For years, people stumbling into Little Saigon knew they were in the heart of Orange County's Vietnamese community only when they noticed restaurant signs advertising pho noodles or caught snippets of conversations in Vietnamese.
Now, community leaders hope the place will be hard to miss: Plans are to build two ornate archways at the entrances of the bustling ethnic business district centered around Bolsa Avenue in Westminster.
City officials say the archways -- conceived to replace earlier concepts deemed "too Chinese" -- will be the first step in transforming Little Saigon into a tourist destination. While the area attracts more than 33,000 cars a day, its restaurants and businesses cater mostly to the community, which has struggled to reel in customers from outside.
"The archways will put Little Saigon on the map," said Councilman Andy Quach, who is spearheading the project. "People will want to go to Little Saigon to look at the art display and take pictures of it."
The Little Saigon Business Development group will soon begin raising funds for the archways, which will cost $500,000 each.
The gates, to span Bolsa Avenue at Magnolia and Ward streets, were approved by the Westminster City Council last year.
The project has attracted the attention of Vietnamese Americans across the country, Quach said.
Virginia's Vietnamese community will host a dinner fundraiser in Falls Church in December. Other fundraisers are scheduled for Sydney, Australia, and possibly Hawaii, according to Quach.
"This is not a regional project," he said. "Vietnamese people across the country visit Little Saigon often, and they see this archway as something that is close and dear to part of their lives."
The 26-foot-tall archways will show the journey of Vietnamese Americans since the Vietnam War, said Hong Nguyen, president of H & L Architects Inc., which designed them.
The images carved into the cast iron depict a helicopter atop the U.S. Embassy in Vietnam, rickety boats in which hundreds of thousands of Vietnamese escaped, the refugee camps they came to and the Statue of Liberty, symbolizing "the love of freedom of the Vietnamese people," Nguyen said.
The last image is of Vietnamese Americans wearing graduation hats.
"This archway is more than a symbol of tourism," said Roxanne Chow, a Westminster planning commissioner involved in the project. "It's a project that is dedicated for the millions of people who sacrificed their lives for freedom."
In the last three decades, community leaders have worked to distinguish Little Saigon as thousands of Vietnamese restaurants and shops popped up in the 3-square-mile segment of Westminster and Garden Grove.
An earlier plan for an elaborate bridge across Bolsa Avenue, however, came under fire in the Vietnamese community for being "too Chinese" with its design of dragons and a green-tiled pagoda.
That idea, put forth in 1996 by developer Frank Jao, was eventually dropped.
Now the Vietnamese American community will finally have a landmark in Little Saigon that is truly dedicated to its homeland, Quach said.