Lan Nguyen had dreamed of owning a house since she immigrated to Southern California from Vietnam 11 years ago. But she and her husband could never scrounge up enough money for a down payment, spending most of their paychecks on rent for a cramped Garden Grove apartment.
Now, Nguyen has moved to a suburb of this Gulf Coast city, where the 28-year-old owns a new four-bedroom house with a spacious game room and access to a pool with a water slide -- all for $200,000.
Nguyen is one of many Vietnamese Americans from California who have flocked to Houston, lured by cheap real estate, a lower cost of living, bountiful business opportunities and a thriving, growing Vietnamese community.
Houston offers a slice of the American Dream to Vietnamese Americans who couldn't find it in California.
In San Jose and Orange County, home to the country's largest Vietnamese enclaves, skyrocketing rents and staggering housing prices -- even in a down market -- have become too much for some.
"At first, we thought California is the best," Nguyen said. "It's sad to move from a place we know so well. But here we own a beautiful house and are very comfortable."
Vietnamese business owners from California have followed, expanding or moving their operations to take advantage of the burgeoning community and the lack of heavy competition that defines the teeming streets of Orange County's Little Saigon.
The Vietnamese American migration to Houston is a typical California story, particularly in immigrant communities where residents found their first footing in the Golden State but left for places where the cost of living was lower and the opportunities more abundant.
The exodus of Vietnamese Americans is part of a larger shift in California: As the economy weakens, more people are leaving. An annual study by the state Department of Finance released Wednesday showed that 89,000 more people moved out of California than moved in from elsewhere in the U.S. in fiscal 2007.
Houston's Vietnamese community, now the third largest in the nation, numbered about 85,000 in 2006 -- up a third in just six years, according to U.S. Census figures.
Community leaders and real estate agents in Houston say they started seeing an upswing in Vietnamese Americans from California five years ago, driven mostly by the city's cheaper housing. Although Hurricane Katrina brought in displaced Vietnamese Americans from Louisiana, residents say the California migration is much larger.
As people have flocked in, Houston businesses have capitalized, reaching out to Vietnamese Americans in California. Real estate agents have advertised houses in California's Vietnamese newspapers. Developers have tried to persuade businesses to expand to Houston. And talk shows on Radio Saigon Houston have spread the word of the booming community in simulcast shows picked up on California stations.
Houston is no longer the Vietnamese community's "best-kept secret," said Thuy Thanh Vu, the radio station's co-owner.
Houston's housing tale is remarkable. Real estate agents boast of clients who sell their California homes, pay for new ones in Houston at a third of the price and have enough left to invest.
Consider Thien Pham of the Vietnamese American Real Estate Assn., who has a client who he said put his million-dollar California house on the market and bought seven houses in Houston, each for $170,000 to $200,000.
Or Vincent Ho, 36, who sold his El Monte house for $600,000 and bought a place three times as large. He paid cash for the $175,000 home and used the rest to expand his Orange County-based business to Houston.
"SAVE $5,000 when you buy a house GUARANTEED," says a quarter-page advertisement in Nguoi Viet, the largest Vietnamese newspaper in Little Saigon. Clients who call meet Julie Vo of Houston Realty Center.
Five years ago, Vo was lucky to get more than a few calls from out-of-state buyers. Now they represent half her company's clients.
Most are second-generation Vietnamese Americans from California, often younger families or empty-nesters looking for affordable retirement. The flight of young families from places such as Orange County is worrisome to some -- underscoring long-running concerns that young families someday will abandon Little Saigon.
The median price for a single-family home in the Houston area is $145,390, according to the Houston Assn. of Realtors. In contrast, Westminster's median housing price is $520,000 and Garden Grove's is $475,000, according to DataQuick Information Services. In San Jose, it's $640,000.
"For what you pay for your mortgage in Houston, you can only afford a rat's hole in California," Vo tells clients.
Vo makes sure to put Houston's best face forward. She picks up prospective California clients from the airport and puts them up in hotels -- free of charge -- for a few nights. She drives clients around the Vietnamese areas, stopping at restaurants she's sure will impress them.
Like thousands of Vietnamese immigrants, Nguyen came to Orange County first, following the refugees who fled Vietnam after the 1975 fall of Saigon, and built a thriving enclave in Westminster, not far from the Camp Pendleton Marine Corps base where many were introduced to the U.S. at the end of the Vietnam War.
In contrast, the first Vietnamese in Texas were fishermen and shrimpers who were able to resume the lives they'd left behind in Vietnam. Settled near the Gulf of Mexico, they found manufacturing and retail jobs and humid weather that reminded them of home.
Since then, Vietnamese businesses have sprouted in pockets throughout Houston, with most concentrated on a four-mile stretch of Bellaire Boulevard in the city's southwest area. The thoroughfare has striking similarities to Bolsa Avenue, Little Saigon's main drag.
There are Vietnamese supermarkets, large Catholic Vietnamese churches, Buddhist temples and restaurants hawking bowls of noodles that to visitors taste as good as those served in Little Saigon's pho houses. There are Vietnamese-speaking doctors, lawyers and real estate agents. Even the hottest Vietnamese pop stars stop in Houston.
Some Vietnamese-owned businesses from California see Houston's thriving enclave as an untapped market and have expanded their businesses.
Lee's Sandwiches, a chain of shops based in California, has opened up two stores in southwest Houston in the last two years.
Vincent Ho's business, which does 3-D renderings of store interiors, was doing well in Little Saigon. But Ho saw many open fields in Houston, which he believes will one day be home to new stores. Plus, the rent for opening a warehouse in Houston is about a third cheaper than in California.
Vietnamese American investors also are pumping millions of dollars into the area, which still has plenty of open space to build shopping complexes and housing subdivisions.
Developer Luu Trankiem is planning to open the New Saigon Shopping Plaza next year, a high-end center on 32 acres near Bellaire Boulevard. The plaza's seven high-rise buildings come at a price of about $300 million.
"You cannot afford to build something like this in California," he said, estimating it would cost three times as much in Southern California.
Trankiem's home development company, GBI Group LLC, expanded from Irvine to Houston two years ago. The company's other Houston projects include hundreds of homes in the area catering to Vietnamese Americans.
The company is building in anticipation of the Vietnamese community's growing -- mostly with people relocating from out of state.
Trankiem said he saw more opportunities for new businesses in Houston than in Little Saigon, which is congested with thousands of nail salons, restaurants and mom-and-pop shops in fierce competition.
"Houston is the last frontier for investment in the Asian community in the United States," Trankiem said.
Beyond Vietnamese-run business, prospective stores for the plaza also include Ann Taylor and Starbucks, mainstream shops that Little Saigon developers would have trouble luring to its worn-out strip malls.
Houston's Vietnamese enclave also benefits from its diversity. It's next to a long strip of Chinese businesses. Korean, Latino and Pakistani stores also pepper the area. In contrast, Little Saigon caters mostly to Vietnamese Americans.
Trankiem believes Houston's Vietnamese enclave could one day be the bigger, better, higher-end sister to Little Saigon.
Even so, Houston has its challenges. The oppressive humidity forces many to stay indoors during the summer, and some people who have bought homes for investment purposes have had trouble finding renters.
But those who have made the move have found the American Dream at near-bargain rates.
Nguyen's parents, who still rent in California, plan to move to Houston when they retire.
And she's thinking about opening an insurance business. She never thought that was a possibility in Little Saigon, where renting office space is expensive and there are too many competitors.
"Over in California, you're just average people," Nguyen said. "But here, you become upper middle class. You have more money than people over here. You can buy houses and do business."