I always think knowing a bit of history enhances the dining experience. And since I've got several Little Saigon eateries to post, I figured a little history lesson is in order.
Little Saigon in Orange County, California is the largest Vietnamese community outside of Vietnam. The 2010 census lists the population at 183,766, but most Vietnamese estimate the community to be at least double that. Add in Los Angeles County and the Vietnamese population swells to 271,234. There are 1.5 million Vietnamese in America, and 40 percent of them live in California. Why is this surprising? Because American government policy specifically dispersed Vietnamese throughout the country in order to facilitate assimilation and to prevent ethnic enclaves. At one point, Vietnamese were scattered across every state and 813 zipcodes. And yet, ethnic enclaves formed anyway. Specifically, Little Saigon. Read more about the Vietnamese in America or read Hearts of Sorrow: Vietnamese-American Lives by James M. Freeman, one of the first books chronicling the Vietnamese American experience, or The Vietnamese American 1.5 Generation: Stories of War, Revolution, Flight and New Beginnings by Sucheng Chan, for a more current look at the community.
Prior to the Fall of Saigon in 1975, there were only a handful of Vietnamese in America. After the Vietnam War ended, the initial wave of 125,000 refugees were first put in four refugee camps: Fort Chaffee, Arkansas; Eglin Air Force Base, Florida; Fort Indiantown Gap, Pennsylvania; and Camp Pendleton, California. These refugees were matched with sponsors, often church groups, who helped them assimilate to American life.
The next wave of refugees, often referred to as "boat people," would take place in the late 1970s and early 1980s as they fled communist reeducation camps and persecution of ethnic Chinese. An estimated 1 million people who were members of the former South Vietnamese government and military were "reeducated," some as long as 17 years. Learn more about the reeducation camps and definitely go see "Journey From the Fall" if you ever get the chance.
It is largely because of the reeducation camp experience that fueled the community's strong anti-communist stance. An estimated 1/3 of all Vietnamese Americans have a family member who was imprisoned in a reeducation camp. So it shouldn't be surprising that the Vietnamese community erupted in protest when Truong Van Tran put up a poster of Ho Chi Minh and the communist flag in 1999. The protests continued daily for 53 days, and at its height included an estimated 15,000 people.
About half a million Vietnamese fled Vietnam in the late 1970s and early 1980s. The Vietnamese boat people had to escape communist authorities and raise money to buy passage on rickety boats where they dealt with starvation, Thai pirates who raped, robbed and killed, and hostile locals when they flooded other Southeast Asian countries. According to the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees, in 1981 in Thai waters alone, there were 1,149 attacks on 352 boats; 571 people were killed, 243 abducted, and 599 raped by pirates. Read about their experiences. The refugees were placed in camps and processed to determine whether they were actually fleeing persecution or were economic migrants. Not all the refugees came to America, other popular countries included Australia, Canada, and France. But Vietnamese were scattered everywhere with some ending up in Israel, Finland, and Argentina. Read about the "forgotten ones" who weren't eligible for resettlement.
The next wave of Vietnamese who came to America in the late 1980s and 1990s were the abandoned Amerasian children of U.S. servicemen and reeducation camp survivors who had been imprisoned for at least three years. About 25,000 Amerasians, and 50,000 members of their family members have resettled in America. You can read about their experiences in The Unwanted: A Memoir of Childhood by Kien Nguyen and Surviving Twice: Amerasian Children of the Vietnam War by Trin Yarborough. About 35,000 reeducation camp survivors, and 128,000 of their family members have resettled in America. Their experiences are recounted in Reeducation in Postwar Vietnam: Personal Postscripts to Peace and Prisoner of the Word: A Memoir of the Vietnamese Reeducation Camps by Le Huu Tri.
These days, most Vietnamese immigrants (an immigrant leaves their country by choice, a refugee does not) come to America through sponsorship by other family members. Despite the U.S. dispersal policy of initial settlement, many Vietnamese gravitated toward Orange County. Refugees, who were initially processed through Camp Pendleton, with the help of local churches, particularly St. Anselm's in Garden Grove, matched American sponsors with Vietnamese families to facilitate assimilation. Orange County's proximity to Los Angeles' Chinatown also meant Asian foods could be easily obtained. In 1978, several Vietnamese businesses opened on Bolsa Avenue in Westminster, and Nguoi Viet, the first Vietnamese language newspaper in the country began out of Yen Ngoc Do's garage in Garden Grove. Thus, Little Saigon was born. There are now more than 9,000 Vietnamese-owned businesses in Westminster and Garden Grove. And Little Saigon now encompasses portions of Westminster, Garden Grove, Fountain Valley, and Santa Ana. There are more than 50 Vietnamese newspapers, magazines, radio, and television stations.
*****Deep in the far back of the Asian Village Center, at 9211 Bolsa Ave., in Westminster, is a series of murals depicting Vietnamese history. According to the legend, the Vietnamese are descended from a dragon king, Lac Long Quan, and a fairy, Au Co.
Lac Long Quan, the dragon king, liked to live near water.
He fell in love with Au Co, a fairy who dwelled in the mountainous highlands. She gave birth to 100 eggs. Because they came from two different worlds, they couldn't live together. So they divided up their children and half went to live with their mother in the highlands, and half went to live with their father along the coast. And it is said that when the typhoons and monsoons come, it is really Lac Long Quan trying to reunite with his fairy wife.
The eldest of those 100 eggs, became King Hung Vuong I. The 18 generations of Hung kings would rule the country from 2879 to 258 B.C. It was during the reign of King Hung Vuong VI that he held a competition to determine who would succeed his throne. Prince Lang Lieu, 16th in line, had a dream and in it a genie taught him how to use basic ingredients - glutinous rice, pork, and mung beans - to create banh chung.
In 43 A.D., the two Trung sisters, Trung Trac and Trung Nhi, led a rebellion against their Chinese rulers.
Despite the constant struggle against Chinese aggression, some aspects of its culture carried over such as the Confucian ideology of filial piety and ancestor worship.
Confucius and his disciples. You might recognize this scene as where a car was blown up in "The Fast and the Furious." This cultural court used to be the entrance to the New Saigon Mall. But it was located so deep behind the Asian Village Center that the businesses didn't fare so well. The building was razed and houses now occupy the area.
As we leave, to the right of the Asian Village Center, is the first Lee's Sandwiches, which brought American sensibilities of service to Vietnamese banh mi.
Across the street is the Asian Garden Mall. Built in the mid-1980s, called Phuoc Loc Tho by Vietnamese, it was the first major commercial center in Little Saigon. Read more about Little Saigon's growth. Beside the overwhelming presence of the Asian Garden Mall, lies Danh's Pharmacy (to the left of Cho Ben Thanh Market). Danh's Pharmacy was the first Vietnamese business to open on Bolsa Avenue in 1978.
The front of the Asian Garden Mall (notice the green rooftop because it'll be important in a bit) with its fountains and Ong Dia (Happy Buddha) statue has been the scene of various presidential candidate rallies such as George W. Bush and John McCain. The parking lot would be packed out to street level with attendees. In this community, anti-communism trumps racism so when a group of University of California, Irvine students protested McCain's use of the word "gook" at his 2000 rally, they were spat upon and pushed into oncoming traffic. (One of those protesters, Bao Nguyen, was elected mayor of Garden Grove in November 2014.) The Asian Garden Mall is popular with Republicans because Orange County is a strongly Republican county in a very Democratic state, because the Vietnamese community has traditionally been Republican (because the Republican party is viewed as more anti-communist), and because the Asian Garden Mall backdrop makes the Republicans seem more diverse than the stereotypical old, white, male constituent.
In 1996, Frank Jao, of Bridgecreek Group Inc., who built the Asian Garden Mall and the Asian Village Center as well as much of Little Saigon, proposed a gateway arch to Little Saigon over Bolsa Avenue. His design featured a green rooftop. Now, the Vietnamese still proudly refer to having fought against Chinese domination for 1,000 years, evidence of which is the immortalization of the two Trung sisters as shown above. Vietnamese have long struggled to show they are distinctly different from Chinese. So a green rooftop (which is Chinese) as opposed to a red rooftop (which is Vietnamese) in an area that's supposed to showcase Vietnamese culture was viewed as a slap in the face to community members. A petition with several hundred signatures was circulated and Jao dropped all plans for an arch. The fallout from the controversy (and I have no idea why they didn't simply request Jao change his plans to include a red roof), is that most buildings in Little Saigon have red roofs. Yes, this arch was also featured in "The Fast and the Furious."
Even the bus stops are distinctly Vietnamese with their red roofs.
Though the Vietnamese have transitioned from a refugee exile community to an American ethnic one, parts of Vietnamese culture are evidenced in architecture and statuary and names that recall places in Vietnam. Fall of Saigon commemorations are still held every year. And the former South Vietnamese flag flies proudly. Off the main drag of Bolsa Avenue, beside the Westminster police station and city hall, lies one of the few (and perhaps the only) memorial that honors South Vietnamese soldiers. The Westminster Vietnam War Memorial shows statues of an American and a South Vietnamese soldier to honor the alliance between the two. The memorial, which was erected in 2003, cost more than $1 million, raised from countless community walk-a-thons and concerts. South Vietnamese are often overlooked in American depictions of the Vietnam War. In Vietnam, they are considered traitors and their cemeteries and memorials are desecrated. In Little Saigon, South Vietnam is still honored.
I hope you enjoyed my little history lesson. And hopefully, the next time you venture into Little Saigon, you'll look beyond the food to understand a bit more about what it took to create this community.
Vietnam War Memorial
Sid Goldstein Freedom Park
14180 All American Way
Westminster, CA 92683
Asian Garden Mall
9200 Bolsa Ave.
Westminster, CA 92683
Asian Village Center (Where the murals and statues are located.)
9211 Bolsa Ave.
Westminster, CA 92683
And, of course, since this is a food blog, some of the Vietnamese restaurants in Little Saigon I've posted about:
Ba Tu Trai Cay Ngon - Westminster (Little Saigon)
Banh Mi & Che CALI Bakery - Westminster (Little Saigon)
Binh Dan Restaurant (De 7 Mon (Vietnamese Goat in 7 Courses)) - Westminster (Little Saigon)
Boulangerie Pierre & Patisserie - Garden Grove (Little Saigon)
Brodard Chateau Vietnamese Cuisine - Garden Grove (Little Saigon)
Brodard Restaurant - Garden Grove (Little Saigon)
C&C Express (C&C Food Co.) - Westminster (Little Saigon)
Da Nang Com Tam Tran Quy Cap - Westminster (Little Saigon)
Hot Vit Lon Long An - Westminster (Little Saigon)
Kum Lee (Kho Bo Mut) - Westminster (Little Saigon)
Le Croissant Dore - Westminster (Little Saigon)
Lien Hoa - Westminster (Little Saigon)
Ngu Binh Restaurant - Westminster (Little Saigon)
Nuoc Mia Vien Tay - Garden Grove (Little Saigon)
Pagolac Restaurant Bo 7 Mon (7 Courses of Beef) - Westminster (Little Saigon)
Pho Thang Long Restaurant - Westminster (Little Saigon)
Pho Thanh Lich - Westminster (Little Saigon)
Quan Hy Vietnamese Restaurant - Westminster (Little Saigon)
Quan Vy Da Restaurant - Westminster (Little Saigon) Regent West Restaurant (Wedding Banquet) - Santa Ana (Little Saigon)
Rockin' Crawfish - Westminster (Little Saigon)
Saigon Bistro - Westminster (Little Saigon)
Thach Che Hien Khanh - Garden Grove (Little Saigon)
Thach Che Hien Khanh - Westminster (Little Saigon)
Thai Son Lo Banh Cuon - Westminster (Little Saigon)
Thanh Tam Bakery - Garden Grove (Little Saigon)
Tip Top Sandwiches - Garden Grove (Little Saigon)
Top Baguette - Westminster (Little Saigon)
Vien Dong Restaurant - Garden Grove (Little Saigon)