Westminster, Calif. -- In the midst of Southern California sprawl, Little Saigon is a classic American suburb with a Southeast Asian twist.
"For every two Vietnamese that come to U.S., one comes to Orange County," says Yen Do, the publisher of the Vietnamese daily newspaper, Nguoi Viet, which operates in a small business park in this enclave known as Little Saigon.
Middle-aged women here buy ao dais, the traditional Vietnamese garment of dress and pants, in dark green or purple silk. Those newly arrived sip strong Vietnamese-style coffee sweetened with condensed milk and play a chess game popular in their homeland. And shops sell cassettes of Vietnamese singers: Thai Thanh, Khanh Ly and Ylan.
"Some newly arrived refugees can have their needs met without knowing English. They can have their pictures taken, their laundry cleaned. They can shop for food, very much like they would run their lives back home," says Hao Duong, Orange County's refugee services coordinator.
Shaped like a square and spread over 2 square miles, Little Saigon arose from what once were strawberry fields. Today it straddles two major thoroughfares, Bolsa and Westminster avenues. Businesses are housed in small shopping centers, not unlike those filling block after block along Ritchie Highway in Anne Arundel County.
Many of these centers are two-story stucco storefronts in which dentists, travel agencies and insurance offices are stacked atop tailors and dry cleaners, bakeries and restaurants, jewelry shops and Vietnamese fast-food joints.
And the outdoor signs, one after another, are written in Vietnamese, including the accent marks of its French influence.
Orange County (population 2.6 million), home to Disneyland and Anaheim Stadium, boasts the largest contingent of immigrant Vietnamese in the country, exceeding the clusters on the Gulf Coast of Texas and in Northern Virginia, according to William Gayk, the county demographer.
"My understanding of Little Saigon [is that] it was at one time predominantly an Anglo commercial area that in fact was deteriorating," says Mr. Gayk, "and from what I understand when Vietnamese started to settle in this county at the end of the Vietnam War, they were able to get space in that area and they transformed it from a strip mall kind of thing into quite a thriving economic magnet or commercial center."
Although the U.S. Census puts their number at 72,000, community leaders contend that the population is closer to 125,000. Language barriers and a distrust of strangers account for the discrepancy in the figures, they say.
Theirs is a decidedly late-20th-century experience; they are mostly refugees of a uniquely 20th- century war. Unlike the Chinese who settled in the tenements of New York City and the hillside rowhouses of San Francisco before the turn of the century, the Vietnamese of Orange County are among America's first suburban immigrants.
Like their Asian brothers and sisters, they remain clannish in their settlements, fluent in their native language and strong in their opinions about their former homeland.
This is a community with a 400-member Vietnamese Chamber of Commerce, five Vietnamese-language television programs, seven radio programs, the nation's only daily Vietnamese newspaper and a Vietnamese American Arts and Letters Association.
"There are a number of temples and pagodas mushrooming in Little Saigon," says Ms. Duong, the refugee coordinator, referring to the community's Buddhists.
Westminster City Councilman Tony Lam, who says he is the first elected official of Vietnamese descent in the country, says the business district here pays $1 million in property taxes and contributes more than $500,000 in sales tax revenue. He sees the potential for Little Saigon to draw tourists from Disneyland and Knotts Berry Farm.
"One restaurant can house 1,000 customers in Asian Garden Mall," says the councilman, whose first job in the States was as a gas station attendant.
For most of the Vietnamese immigrants, their American experience is post-1975 and the fall of Saigon. As recently as 1988 and 1990, another wave of Vietnamese -- Amerasians and detainees -- found their way to Westminster.
But why Orange County?
Mr. Do, the newspaper publisher, cites three reasons: job opportunities, weather and proximity to the Asian food markets of Los Angeles. Other factors also contributed to the Vietnamese migration, he says. Camp Pendleton outside San Diego was one of the resettlement camps to which Vietnamese refugees were sent, Mr. Do says. From there, Vietnamese moved initially to San Diego or Los Angeles.
However, at the same time, many Vietnam War veterans were settling in Orange County and they had friends or relatives who ** were Vietnamese, he says.