When the average person thinks of life in the United States, one of the last images to come to mind are steaming hot bowls of bun rieu or the innumerable red envelopes and firecrackers present during Tet or the haggling at the local fish market for a discount.

With nearly two million overseas Vietnamese living in the US, the Vietnamese have played a significant role in the shaping of American culture. By settling in the US, we have found refuge in American culture, allowing our identities, ideas, and philosophies to influence the American lifestyle, and letting the American lifestyle affect the way we think as well.

With a focus on the United States, we continue our series “Away from the Motherland.” Here at Vietcetera, we take a look at the biggest hubs of Vietnamese in the United States, exploring why the Vietnamese have chosen to settle here and what legacy they’ve left in these places so far from home.

San Jose, CA

Vietnamese population: 106,379

Why San Jose?

The most populous city in Northern California, San Jose is also the largest city outside of Vietnam with the most ethnic Vietnamese. Having been born and raised in the economic, cultural, and political center of the Silicon Valley, I’m tempted to say that what drew the Vietnamese people to San Jose was its mild climate and plethora of tech career opportunities; however, there’s more to it than just that. Having over 100,000 Vietnamese Americans living here means that it’s possible to preserve the comforts of Vietnam.

Whether that means having endless che places to choose from, Vietnamese malls to go to, or going to the annual San Jose Tet Festival, the heritage and culture of the Vietnamese people is alive and strong here. In east San Jose, there are hundreds of Vietnamese businesses and professionals. You can go to a Vietnamese doctor and the Vietnamese supermarket. You can even live in communities where Vietnamese is more commonly spoken than English. San Jose is a haven for the Viet Kieu who long for the comforts of the motherland.

 What is the reach of Vietnamese influence?

Vietnamese influence is at its strongest in San Jose’s Little Saigon (Little Saigon is a name given to enclaves of Vietnamese living in English-speaking countries). Whether you want to explore the Vietnam Town outdoor shopping center and get your nails done and have a hot bowl of pho or whether you want to walk around the Grand Century Mall and throw some firecrackers around and get a sugar cane drink (nuoc mia), Little Saigon truly feels like a pocket of Vietnam in San Jose.

“When you live here in San Jose, you feel like you’re in Vietnam.”

Walk around East San Jose, between Story and Tully roads, and you’ll find yourself in a community chock-full of Vietnamese restaurants and businesses. Little Saigon is beautiful in that it is an amalgamation of two distinct cultures. It is a blend of both traditional Vietnamese and modern American culture.

Vietnamese Festival
Source: goasiadaytrip.com

If you’re curious about Vietnamese history, San Jose also provides that. Opened in 2007, the Viet Museum is the first museum in the nation to highlight the experience of Vietnamese Americans and their voyage from Vietnam to the United States. Many of those who came to America were Vietnamese boat people, a term referring to the refugees who left Vietnam by boat and ship.

What is Vietnamese food here like?

The greatest perk of living in San Jose is definitely the food. As a lover of Vietnamese cuisine, San Jose is my paradise. Looking for pho? Have taste at Pho 90, a contemporary pho restaurant combining Vietnamese cuisine with a more modern atmosphere that will make you feel like you’re in France or Italy. Or, if you want a more authentic, local pho restaurant, try Pho Y #1, a staple for many San Jose locals. Sitting atop the Vietnamese cuisine food chain is Com Tam Thien Huong, a family owned rice plate restaurant so popular and renowned that it has 3 locations in East San Jose alone. Pro-tip: number 72 (thit nuong, tau hu ky, bi, cha, chao tom) is to die for.

Houston, TX

Vietnamese population: 36,568

Why Houston?

Undoubtedly, Houston is one of the hubs of Vietnamese life. With a significant Vietnamese presence in Harris County and Fort Bend County, Vietnamese culture is intertwined with the pulse of the city. With a growing population in Chinatown and Little Saigon, Houston’s Vietnamese population comprises nearly 2% of the population. After the Vietnam War ended, Vietnamese refugees came to Houston largely in part due to its proximity to the Gulf of Mexico (good for fishermen and shrimpers), warm climate, and expanding economy.

What is the reach of Vietnamese influence?

A notable reporter for Texas Monthly, Mimi Swartz, in 1991 said, “[Houston’s] Little Saigon is the place to begin easing into a new country.” Midtown, a neighborhood of Houston’s Harris County, became home to Little Saigon in the 1970s. The Vietnamese gathered here, establishing restaurants, hair salons, car shops, and travel agencies by the 1990s. If there’s one thing about us Vietnamese, it’s that we’re very entrepreneurial, preferring to start our own businesses and ventures whenever possible. The entrepreneurial spirit of the Vietnamese community spurred the development of Midtown Houston. Locals in Houston mention that during the 1980s, Travis and Milam Streets were viewed as cultural replicas of 1970s era Saigon. At the intersection of Bagby and Gray, Midtown Park even includes a Vietnamese heritage plaza which commemorates the Vietnamese settlement in Midtown.

Vietnamese Community of Houston
Source: isiahfactor.com

What is Vietnamese food here like?

We asked local Houstonians what their favorite Vietnamese eats were. If you’re going for banh mi, Cali Sandwich is your one-stop shop. Local patrons recommend banh uot thit nuong (rice sheets with pork) and a combination of thai tea and beef banh mi. Fortunately, because of Houston’s large Vietnamese presence, there are a wide gamut of Vietnamese dishes to choose from. In particular, Nam Giao is absolutely to-die-for. With banh hoi (woven rice vermicelli) adorned with your choice of topping, ga nuong (grilled chicken) or thit nuong (grilled meat), Nam Giao offers many traditional Vietnamese eats, including banh ram it, com hen, and goi cuon nem nuong.

Orange County, CA

Vietnamese population: 183,766

Why Orange County?

In the 1970s, after the end of the Vietnam War, more than 120,000 refugees settled to the states, with more than 50,000 landing in Camp Pendleton, an American military camp that provided accommodations for Vietnamese evacuees. This formed the base for what would become the largest Vietnamese community abroad. Because of its warm climate and abundance of Vietnamese life, including hundreds of Vietnamese businesses along Bolsa Avenue, life in Orange County was reminiscent of life in the motherland. By 1984, there were more than 600 businesses along Bolsa — places like Danh’s Pharmacy, Que Huong grocery, Hoa Binh Market, Thanh My restaurant. You could buy authentic Vietnamese food, you could get your prescriptions in Vietnamese; for pretty much every need you had, you could speak to a Vietnamese person that provided that service or good. The Vietnamese culture and heritage was alive and well here in southern California.

What is the reach of Vietnamese influence?

With kindergartners learning Vietnamese and English, Orange County is one of the epicenters of Vietnamese life overseas. Known as the center of Vietnamese pop music (in some ways bigger than Vietnam itself) and Vietnamese radio and television, many Vietnamese art outlets are based in Orange County. Newspapers like Nguoi Viet, The Little Saigon News, and Vien Dong Daily News are based in Costa Mesa and Santa Ana. Westminster, a city within Orange County, is recognized as the cultural center of the Vietnamese American community. With a population of 36,954 (of which, 40.3% are Vietnamese), it is the city with the most Vietnamese Americans per capita and even has a Vietnamese American mayor, Tri Ta.

Tet Festival in Orange County
Source: tetfestival.org

What is Vietnamese food here like?

I’m convinced that Orange County has the best Vietnamese food outside of Vietnam, hands down. Orange County’s Little Saigon is the largest Vietnamese enclave outside of the motherland, and with that, comes a plethora of good eats. Some of Vietcetera’s Orange County favorites are Tan Cang Newport Seafood and Oc & Lau. Tan Cang is a rite of passage for Vietnamese Californians. Vietnamese from all over the state make the trek here to have a go at the House Special Lobster with Noodles: a 7-pound lobster seasoned to perfection, served with soft yet chewy garlic noodles.