by Bob Sparrow
Preface 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 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).
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 sort 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’.
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.
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.