Flower Festival is abloom with Vietnamese culture

They call it Little Saigon because it's a small re-creation of the real thing.

And perhaps nowhere is there more concentration of Vietnamese culture than the Asian Garden Mall in Westminster, which is celebrating the Flower Festival until Jan. 26 in the run-up to Tet.

The festivities are one reason parking is impossible: People love their festivals.

The camaraderie, food, shopping and bargaining combine to bring authenticity to an otherwise barren suburbia.

The Asian Garden Mall, at 9200 Bolsa Ave, is the "largest majority Vietnamese owned and operated shopping center in America," according to its website.

And it shows. It's not just the quantity of stores, but the undeniable feeling of legitimacy. Of course nearly every sign is in Vietnamese, but there's more to it.

Old men sit at "outside" cafes people-watching. The cafes themselves are inside the mall but designed as if they're street-side.

It seems as though the men have been there all day, sipping on cà phê sữa đá, or Vietnamese iced coffee. While it might not be Trieu Viet Vuong, or the famous coffee street of Hanoi, the vibe is certainly there.

Meanwhile, there is bustling, colorful activity everywhere.

Mothers run after smiling children. Boys throw poppers at each other in preparation for the Vietnamese lunar new year.

Teen girls take video selfies, primping their hair this way and that.

The point is families are actually out together doing something other than watching Netflix.

Most speak Vietnamese to each other, but the young children are more prone to English.

There's also the occasional worn-out dad who walks ahead several meters, stops, turns and says, "Honey, let's go."

He's holding orchids, bags of toys and the well-worn look of a shopped-out dad.

After all, the main attraction right now is the Flower Festival. More than 30 vendors sell fresh flowers such as orchids, mums and gladiolus. Also available are plants, fruits and traditional lunar new year gifts.

During other times of the year, the mall holds special activities, including the popular summer night market. It's essentially a backyard food court party.

A very good food court party, I might add.

Though the Flower Festival is busy, the night market is elbow to elbow, with everyone devouring food or dancing or both.

You never know what's going to come off the grills. It could be thịt nướng, snails, giant prawns, bột chiên or bánh tráng.

With raw oysters and unidentifiable meat sitting out in the open, sometimes you just have to point, nod and hope for the best.

You wanted Little Saigon.

There are $8 lobster tails, curry cakes with shrimp, coconut waffles and green sauce on everything.

And while you're eating, you post photos on social media with inflated swagger, even though you can't pronounce anything you're eating.

You imagine yourself in Ho Chi Minh City, maybe riding a scooter with a Non La, or conical hat.

Back in Little Saigon at the mall, there is none of this affectation. There's no need.

The smells and sounds are real.

The exquisite flowers that took years to grow are real.

The exotic dragon fruit and odd Buddha's hand fruit are real.

Unlike other malls that are filled with fancy, hollow baubles, this mall has gritty character — inexplicable, unflappable character.

Be warned, however: You might not want to leave.

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DAVID HANSEN is a writer and Laguna Beach resident. He can be reached at hansen.dave@gmail.com.

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