that there are other observances worth checking out — let me know!
LITTLE SAIGON PARKS
There are several area parks in Little Saigon. In Sid Goldstein Freedom Park there’s a Vietnam War Memorial which includes two twelve-foot tall bronze soldiers designed by Tuan Nguyen and completed in 1993. Village Green Park is Garden Grove’s oldest, although its “Tower on the Green” was only added in 2002. I’ve been to Tet Festivals at Garden Grove Park and eaten bánh mì at Westminster Park.
Other area parks include Allen Park, Bowling Green Park, Buckingham Park, Centennial Regional Park, Cesar Chavez Campesino Park, Civic Center Park, Cloverdale Park, Coronet Park, Ellen F. Gillespie Park, Greer Park, Heritage Park, Indian Village Park, Liberty Park, Mile Square Regional Park (home of Mile Square Golf Course), Newcastle Park, Oasis Park, Park West Park, Roger Stanton Park, Rosita Park, Russell C. Paris Park, Sigler Park, Stonecress Park, and Vista View Park.
COMMUNITY ORGANIZATIONS AND SERVICES
For those looking to get more involved in the community, there are several organizations including the Little Saigon Economic, Cultural, and Social Center, the Little Saigon Business Development Group, Social Assistance Program for Vietnam, the Union of Vietnamese Student Associations of Southern California, Viet Rainbow of Orange County, the VAALA, Vietnamese American Federation of Southern California, Vietnamese American Heritage Project, the Vietnamese American Chamber of Commerce, the Vietnamese Community of Orange County, and the Vietnamese American Democratic Club to name a few.
OTHER SITES TO SEE & STUFF TO DO IN LITTLE SAIGON
There are and have been several people and organizations offering tours of Little Saigon. Cathy Kim-Vân Q. Le, Adult Services librarian at Aliso Viejo Library led a Little Saigon Bus Tour & Luncheon with the Asian Pacific American Librarians Association. Chef Robert Danhi, author of Southeast Asian Flavors: Adventures in Cooking the Foods of Thailand, Vietnam, Malaysia, & Singapore, has led culinary tours of the neighborhood. Our host, Peter Vo, provides tours on behalf of the Westminster Chamber of Commerce.
Other ways to spend your time include checking out the Atlantis Play Center, Los Caballeros Racquet and Sports Club, Mile Square Golf Course, Vietnamese Roman Catholic Shrine of Martyrs (Đền Thánh-tử-đạo Việt-Nam) in Santa Ana, Willowick Municipal Golf Course, and the Eternal Flame behind Garden Grove City Hall. Although not especially Vietnamese (since it’s supposed to look Bavarian), I have a Vietnamese friend who hipped me to the nearby Old World Village, which is kitschy and vaguely creepy – and therefore cool.
MORE LITTLE SAIGON
If you still want more, the best place to start is with Huell Howser‘s Visiting…With Huell Howser episode “#940 – Vietnamese New Year.” I also read that Charles Phoenix was planning to visit in a show for KOCE (now PBS SoCal) but I don’t believe that that show ever got made. KOCE did produce a documentary in 2004, Saigon, U.S.A. Also be sure to check out Easy Little Saigon, Little Saigon on Facebook, and Peter Vo’s Little Saigon Now.
As always, please contribute your additions and corrections. Enjoy exploring Southern California, just start at Hollywood & Highland and go in any direction away from there and I guarantee it will be interesting. To vote for other communities, let me know which ones in the comments. Please leave any additions, corrections, or shared memories in the comment section. Tạm biệt!
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