Last weekend, Rory and I were down in Southern California visiting our families. After a big lunch at my parents’ house on Saturday, we headed up to the grand daddy of Little Saigons in Westminster. We went with my sisters Yenchi and Tasha (they went with me to Saigon last year), Yenchi’s daughter Paulina, and we met up with an old family friend, Loan, whose family were our next door neighbors when we lived in Saigon. Loan brought along her niece, 9-year-old Kelalani. I hadn’t seen Loan in years and Lanchi is heading off to start her freshman year at Yale in August, so we all figured it would be a nice reunion/send off to goof around in “Bolsa” – the Vietnamese-American insiders’ term for Little Saigon. The main drag is Bolsa Avenue, hence the nickname. Loan’s family still lives in Little Saigon and there won’t be anything like Little Saigon in New Haven for Paulina!
What was supposed to be a short walk around turned into 4 hours of aimless wandering, shopping, and eating. My day-to-day life is packed with overly productive to-do lists, but that unstructured afternoon was a welcomed reminder of the pleasures of doing little. It was a nice vacation of sorts. Certain situations felt just like being in Saigon itself while others awakened me to the realities of being in America. Here are a few things I observed:
Same Name but Not the Same
Vietnamese immigrants to America often borrow the names of famous businesses in Vietnam as a way to signal authenticity. In Little Saigon, for example, you’ll see a Ben Thanh Market (9172 Bolsa, near Moran) but it’s nothing like the touristy but historic market in Saigon. In fact, it’s rather derelict seeming and unkempt, as if you’re in a poorly developed part of Vietnam. However, the market specializes in a few hard-to-find Vietnamese foods, particularly offal and coagulated blood (tiet canh) so business is steady and brisk. Loan said that their takeout counter has the best Vietnamese blood sausage around. At the real Ben Thanh Market, you go nowadays to buy fabric and eat at their hygienic food court.
Little Saigon is located inland off the 405 freeway (exit at Brookhurst and go east) and it’s flat and hot – like real Saigon. If you’re not under the shade, the sun can be blazing. All the asphalt and cement of the strip malls lining Little Saigon makes everything broil. To beat the heat, a few old-schoolers wear conical hats, while the rest of us depend on sunscreen.
I can be a bad jaywalker and when I went to step off the sidewalk, Loan screamed, “Hey, come back here. Little Saigon drivers drive carelessly, making illegal turns in the middle of Bolsa all the time. Why do you think they built these fancy center dividers?” Just like in real Saigon, you have to cross the street with care. Going as a group helps, and there were seven of us. Lanchi and I nearly got creamed by a Vietnamese lady tearing into a parking lot in her racy red Honda.
On weekend afternoons, food vendors are out in force selling their wares. One woman near Ben Thanh market had sticky rice dumplings wrapped in banana leaves. At the ABC Market (Bolsa and Magnolia) the action was fierce. Little old women dressed in traditional countryside garb offered beautiful lemongrass, chiles, herbs and leafy greens that they grew. The fruit sellers down the way attracted us with their fragrant displays of mangos, jackfruit, and mangosteen. “Hello, dear sister,” the women yelled to us in Vietnamese, “We have delicious jackfruit today. Let me help you choose some!” The jackfruit was sold whole, in pre-cut sections, and on Styrofoam trays. The afternoon heat made things smell like a street corner fruit market in Saigon. A few feet away, a Latino man plied pineapple and rainier cherries. He called out, “Nam dong! Nam dong,” which means $5 Vietnamese, to potential customers walking by. You wouldn’t find Vietnamese-speaking Latino street hawkers in the Motherland.
All Day Snacking
Just as if we were in Vietnam, our whole group descended upon Loan’s aunt’s restaurant, Photastic for a mega munch session. You’d think that we’d all still be full from lunch and the fresh squeezed sugar cane juice we’d quaffed at Banh Mi Che Cali deli/baker near ABC Market. But somehow, we made room for two types of banh mi sandwiches, goi cuon rice paper rolls, fried cha gio imperial rolls, and a generous selection of Vietnamese sweets and French-inspired pastries. All the food (including the baguette) is made on the premises and crafted with care. Photastic is located in a former Burger King space on Brookhurst (near Garfield). At first we all stared at the banh mi. Nobody wanted to be the first to attack the food but soon enough, we were noshing, talking, and making a mess of the over loaded table. Two hours passed by before we knew it, and the only reason we left was because we’d gotten durian ice cream to go and we had to get it home before it melted.
Everyone knows that Bolsa is not really Saigon, but for Vietnamese-Americans, it gives us a strong sense of home for a brief moment. For those who weren’t born in Vietnam, Little Saigon offers a slice of life there.
If you’ve ever been or live nearby, what have your experiences been like?