Of all the places in the world, why did Larry Agran have to choose Vietnam?
That's what local Vietnamese Americans wondered after learning that the longtime Irvine councilman hoped to forge a relationship between the master-planned community and Nha Trang, a southern coastal city in Vietnam known for its beaches and scuba diving.
To many who fled the country after it fell to communist forces, Agran's proposal seemed designed to cause hurt, and hundreds indicated they planned to confront Agran on Tuesday, when he was expected to propose that Irvine and Nha Trang form a "friendship city" relationship.
But in the face of the growing uproar, Agran withdrew his plan.
Irvine is nearly 40% Asian — with large Chinese and Vietnamese populations — and is only miles from Little Saigon, the nation's largest Vietnamese American community and a place where anti-communist sentiment still runs deep. The flag of South Vietnam is ubiquitous in the immigrant community, fluttering from government flagpoles, carried proudly in community parades and waved by politicians seeking votes.
"I don't think he understands our sentiments and emotional scars," said John Duong, who lives in Irvine and heads the city's Finance Commission. "Why bring back painful memories for people who value freedom?"
Duong said he was "floored" that a veteran politician like Agran would make such a proposal.
Nha Trang is one of three cities Agran wants to join Irvine in a friendship city agreement, said Craig Reem, Irvine's spokesman. The others are Karachi, Pakistan, and Baoji, China. Agran said he would move forward with his plan to establish relationships with Karachi and Baoji.
When Van Tran, former state assemblyman from central Orange County, first heard of Agran's plan, he immediately texted Mayor Steven Choi for information, thinking to himself: "Definitely the Vietnamese community inside and outside Irvine will be up in arms about this."
Tran, who fled Vietnam as a 10-year-old just days before the fall of Saigon, said he has fond childhood memories of Nha Trang.
"It is now a place that oppresses its citizens, like elsewhere in Vietnam," said Tran, who helped launch an online petition to dissuade Irvine from going forward with the plan. More than 1,000 people have signed it.
A friendship city is a variation of — or even a step toward — a sister city relationship, which is defined as a "long-term, cooperative relationship between two cities in different countries through which cultural, educational, business and technical exchanges take place," according to Sister Cities International.