Missed Saigon

by Bob Sparrow

MissSaigonPreface   Back when the earth was still cooling and I was in the Navy (Yes, ours), I was stationed in Japan at Atsugi Navel Air Station and was an Ensign (Yes, and officer and a gentleman by an ACT of CONGRESS) on the staff of COMFAIRWESTPAC, which was ‘Navy-speak’ for, Commander, Fleet Air, Western Pacific.  My duties, aside from getting the Admiral’s coffee and newspaper to him in a timely manner each morning, eventually included arranging for the shipping of damaged helicopters out of Viet Nam to a repair facility in Japan and then shipping the repaired aircraft back into Viet Nam.  I had three seamen working for me at the time who took turns ‘escorting’ the repaired aircraft on the ships going back to the port of Da Nang, in South Viet Nam. 


I hate these ‘magnificent ceramic elephants’!

I eventually wanted to have a better understanding of what these escorts actually did and since I was in the Navy and had never set foot aboard a ship, I asked my commanding officer permission to be out of the office for a while and escort the next batch of helicopters headed ‘in country’.  Permission was granted.  I had a buddy, who was flying supply missions in a C-130 transport aircraft between Da Nang and Saigon, who told me he could throw me in with the cargo anytime if I wanted to tag along.  So I requested and was granted a couple of extra days for my trip.  This was 1969 and the war was in full swing and I wasn’t looking for a vacation, but rather wanted to see first hand, from a relatively safe distance, what was really going on.  Three days before my ship sailed out of Yokohama for Da Nang, my commanding officer had an opportunity to go to Bangkok, Thailand to pick up some ‘magnificent ceramic elephants’ for his wife and told me I needed to stay and man the office, that I could be an escort another time.  A ‘Reduction In Forces’ memo came out not too long after that and there was not ‘another time’, I was soon on my way home and out of the Navy (Yes, honorably).

welcom     So I never got to Da Nang and subsequently Missed Saigon, but I live in Orange County, which I’ve come to find out, has the largest Vietnamese population in the world, outside of Vietnam, some 200,000.  So my ‘in country’ plan evolved, after 44 years, into my ‘in county’ plan and eventually permission was granted by my commanding officer – my wife.


The Beginning of ‘Little Saigon’  After the Fall of Saigon in 1975 many Vietnamese refugees migrated to Southern California because, well, why anyone else would migrate to Southern California, the weather.  More and more gathered in the City of Westminster and eventually in 1988, then Governor George Deukmejian officially designated part of Westminster as ‘Little Saigon’.

Most of the literature I read about ‘Little Saigon’ prior to driving the 15 miles over there, described the food, the jewelry, the food, some temples and the food.   I learned that Pho (pronounced ‘Faa’), which is a noodle soup consisting of rice noodles, broth, meat and some spices, was the most popular Vietnamese dish.

The Trip – My son, Jeff is a lover of all food foreign, so I asked if he wanted to meet me for some Pho and an exploration of ‘Little Saigon’ – he obliged.

  We met at the HA NOI restaurant (Must have been in the northern part of town) and had a wonderful meal served by an older  gentleman who didn’t speak one word of English, but recommended several dishes by pointing to some pictures on the menu and making some Jeffsort of cooking gestures – what ever we ordered, it was delicious.  Jeff likes his food spicy, so he added some contents from a container on the table to his food; from his reaction, it might have been a bit too spicy, but it said it was good . . . through watering eyes.

Unfortunately that was the highlight of our trip.  I checked to see if there were any tours of ‘Little Saigon’ available – there are none.  ‘Little Saigon’ is a place of contradictions; it is of course East meeting West, so we shouldn’t have been surprised to see the Sun Moon Bakery or the sign in the jewelry mart reading, ‘Lien Phat’ (Lean Fat?), which was more confusing albeit less disturbing than ‘Dai Phat’.

2013-08-01 17.13.24       dai phat       DaiPhat

But for me there was too much West and not enough East. I expected narrow streets lined with colorful garments hanging from two-story wooden buildings, the smell of spicy food offered by traditionally dressed street vendors, Asian music playing – basically some Far East atmosphere.  What we got was a series of strip malls on a busy Southern California street.  It was sort of like Barstow with strip mall storefront signs you could only partly read.

2013-08-01 17.20.47

The Conclusion – For my money, if you want some good Vietnamese food, visit ‘Little Saigon’, if you want to get the feel of old Viet Nam, see ‘Miss Saigon’ or go to old Viet Nam.





The Palm & The Pine – A California Story Part I

by Bob Sparrow

      I was recently made aware of a physical and symbolic boundary that screamed, “Road Trip!”.  It is a ‘landmark’ of sorts that I believe most Californians, much less those who live outside our state of ‘fruits and nuts’, don’t even know about .  It is simply two trees in the meridian of a highway that represent the mythical dividing line between Northern California and Southern California – and trust me on this one, there is a division.   As a matter of fact there have  been no less than 220 official initiatives, 27 that have been considered, ‘serious’, to separate California into, sometimes multiple pieces, but mostly in half.  It seems this ‘sometimes-less-than-civil’ war has been going on in California since the very beginning.

      The first secession effort was in 1854, just four years after statehood.  That attempt was a ‘tri-state-ectomy’ where the southern counties were going to be called Colorado, a name not being used at the time, but one that a group from the Rockies had called ‘dibs’ on.  The middle counties would retain the California name, and the northern counties would be called the State of Shasta – the State of Canada Dry had apparently already been taken.  That initiative lost momentum when everyone was more interested in finding gold than defining boundaries.

      The next secession attempt was five years later in 1859, but lost traction when all the paparazzi headed to the South covering another secession attempt, the beginning of the southern state’s attempt to break from the union and that pesky conflict that ensured.  With that, the California state-ectomy soon became back page news and Californians didn’t want to waste time on political posturing when there was a good war going on.

      Ironically, it was another skirmish that got in the way of yet another effort by Californians to subdivide the state in the twentieth century.  In 1941 individual counties from both northern California and southern Oregon were seceding, one each week, to form the State of Jefferson – a name probably inspired by the television show of the same name, but, alas, the Japanese were planning some sub-dividing of their own that year, which gave those in the entire country, and particularly those on the west coast, more important things to worry about.

      There was another major state-ectomy initiative in the 1960s – of course, what wasn’t going on to interrupt the status quo in the sixties?  Sorry, I don’t remember.  But hey, there was another war going on then too, so it must have been time to look at separating the state.

      The nineties offered up another tri-sectomy with a proposal of the states of Northern California, Central California and Southern California, which died in the state senate; I’m thinking it was because no one wanted Bakersfield.  As recently as mid-2011 the latest attempt to create the State of South California was laughed at by most politicians in the state; which was an ironic twist since we’re usually laughing at most politicians in the state.

     The reality is, over the last 150+ years, destiny, providence circumstance and various wars have prevented us from even getting close to bifurcating California.  So the trees have come to symbolize, at least to some, the cultural divide between Northern California and SoCal – see, even these two terms typify the different cultures.  So, you say, “Enough with the history lesson, what’s the story behind the trees?’

 Coming in: The Palm & The Pine – A California Story  Part II