Of all the places in the world, why did Larry Agran have to choose Vietnam?
That's what local Vietnamese Americans wondered after learning the longtime Irvine councilman hoped to forge a relationship between the master-planned community and Nha Trang, a south 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 roll out his "friendship city" proposal.
But in the face of the growing uproar, Agran withdrew his plan, saying he was bowing to the concerns of "a good many people."
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 sentiments still run 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.
Agran said he'd hope to establish a more personal relationship with the Vietnamese city.
"In a multi-cultural city like Irvine, we like to establish these bonds," he said. "It's person-to-person, city-to-city, we steer clear of national government."
John Duong, who lives in Irvine and heads the city's Finance Commission, said he was "floored" that a veteran politician like Agran would make such a proposal.
"I don't think he understands our sentiments and emotional scars," Duong said. "Why bring back painful memories for people who value freedom?"
Nha Trang is one of three cities Agran wanted 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 will move forward with his plan to establish relationships with Karachi and Baoji.
When Van Tran, a 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. About 1,000 people had 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.