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The heart of Little Saigon beats strong

October 23, 2005|Merrill Balassone | Times Staff Writer

Old men sit under shaded tables, speaking animatedly in Vietnamese. Statues adorn Westminster's Asian Garden Mall, where earthy smells waft from herb shops and young customers peruse designer goods. Here on Bolsa Avenue is the center of the exiled Vietnamese community known as Little Saigon.


When Saigon fell in April 1975, more than 120,000 Vietnamese refugees fled to the United States. They were dispersed among four centers in the U.S., including Camp Pendleton, then resettled by churches and volunteer organizations nearby.

Continued instability in Vietnam brought a second wave of refugees known as "boat people," many of whom were ex-soldiers, intellectuals and teachers who had been sent to re-education camps because of their association with the South Vietnamese army or government. More than 1 million boat people escaped Vietnam during the late 1970s through the '80s, many by attempting dangerous crossings by land and sea to countries such as Thailand or the Philippines, then waiting for admittance to the United States.

After the passage of the Amerasian Homecoming Act and the approval of the Humanitarian Operation Program in the late 1980s, Amerasian children and political prisoners were allowed to immigrate to the U.S. with their families. Many Vietnamese who initially settled in other places eventually found their way to Orange County because of its established refugee community, warm climate and economic opportunities.

On the map

The borders of Little Saigon stretch from Trask to McFadden avenues and from Magnolia to Euclid streets. About three-quarters of the population is Vietnamese, with smaller numbers of white, Latino, Chinese and Cambodian residents.

What's it like?

On a recent Sunday afternoon, shoppers fight for parking spots at the A Dong Market, then emerge with large bags of fresh vegetables and herbs, heavy sacks of rice and armfuls of Vietnamese-language newspapers. There are three daily papers and more than 40 weekly and monthly publications available in the area.

Across the street at the Asian Garden Mall, large families bend over steaming bowls of pho, Vietnamese noodle soup served with piles of mint and bean sprouts. Nearby, crowds line up against the strip-mall railings to gain entry to Dragon Phoenix Palace for dim sum.

Behind the A Dong Market is a statue garden depicting Confucius and his disciples, designed by influential Little Saigon developer Frank Jao. The garden and a shrine lead to the small gate of a new housing development containing neat two-story tract homes, where residents pay a premium to live within walking distance of all the action.

Historical values

Residential resales:

Year...Median Price






*Year to date

Housing stock

Much of the housing in Little Saigon is detached single-family stucco ranch houses built in the 1960s and '70s, averaging 1,200 to 1,500 square feet. There is a smattering of apartment and townhouse projects and a few mobile-home parks. Few homes are for sale in Little Saigon because owners prefer enlarging their homes to moving. It was commonplace for families to pool their resources to buy a home when they first settled, said Le Vu, publisher of the Viet Weekly. As families became more financially successful, they expanded their homes, sometimes to rent out rooms for extra income.

Younger people want their own houses in Garden Grove or Fountain Valley, said real estate agent Calvin Le. Empty nests have created a need for senior citizen housing, and the first complex geared toward Vietnamese Americans 55 and older is to be completed in 2007.

Insider's view

Jao, whose firm, Bridgecreek Development Co., claims it developed at least one-third of Little Saigon, said that getting business owners to spiff up their storefronts and display their merchandise more attractively to keep younger shoppers coming back was once a struggle.

"Five years ago, it was like pulling teeth out of their mouth," he said. "Now the shops are being run by younger generations of the original families, and they've improved the ambience of the stores."

Though many of the first-wave refugees had been educated well in Vietnam, their survival in America was difficult because of the language barrier and being in an unfamiliar culture. Unable to continue to practice in the fields in which they were educated, many immigrants turned to opening small businesses. Still proud, they found personal honor in emblazoning their family names on store windows for all passersby to see. It took a city mandate for signs to list a shop's products or services in addition to the shopkeeper's name.

More than a decade ago, academics and economists predicted that Little Saigon would follow the decline of Little Tokyo and Chinatown, Jao said. Instead, the economy and neighborhood have grown. Although many young people shop at South Coast Plaza for Western goods, they still feel a draw to Little Saigon.

"I come up here for a certain atmosphere and culture, where everybody knows each other," said 34-year-old Benny Tran of Fountain Valley. "Westminster is my parents' city, but it's where all the commotion happens. I tend to just go to the Vons now to shop, but having both worlds is great."

Report card

Little Saigon is part of the Garden Grove School District. Students attend Susan B. Anthony Elementary, which scored 794 out of a possible 1,000 points on the 2004 API, and Morningside Elementary (with a score of 762), John A. Murdy Elementary (793); and Post Elementary (780).

Sarah McGarvin Intermediate School scored 808, and Bolsa Grande High, 703.

Sources: DataQuick Information Systems; Garden Grove Unified School District; Nam Q. Ha, Rice University history department; Bridgecreek property manager Kathy Buchoz

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