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To Fans, O.C.'s Little Saigon Is Too Little Known

People familiar with it marvel at what it has to offer -- and at how few visitors come to explore.

June 14, 2004|Joel Rubin | Times Staff Writer

Sure, people know about Little Saigon -- home to the world's largest Vietnamese population outside Vietnam. They've heard about it, read about it and probably have driven past freeway signs announcing the area.

But they don't usually stop.

Few outsiders do.

"It's intimidating to people," said Kathy Buchoz, a former Westminster mayor who now works for the realty firm responsible for developing much of Little Saigon. "They don't understand the place. I hear it all the time.... But this place is amazing! You can go to another country without ever getting on a plane."

The district began in the mid-1970s as a scattering of businesses on Bolsa Avenue in Westminster as the first wave of South Vietnamese exiles arrived in search of new lives after the Vietnam War.

"I remember the first little restaurant that opened," Buchoz said. "Friends were asking me, 'What language is that? Korean? Japanese?' We were all so ignorant of the Vietnamese culture."

Nearly 30 years later, Little Saigon has become a self-contained world inside Orange County. U.S. Census data from 2000 show that nearly 40% of Westminster's 90,000 people are of Vietnamese ancestry, a figure Buchoz thinks is low.

Although once restricted to Bolsa Avenue, businesses have expanded into more than 1,500 Vietnamese-owned enterprises in Westminster and Garden Grove, and to a lesser extent in Fountain Valley and Santa Ana.

"Little Saigon isn't so little anymore," Buchoz said as she waited at a crosswalk for two elderly Vietnamese women in traditional conical hats to pass. "It's Big Saigon now."

Yet few from outside Little Saigon's expanding borders ever come to explore what it has to offer.

Even as the area grows, Bolsa Avenue remains its heart. Locals call the main thoroughfare "the Dragon," which rears its head at the intersection of Bolsa and Magnolia Street and uncoils east to Ward Street. For the Vietnamese, the mile and a half in between is filled with life-as-normal sights, sounds and smells. For the stranger, it's a tour through the extraordinary.

A gentle, monotone recording in Vietnamese of religious chanting fills the small sanctuary of Phap Quang -- considered one of Little Saigon's best shops for all things Buddhist. Shelves brim with hundreds of statues of Compassionate Buddha, Reclining Buddha and Happy Buddha. Don Huynh is quick to explain that the rotated swastikas on the chest of many Buddhas are, in fact, an ancient, holy birthmark signifying completeness, and that the Nazis perverted the symbol.

One wall is stacked with religious texts -- predominantly in Vietnamese, but some in English -- while another is filled with tapes of Buddhist sermons and lectures with such titles as "A Path to True Happiness." In keeping with the Buddhist tenets of selflessness, Huynh said, the tapes are free to those who cannot afford them.

Most of Huynh's customers are monks and nuns from area temples and homeowners with private shrines. Occasionally, however, a tourist walks in, often looking to buy a tubby, Happy Buddha statue.

For those who lean toward Confucius' philosophical teachings, a visit to the back of the Asian Village parking lot, behind the A Dong Supermarket, might be in order. There, in the shadow of the market's loading dock, is a towering statue of the ancient Chinese thinker surrounded by his 72 disciples.

Across Bolsa Avenue, in the modern Asian Garden Mall, Hai Trieu's herbal medicine store is nestled next to the bright lights of a music store selling the latest in Vietnamese pop.

Jars full of dried seahorses are prescribed for bad backs, chrysanthemums for weakened lungs, ginseng for low energy and cinnamon bark for stomach problems.

In the back of the narrow store, a doctor licensed in Eastern medicine and acupuncture takes the pulse of a customer.

The second floor of the mall is dedicated entirely to what Buchoz says is one of the largest jewelry markets in the country. Scores of vendors stand behind display cases gleaming with 24-carat gold, jade, diamonds and pearls. In workrooms in the back, jewelers fire up small blowtorches as they work on delicate, custom designs through magnifying glasses.

Jewels, herbs and inner peace aside, Little Saigon is best known for its scores of restaurants and markets.

At the bustling A Dong Supermarket, old women in search of that night's dinner inspect the enormous catfish flown in from Louisiana and the bubbling tanks filled with crabs.

Down the street, in the backroom at Hao Vi BBQ, a stern-looking man armed with an electric saw prepares whole pigs for cooking. Out front, sides of meat hang in the oven next to steaming trays of chicken feet and something labeled "pork variety."

If there is a Vietnamese equivalent to the popularity of the hamburger, it is pho -- rare beef and noodle soup. Each day as lunch approaches, restaurants fill with hungry businesspeople in search of the hot, delicious broth.

Buchoz says she dreams of a visitors center and the day when people will visit the streets, on which she is now often the only non-Vietnamese walking.

"I can't tell you how many times I have brought someone here and they've said, 'I drive by every day and had no idea this was here.' "

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