If you have been bitten by the unmistakable Vietnam blues, once in a while you can go for a quick fix without having to cross the Pacific Ocean. I had heard about "Little Saigon" a long time ago, while we had met some Vietnamese expats at a train station, and talked about their life as American citizens. Many of the Vietnamese residents consist of the families of former soldiers of the Army of the Republic of Vietnam. At the time, I could not understand why they would not want to return to their native country, as things have certainly stabilized.
Should you find yourself in the Los Angeles area, you can indulge your fantasies by visiting "Little Saigon". It will appear on any area map, - just look for Bolsa Street. 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.
Westminster's residents have managed to recreate a slice of Vietnamese life, but the charm of the 'street life' is missing. Instead, there are wide boulevards, strip malls, and the latest model luxury cars in the parking lots.
Those of you that made it to the real Saigon or HCMC, most likely had a taste of the Cho Ben Thanh, where you can literally lose yourself in the narrow aisles the entire day. It's also a name, like so many others, that stay imprinted in your gray matter, so that when you see it jumping in front of your eyes in a strange setting, you are forced to pay attention. See what I mean below:
OK, let's say this was the mini version...but all the familiar names are alive and well in this area of Los Angeles. A typical billboard may look like this:
Nha Trang? They could have at least imported some sand from the beaches...It is totally impossible to be in this area, and not eat. And if you really crave banh mi, stop at Lee's Sandwiches. You can't miss it, as it occupies a corner spot, is quite large, and displays a mouthwatering poster of Ca Fe Sua Da. There was an old woman sitting outside the shop on the sidewalk who absolutely refused to be photographed.
Lee's Sandwiches also has a franchise store inside a huge mall, to which I will take you later on. Naturally, there are pho shops on nearly every corner, and on a hot July day, it may not be the dish of choice.
What's missing in this picture? Why bicycles and motorcycles of course, and a couple of cyclos on the side.
You never have to long again for that heavenly Vietnamese coffee. They will prepare it for you, and if that's not enough, it's available for sale, with the authentic French filter machine and all.
Behind the A Dong Market, another haven of shops and outdoors cafes which is part of the Asian Village Center, is a statue garden depicting Confucius and his disciples, designed by influential Little Saigon developer Frank Jao. Have a look at the garden, which includes a small shrine where offerings are made. Grey statues depict dragons and other animals.
Side view of the A Dong Market
Frank Jao also developed the Asian Garden Mall that lies across the street from the Asian Village Center, which opened in 1987. Jao is an ethnic Chinese born in Haiphong, Vietnam. There is a mural of the heroic Trung Sisters on the side walls, of which I caught a couple of photos before I knew what it represented.