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Shopping the Neighborhood / LITTLE SAIGON

Cut the Prices and Cut the Crowd Scene

November 24, 2000|VIVIAN LETRAN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Draped in gold-trimmed robes and sitting amid curls of burning incense, corpulent Buddha statuettes grin ear to ear, greeting visitors at storefronts and restaurants in Little Saigon, a pocket of Westminster that has become a commercial hub for flavors and wares from Vietnam. "Happiness is around the next corner," read one fortune cookie message that came with the dim sum lunch at the Dragon Phoenix Palace. Such prophetic words can only mean one thing to a shopper: There's a bargain close at hand.

Just downstairs from the restaurant, discount signs in English and Vietnamese hang at store entrances to draw customers in. Stretched along Bolsa Avenue, this Vietnamese shopping mecca is dotted with strip malls that may seem unremarkable at first until you realize the clutter of marquees are mostly in Vietnamese.

While some gleeful shoppers may be salivating over the big, post-Thanksgiving sales at department stores and other retail outlets, bargain hunters in search of a fun alternative shopping experience will find Little Saigon enticing. Here, the price is right and the crowds few.

Long lines are rare in this neighborhood marketplace of mom-and-pop shops. Big chain stores are virtually nonexistent. This booming shopping district draws its support largely from the thousands of Vietnamese American residents who settled in the area in 1975, after the Vietnam War drove a wave of refugees from South Vietnam to the United States. The area is anchored by the Asian Garden Mall and Asian Village Shopping Center, conveniently located on opposite sides of the street. Dozens of other stores also are scattered along Bolsa.

Shoppers young and old looking for home decor, stylish fashions or one-of-a-kind holiday gifts can duck into store after store and find name-brand items and some peculiar, quirky merchandise.

Take the wandering bamboo plant with loopy stems that bend and curl. The bamboo and other good luck plants, such as the pachira and narcissus bulbs, are easy to grow and make unique holiday gifts. They're inexpensive too, selling at $2 and up.

Merchants are known to burn fragrant incense beside their lucky Buddha shrines in hopes of a prosperous business day. The scent wafts in the air as these vendors exchange Asian-themed goods, including statuettes of dragons, token-spitting frogs and spiritual icons, for dollars.

Vietnam has been long known for its orchid farms, textile industry, artisan ceramics and lacquer artwork. It's no surprise, then, that Little Saigon is an ideal place to buy blossoming orchids, fine silks, exquisite vases and traditional Vietnamese artwork. Most items you can purchase for less than $75.

Fervent shopping at the Asian Garden Mall may effectively distract shoppers from the awful dance-music mixes that blare in the background. The regulars appear to tune out the noise just fine.

Most retailers speak English. Those who don't are quite accommodating, even if it requires rudimentary sign language or the occasional pointing. Besides the possible language barrier, some stores are cash-only and do not accept credit cards or checks.

Store clerks at the indoor Asian Garden Mall showcase products that include Guess, Tommy Hilfiger and Polo. The second floor houses a jewelry mart. Shop owners adorn their windows with sparkling 24-karat gold and jades in an assortment of hues that are priced at $40 and up.

Across the street, the Asian Village offers 99 Ranch Market, a popular Asian food grocer that is the largest and most distinctive business in the center. Businesses adjacent to the supermarket are a grab bag of sorts.

The specialty shop Phap Quang warrants a nickname to the effect of "electric lotus land." In this tiny store, Buddhas have neon auras. Plug-in candles and lotus-shaped lamps illuminate the room.

"Most of the items we sell in the store are spiritual symbols," said Dieu Ly, a saleswoman behind the counter. Sure enough, images of gods made of wood, plastic and stone are crammed into every nook and cranny in the store. Three-foot marble and stone statues of dragons for sale make impressive additions to gardens or entrances to the home. The store also sells coiled incense, meditative music on tape and compact discs and embroidered paintings.

What's shopping without a few indulgences, namely the mouth-watering traditional Vietnamese dishes you can sample at restaurants and the scores of bakeries and fast-food venues in the district? A caffeine jolt of iced coffee or a fresh-squeezed exotic fruit shake is just the thing to energize any shopper for another round of bargain hunting.

The Route

Start at Bolsa Avenue at Magnolia Street, walking east. Cross at Brookhurst Street and head back up Bolsa. The total loop could take about three hours to browse and at least eight hours to truly shop and explore.

A sampling of some stores:

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