A Flowering Little Saigon : Influx of Vietnamese in East S.D. Has Revitalized the Area


Trang Dang came to San Diego five years ago, following the lead of her husband, brother and sister, who settled in Southern California after fleeing the communist government in Vietnam.

With the help of her relatives, Dang started Pho Bolsa restaurant three years ago at University Avenue and 41st Street in the Mid City Plaza, a crowded mini-mall catering to Vietnamese tastes.

The restaurant, named for the main street in Orange County’s bustling Little Saigon, is the second noodle shop opened by Dang’s family. (The first is in Westminster.)

Dang’s venture is among 164 Vietnamese shops to spring up in the past decade along the once destitute 1 1/2-mile corridor bordered by University Avenue and El Cajon Boulevard in East San Diego, as entrepreneurs who fled Vietnam for the safety of the United States build their own version of Little Saigon in San Diego County.


As with the original Little Saigon, they have transformed a commercially lackluster, trouble-ridden area into a viable business strip.

Grocery stores with signs in Vietnamese, English and Chinese advertise an array of Asian foods in their windows, and customers, including Asians, blacks and Latinos, bring their children to shop for fresh meats, fish and vegetables, as well more esoteric items such as ginseng juice.

A coin-operated laundry is a hangout for Vietnamese teen-agers playing the three video games there and caters to the neighbors in the area, many of them blacks and Latinos.

At a local pool hall, young Vietnamese men smoke cigarettes (the preferred brand is 555 International) and chat in their native dialect, forgoing the more traditional games of eight-ball or straight pool and opting instead for billiards. Sometimes it’s a gambling game, with stakes as high as $3,000.


Offices of Vietnamese doctors and insurance agents also dot the streets, testaments to the community’s recent departure from businesses stereotypically allocated to Vietnamese.

“It’s pretty obvious that they are the dynamic business force in that whole area,” said Jim Lobue, a community development specialist for the city of San Diego.

“Particularly on University Avenue, there have been a couple of new shopping centers opened in the last five or 10 years now that seem to be leased exclusively to Indochinese businesses, and those businesses are flourishing when others in that area are not doing as well,” Lobue said.

The result has been a conversion of the once run-down area into a moderately prosperous neighborhood.


“It’s definitely increased the housing values, and there isn’t anymore panhandling,” said John Nelson, a retiree who has lived in the area since 1974. “In the last two years, the way I see it, the neighborhood has gone up tremendously.”

The area, containing mostly apartment units with single-family homes sprinkled among them, now exhibits clean but crowded streets. Teen-agers of all colors play football in the streets where neighbors claim they once had to kick the prostitutes out every morning.

Although the neighborhood is ethnically mixed, the Vietnamese tend to stay among themselves, residents say, preferring to patronize their own coffee shops and restaurants.

“It’s a case of them staying to themselves. They have their own groups and hangouts and we have ours,” said Richard Stanley, a resident of Marlborough Street south of University.


Dang’s store sits a block away from Nelson’s house on land that was once a vacant lot. Across the street is City Heights Plaza, another mini-mall inhabited mostly by Vietnamese businesses.

The Indochinese Chamber of Commerce on University Avenue estimates there are 350 Vietnamese-owned and -operated businesses in San Diego--from doctors, lawyers and dentists to groceries, restaurants and billiard halls.

The boon began in 1980, with the number of Vietnamese-owned businesses almost doubling every year until 1985, said Pham Xuan Thang of the Indochinese Chamber of Commerce.

Growth has slowed since then, but the numbers still rise by 20% to 30% a year, Thang said. The only business that does not have a representative from the Vietnamese community is banking.


But, while the shops in the neighborhood are chiefly Asian, their clientele is not.

“We have all kinds of customers who come in here: Americans, Chinese, as well as Vietnamese,” said Dang, 36, who said her training in French while in Vietnam helped her pick up English quickly.

The relatively small Vietnamese population in San Diego makes catering to a mixture of customers imperative to success.

Estimates of San Diego’s Vietnamese population range from 20,000 to 60,000, with social service workers in the community putting it at about 30,000. That’s significantly smaller than the Vietnamese populations in neighboring counties to the north.


Many Vietnamese come to the East San Diego area for its relatively low rent, while others, after achieving economic stability, move from the area to Linda Vista, Mira Mesa and Rancho Penasquitos. But their businesses remain in the area.

Thang, who has owned a garage on El Cajon Boulevard for seven years, discovered long ago that he could not rely solely on the Vietnamese community.

“After three months, I realized that the number of Vietnamese people are not enough to support my garage. I decided that I had to market to the mainstream community,” said Thang, who now employs four mechanics. “We work for everyone.”

Thang, vice president of the Indochinese Chamber of Commerce of San Diego, said 95% of his customers are non-Vietnamese.


Expanding to the larger community will be the key to success for Vietnamese in San Diego in the future, he said.

“I think that the numbers of Vietnamese businesses are growing too fast. Someday, we’ll lose control like in Orange County,” he said. “When we grow too fast, we don’t have enough planning or enough time to study marketing and we don’t have enough experience to control businesses.”

Thang cites Orange County, with a Vietnamese population up to six times that of San Diego, and claims that most of the businesses there cater only to Vietnamese and other Asians, thus limiting their market and growth potential.

“I was the fifth Vietnamese to open a garage in San Diego, and now there are 43 Vietnamese garages,” Thang said, noting that even though Orange County has three to four times the number of Vietnamese people, there are only about 100 Vietnamese-owned car repair shops.


Thang fled Vietnam in 1978, leaving behind a professorship in meteorology at the University of Saigon. He escaped by boat with his wife and son, both of whom died when the boat capsized.

Thang was rescued by a passing boat and taken to Sao Paulo, Brazil, where he put his meteorological expertise to work for the Coca Cola Co., predicting the weather in order to plan for the protection of the coca crops.

In 1981, he came to the United States under the sponsorship of his two brothers and two sisters who lived in Southern California, but he found that the technology in his field had outpaced him and that he was no longer qualified to teach at the university level.

Instead, he decided to learn auto mechanics and, with the financial help of friends and relatives, opened his East San Diego garage.


The 43-year-old Thang, who has remarried and has a daughter, also operates a garage in Ocean Beach.

In his nine years in East San Diego, he has seen the area develop from boarded-up buildings and empty lots to a moderate business community, with much of the growth taking place in the past five years.

The growth of the Vietnamese immigrant population has fluctuated with the political moods of the government in Vietnam, and the political reforms taking place in Europe have spread, to a degree, to Southeast Asia.

Seven months ago, the first of about 700 former Vietnamese political prisoners were allowed to immigrate to the United States as a result of a U.S.-Vietnam accord reached after seven years of negotiations.


“Some of the former political detainees were isolated from normal society for quite some time, so they need time to adjust back into normal life,” said Son Nguyen, project director for the Indochinese Mutual Assistance Assn., an East San Diego service provider.

Amerasians, children of American soldiers and Vietnamese women who met during the Vietnam War, are also beginning to immigrate to the United States, Vietnamese leaders in San Diego said.

“Some of the Amerasians, in a sense, were alienated or discriminated against in Vietnam, and when they came here, because their English isn’t good enough, they are in between the two cultures,” Nguyen said. “The basic problem is a crisis of identity--they are half American and half Vietnamese.”

The most important factor for success among Vietnamese here is the family, said Phuc Duong of the Union of Pan Asian Communities in San Diego.


“Success depends on if they have a family being here first. The family support is very important,” Duong said. “If they came here by themselves without relatives being in this country first, it’s very difficult.

“The first group of Vietnamese that came here in 1975, most of them adapted easily. They had an educated background, and most of them had American sponsors, so it was easy for them to adapt the American culture,” Duong said.

“And at that time, Americans still welcomed refugees. Now, people are bored and tired of them.”