Little Saigon refers to the Vietnamese ethnic enclave in the Clarendon neighborhood of Arlington, Virginia, which served the large refugee population that immigrated after the Fall of Saigon on April 30, 1975. The neighborhood became a vibrant hub of Vietnamese commerce and social activity, and reached its peak during the late 1970s to mid 1980s. The opening of the WMATA Clarendon Metro station eventually sparked new development, resulting in higher rents, and businesses closed or relocated, notably to the nearby Eden Center. Nam Viet is the last remaining original Vietnamese business in Clarendon as of 2014.
Little Saigon Cultural Preservation Effort
In 2014, master’s degree students from Virginia Tech’s Urban Affairs and Planning Program (National Capital Region), directed by Dr. Elizabeth Morton, collected the stories of the Vietnamese community who immigrated to, shopped at, or owned businesses in Arlington’s Clarendon neighborhood when it was known as “Little Saigon.” Working with community partners, local scholars and County staff, a student team conducted oral histories, and accepted donations of photographs and other memorabilia, which have since been archived at the Arlington County Library’s Center for Local History.
Many members of the Vietnamese-American community participated in this project to share their memories and input on this culturally significant ethnic enclave. The student team recommended the creation of a historical marker or monument to commemorate Little Saigon and recognize the contributions of the Vietnamese refugees to Arlington’s heritage and business community. The original student team consisted of Judd Ullom, Carlin Tacey, Jacqueline Canales, Andrea Dono and Aaron Frank, and Ullom went on to develop a supplemental multimedia documentary tour. Additional oral histories have been conducted and catalogued, and more are welcome.
Vietnamese Immigration to Northern Virginia
Toward the end of the Vietnam War in the 1970s, immigration from Vietnam to the United States increased considerably. Before 1975, only about 15,000 Vietnamese immigrants lived in the United States. By 1980, about 245,000 Vietnamese lived in the U.S., with about 91 percent of the population arriving in the previous five years (Barringer et al. 2006).
Vietnamese immigrants fled their country in two distinct waves. The first large wave of immigration occurred in 1975 and included elites and highly educated residents who left with the Fall of Saigon (O’Connell 2003, Wood 1997). Many left in fear for their lives or were escaping imprisonment, since they had either worked for the former South Vietnamese government or supported that regime. Many refugees left on short notice with just the clothes on their backs and very little in the way of money or possessions (Bich 2014). For those able to immigrate with their money, it was often in the form of jewelry and “tael,” which were small envelopes of gold that could be sewn into clothing or packed with other belongings (Cook 2014). Many of the Vietnamese who had lived through the war and under Communist control mistrusted banks and feared the volatility of paper money; keeping money in the form of gold or jewelry was common (Cook 2014, Nguyen 2014, Workman 1993).
From the mid-1970s to the early 1990s, most refugees left Vietnam by boat. These refugees, commonly referred to as “boat people,” were generally less educated than the previous wave of immigrants who had ties to the U.S. government or were Vietnamese elites (O’Connell 2003). An estimated 800,000 people fled Vietnam by boat between 1975 and 1995, and according to the United Nations High Commission for Refugees, between 200,000 and 400,000 boat people died at sea (Vo 2006). People took small boats to international waters to find new land, or large boats, such as naval ships or oil tankers, to pick them up (Bich 2014, Nguyen, 2014).
Refugees often stopped in the Philippines and Guam before continuing their journey to refugee camps in the U.S., where they waited for sponsorship by their friends, family, or other contacts (Bich 2014, Cook 2014).
The Washington, D.C., metropolitan area was a desirable choice for Vietnamese immigrants to settle for several reasons. Many of the first-wave Vietnamese immigrants had ties to the U.S. government or the Embassy. Moreover, residing near the capital city was reminiscent of their previous residence near the Vietnamese capital city of Saigon (Do 2014, O’Connell 2003). Northern Virginia emerged as a suitable location for resettlement within the region. Embassy officials pointed refugees toward Northern Virginia (O’Connell 2003), and Arlington offered the availability of sponsors such as the Catholic Church (Dinh 2014, O’Connell 2003), as well as the availability of affordable housing (Cook 2014, Do 2014). Once the first wave of immigrants settled in Arlington, existing family and social ties established the network for future immigrants to join this population. By the end of the Vietnamese War, 15%, or 3,000, of the nation’s Vietnamese population resided in the Washington, D.C. area (O’Connell 2009), and many more joined. The most densely settled Vietnamese areas in Northern Virginia were along Wilson Boulevard and Columbia Pike, extending west towards Falls Church and Annandale.
Development of Little Saigon in Clarendon
Until the mid-1900s, Clarendon was Arlington County’s premier downtown shopping area and a bustling streetcar suburb (Ehrenhalt 2012). However, during the 1960s and 70s, competition from regional shopping malls and strip shopping centers caused downtown Clarendon to decline. Many businesses relocated, leaving behind vacant storefronts (O’Connell 2003). The historic building stock suffered from neglect and by the mid-1970s, construction of the WMATA Clarendon Metro station began to tear up the streets and sidewalks. These conditions were conducive to cheap, short-term commercial leases, which the Vietnamese refugees seized as an opportunity to open businesses and support their families. In light of the Metro construction, rent fell as low as $1.50 to $5 a square foot in some buildings (Arnett 1989, Drummond 1989), making this area relatively affordable for the recent immigrants.
The “Little Saigon” neighborhood was generally considered to mean the blocks in the immediate vicinity of Wilson Boulevard between Washington Boulevard and Highland Street.
The first Vietnamese business, the Saigon Market grocery store, was opened in 1972 by a former employee of the Vietnamese Embassy, and a second grocery store, Vietnam Center, was opened by the Vietnamese wife of a CIA employee (O’Connell 2003, Meyers from O’Connell 2003). Soon more Vietnamese people began to open shops and restaurants in Clarendon, and the area was transformed into the hub of the East Coast Vietnamese community (Wood 1997). Known to the Vietnamese customerbase as “Little Saigon,” “Wilson Boulevard,” or simply “Clarendon,” people came from as far away as North Carolina and Tennessee to find staple goods and to connect with others from Vietnam (Bich 2014, Nyugen 2014, Dinh 2014, Cook 2014). Weekends were the busiest shopping days, and the businesses were crowded with customers who made the area a weekly destination (Breyault and Goldschmidt 2014). Refugee assistance groups and churches organized trips that brought immigrants from Alexandria and elsewhere to Clarendon to shop (O’Connell 2003).
Shops opened to sell specialized goods to the Vietnamese community. Major attractions were the Vietnamese grocery stores, which sold ingredients unavailable in American markets, like fish sauce, rice paper, quail eggs, pomelo peel, star anise, canned oyster mushrooms, and egg roll wrappers, as well as delicacies like dried sharks fin (Cook 2014, Davis 1980, Woodruff 2014).
A popular drink served in the cafes was iced coffee made with sweetened condensed milk and crushed ice (Do 2014). Jewelry stores, fabric stores, and department stores soon opened to sell goods popular with Vietnamese shoppers.
The Vietnamese refugees came to the area for more than just groceries; Little Saigon emerged as the place they could receive news of Vietnam and of friends and family (Bich 2014). Many people had left Vietnam suddenly without communicating their travel plans to anyone (Bich 2014, Nguyen 2014). Several stores had bulletin boards where messages were posted by refugees who were hopeful they could learn the whereabouts of those they had lost touch with from Vietnam (Bich 2014, Nguyen 2014). Many people also used the boards to make appointments to meet people in Little Saigon (Nguyen 2014). Shipping services in the neighborhood gave immigrants the chance to send packages to Vietnam, which was difficult elsewhere (Dinh 2014). Little Saigon served as a social setting for interacting with other members of the community, with entertainment like live Vietnamese music performed in cafes (Bich 2014, Cook 2014). People would frequently visit Little Saigon for cuisine such as pho, a traditional Vietnamese soup, or spring rolls, which couldn’t be found elsewhere at the time.
Little Saigon offered a variety of business types and styles. Some businesses developed the ambiance of a flea market or bazaar since it was common for multiple businesses to operate within a single building. The My An Fabric store had multiple businesses within the same building, including a billiards and arcade game room and a small cafe (Priest 1987). A former diner described the restaurant as a “dive” with fantastic food with a few tables in a narrow space with no decoration (Woodruff 2014). Cafe Dalat served only as a restaurant with high ceilings, dark interior with little decor, and symmetrically lined tables, which allowed the waitstaff to serve customers within just minutes of ordering (Woodruff 2014). Some residents recall the over-sized suitcases, often pouring out of the storefront onto the sidewalk, at the Pacific Department Store (Woodruff 2014).
While some Vietnamese people came to Little Saigon just to shop, many lingered inside the businesses and enjoyed the sense of community (Breyault and Goldschmidt 2014, Bich 2014). Festivals and events were held throughout the year to celebrate holidays, such as the annual Moon Festival (Jordan 1991). For 19 years, successful restaurateur Nguyen Van Thoi hosted an annual Tet dinner at his Nam Viet and My An cafes for American prisoners of war from the Vietnam War (Estrada 2005).
The concentration of retail and dining establishments in Little Saigon fulfilled a commercial need for non-Vietnamese customers, too, who have recalled experiencing their first bowl of pho, vermicelli noodle bowls, spring rolls, crepes, and other traditional dishes here (Woodruff 2014).
Notable Businesses of Little Saigon
- Saigon Market grocery store
- Pacific Oriental Department Store and cafe and billiard hall on the upper floor
- My An fabric store, billiards, and cafe
- Dat Hung Jewelry
- Mekong Center grocery store
- Lotus Imports
- Cafe Dalat restaurant
- Nam Viet restaurant
- Kim Long gift shop
- Saigon Souvenir
- Queen Bee restaurant
- Cafe Saigon restaurant
- An outdoor vegetable and fruit stand in a parking lot on Herndon Street across from the Hartford Building
- Ngoc Long jewelry store
Vietnamese families continued to settle in the area, but not without struggles. For some, language barriers were an issue. Children entered behind in classes and enrolled in English as Second Language (ESL) programs in school (Nguyen 2014). Restarting careers and finding work could be difficult, too. Vietnamese professionals with impressive resumes, some of whom had earned advanced degrees at American universities, had to take odd jobs in landscaping, child care, housekeeping, or hourly part-time jobs instead of full-time work in order to get by (Bich 2014).
General assistance was available to some Vietnamese immigrants. Refugee assistance programs like the Mutual Assistance Association Consortium represented and assisted refugees from all countries in Northern Virginia. Arlington County government created a new multicultural program coordinator position to handle the influx of immigrants (Bich 2014). Buddhist temples and church groups also provided assistance (Bich 2014). Kim Cook established the Vietnamese Resettlement Association in Falls Church and Khuc Minh Tho founded the Families of Vietnamese Political Prisoners Association (O’Connell 2003, Workman 1993).
Vietnamese entrepreneurs faced many hurdles as they tried to achieve success in Clarendon. Little Saigon establishments were typically family-owned and operated, but they also employed immigrants from Vietnam from outside their family and had agreements with area families to sell their homemade items, like food, in their shops (Nguyen 2014). Because many banks wouldn’t lend to them, Vietnamese entrepreneurs had to borrow money from friends and family to start their businesses, often at higher interest rates than what was commercially available. Some business owners experienced regulatory hurdles because they didn’t understand the business licensing and regulations, and were fined (Arnett 1989). To raise capital, some immigrants had to sell off much of their family’s gold and jewelry (Arnett 1989). For many Vietnamese, it was important to have the real and cultural value of tael available (Cook 2014). One traditional Vietnamese lending practice known as “hoi” was a common funding tool. Hoi pools money from business people in the community and distributes it to a member of the community in a monthly bidding process. The loan candidate that bids the highest interest rate for the entire pot of money gets the money (Workman 1993).
Over time, the Vietnamese-American business community increased its influence. For example, Toa Do, who worked his way up from his first American job as a messenger to a systems analyst and then an independent consultant, became the first Vietnamese person to have a seat on the Arlington Chamber of Commerce (Workman 1993). The Clarendon Vietnamese Retail Business Association was formed by Kham Dinh Do, proprietor of the Dat Hung jewelry store, who tried to organize the Vietnamese business community and advocate on behalf of their interests as Arlington County government was planning for the development of Clarendon (Hsu 1989).
Many descriptions of Little Saigon from 1975-85 included terms like “run down” and “dirty” (Cook 2014, Dinh 2014). Many building owners did not spend money maintaining or updating their buildings because they were waiting for the Metro station to open and for new economic opportunities to be realized as Clarendon redeveloped (Currier 1990). Development didn’t increase significantly in Clarendon for the first few years after Metro opened in 1979. There were multiple small parcels of land held by absentee owners that made it difficult for developers to purchase areas large enough for the new, big projects that were envisioned (Priest 1987). On November 18, 1989, the Arlington County Board unanimously endorsed Clarendon’s redevelopment plan, which envisioned high-rise commercial structures, mid-rise residential buildings, parks, and pedestrian walkways (Matthews 1989). The plan also proposed incentives for constructing buildings lower than the zoning code allowed and for carving out smaller-scaled commercial space for smaller-scaled businesses (Matthews 1989).
Eventually, rents began to increase in Clarendon (up to $25-30 a square foot in some commercial buildings), and Vietnamese enterprises were displaced from Arlington (Arnett 1989, Wood 1997, Drummond 1989). The Vietnamese population that settled in the garden apartments of Arlington moved westward, with many settling around Seven Corners, as well as Falls Church near the intersection of Graham Road and Arlington Boulevard (Wood 1997, Cook 2014). Vietnamese-American residents dispersed along with the Vietnamese-American businesses (Wood 1990). By 1984, 60% of Vietnamese-Americans lived within three miles of Seven Corners (Andrews 1984).
Gradually, the number of Vietnamese businesses in Little Saigon diminished. Some business owners moved on to other opportunities, some relocated, and some, like the more successful restaurants like Queen Bee and Nam Viet that appealed to mainstream customers, remained (Bich 2014, Nguyen 2014, Dinh 2014).
In 1989, the Clarendon Alliance, a business association, noted that of the 76 businesses in Clarendon, between 30 and 35 were Asian-owned, and among those, most were Vietnamese-owned (Arnett 1989). The establishments included food markets, real estate and insurance agencies, law and accounting firms, and restaurants and retailers (Arnett 1989). That same year, the Mekong Center grocery store, the Pacific Oriental Department Store, the My An 1 restaurant and the Alpha Camera repair shop left the Hartford Building, which was then demolished (Arnett 1989). The My An fabric store relocated from the building before it was demolished since the owner anticipated changes in Clarendon with the plan for high-density development (Arnett 1989). The owner of the Pacific relocated the store in Arlington, renamed Global Market, and then to Bailey’s Crossroads, and also opened the Asian Village in Hyattsville, Maryland (O’Connell 2003, Arnett 1989).
Business remained steady for the establishments that remained, although the once-large crowds of Vietnamese customers dwindled and the neighborhood’s value as a community meeting ground had diminished (Drummond 1989). Some Vietnamese owners were bought out of their leases to make way for new developments (Nguyen 2014). Author Alan Ehrenhalt points out that for the economically struggling Clarendon of the 1960s, “it was immigration that brought those old buildings to life…The vacant storefronts brought the Vietnamese in and set the whole process in motion. It may seem a bit ironic that the way to bring in more affluent white newcomers is to lay down a base of poorer people from other countries. But that is exactly what happened in Arlington” (Ehrenhalt 2012).
The decline of Little Saigon was noticeable. A letter to the editor of the Washington Post lamented the small business culture that was fading from Clarendon, noting the contributions of the Vietnamese people and the diversity they brought to Arlington (Matthews 1989). A former customer and community activist explained that it was hard for a people to lose their community after just recently losing their country (Cook 2014). County planners explained that the government had discussed plans for many years to turn Clarendon into a higher-density, mixed-use corridor that would have larger development projects and bigger retail spaces (Fischer 2006). Planners also noted the inevitability of pressure on the small businesses from development (Fischer 2006).
Long-time customers and business owners have mixed sentiments about the end of Little Saigon. Some business owners expressed resentment and frustration that they were being pushed out, while others were ready for a change and knew their children didn’t want to continue the family business (Arnett 2014, Nguyen, 2014). Other business owners were able to relocate to shopping centers that offered better parking and well-maintained properties (Currier 2014).
Establishments relocated into various strip shopping centers throughout the suburbs and have been described as “separate islands” that were not integrated within a larger community (Dinh 2014). In the early 80s, some thought that they would go back to Vietnam once the communists were gone (or eliminated) and that Little Saigon served as their “temporary home” (Do 2014). Some immigrants felt that Little Saigon’s time had come as communities and local economies evolve and people move on (Do 2014). With more Vietnamese businesses located throughout the Washington, D.C., and an increase in the number of Vietnamese-language media, the need for a central meeting place to learn of news from back home wasn’t as strong as it once was (Bich 2014).
The Clarendon neighborhood has become a mix of retail, bars and restaurants, increasing residential, and office uses. Most of the new developments have larger footprints that are not as conducive to small, independently owned businesses (Hart 2006). As of 2014, the Nam Viet restaurant is the only Vietnamese business remaining from the original Little Saigon community, although Four Sisters is a Vietnamese restaurant that opened in recent years.
The Eden Center
In 1984, the Eden Center shopping center in the Seven Corners area of the City of Falls Church opened, bringing 20,000 square feet of affordable retail space to the area (Stadtmiller 1997). In the following years, many Little Saigon businesses relocated to Eden Center, which originally had a mix of Latino-, Asian-, and American-owned businesses (Bich 2014). Some business owners opened establishments within their own storefronts, while others rented a stall in the former Grand Union building (Bich 2014).
In 1997, 32,400 square feet was added to the Eden Shopping Center, along with an iconic clock tower; at the time it was the largest Vietnamese shopping district in the U.S. (Stadtmiller 1997, Lan Nguyen 1996). The Eden Center became a hub of Vietnamese commerce and activity. In 2007, “Exit Saigon, Enter Little Saigon,” a traveling Smithsonian Asian Pacific American Program exhibit, was temporarily located in Eden Center to tell the story of the Vietnamese American immigration and acclimation experience in America (CNN 2007). The Eden Center is now regarded as the central place for Vietnamese services and goods in Northern Virginia, as well as the entire East Coast (Wood 1997, Meyers 2006). In 2014, the Eden Center was home to 120 stores and restaurants, almost all of which are Vietnamese.
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