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The history of Sacramento's Little Saigon, told through Vietnamese cuisine

Sacramento’s city council officially designated a portion of Stockton Boulevard as Little Saigon in 2010.

SACRAMENTO, Calif. — Drive down a two-mile stretch between Fruitridge and Florin Roads and Stockton Boulevard in South Sacramento and you’ll see Little Saigon. The area was formed after the arrival of Vietnamese immigrants following the Vietnam War.

Sacramento’s city council officially designated a portion of Stockton Boulevard as Little Saigon in 2010. Now, the area is a cultural hub of diverse Asian food, events and businesses.

Bich Thi Ngoc Tran, also known as Jennifer, is the owner of Pho Bac Hoa Viet restaurant.

“During the fall of Saigon, my father organized a boat, so a total of 90 people on a tiny little boat… it was very crowded,” said Jennifer. “We were lingering on the sea for a couple of days and then finally the Thailand Rescuer, they came out and saw the little boat, so they pulled us on board.”

Not all families were able to come to the United States right away, but her family was prioritized because her mother was sick.

The Lutheran Church in Fargo, North Dakota, sponsored the family and they became one of the first Asian families in Fargo. The family eventually moved to Sacramento in 1985.

“To me, growing up, it was always very crowded. Over 30 people living in that little house. It was very fun; the kitchen was always busy. My dad is a family person, he believed in family and staying together,” said Jennifer.

Her father eventually opened the restaurant in 1991 when she was in the 11th grade. Jennifer says she would go there after school to work and help her parents.

“When my dad first opened the restaurant here, this area felt like country. You know, there wasn’t a lot of business,” said Jennifer. “I remember Sacramento was very small, there was nothing but land.”

Her family’s experience was not unlike other families from Vietnam who made their way into the region.

“During the late 1970s and early 80s, there was a wave of immigrants coming from Vietnam. They fled the country due to the fall of Saigon in 1975. A lot of Vietnamese immigrants found opportunities in California, particularly the Bay Area, San Jose, where there are a lot of job opportunities there. When they found Sacramento, they were attracted by the low housing costs. A lot of them start relocating to Sacramento in the late 80s,” said Mai Nguyen with the Florin Road Partnership.

In the 1970s and 80s, the Stockton Boulevard corridor was a generally unknown area. No commerce was being developed until businesses run by Asian immigrants started anchoring supermarkets, restaurants and stores. It then became known as an Asian commercial corridor.

The population of Vietnamese immigrants grew in South Sacramento and, as business started to grow, more Vietnamese and AAPI immigrants started to gather forming an ethnic community.

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Fiona Mui Duong, the owner of the Happy Garden restaurant, remembers when she arrived in Sacramento March 6, 1981.

“There was lack of work, poverty. We had to leave Vietnam after the fall of Saigon,” said Duong. “When we first arrived in America, the most difficult part was communication … my parents couldn’t get a job because they don’t speak English. They decided to do what they know best, which is growing vegetables.”

The family sold the vegetables to some supermarkets and on the street. After they decided they were done with farming because it was too strenuous for the children, her father opened the family’s first restaurant — Ocean King — in 1990.

“We expanded our business because then we noticed that there were more Asians moving to Little Saigon,” said Duong. “So, we’ve been in Little Saigon for 42 years.”

Jennifer says seeing other cultures coming into the area to eat their food gives her a sense of pride and success that they’ve been able to introduce it to others.

According to Mai Nguyen, the idea of Little Saigon started in December 2009 with now-former council member Kevin McCarty.

“He recognized a lot of these Asian immigrant businesses have contributed so much to the area of Stockton Boulevard,” said Nguyen. “Through the brainstorming session, we came up with a rescue mission, revitalization, economic development security, community building, unity and education.”

The committee did outreach to come up with the name in January 2010 and the designation went to council members the following month on Feb. 10, 2010.

“Everyone in the community attended this historic moment for us. We felt that if this was to pass it would be history-making. We remember that night. It was a celebration,” said Nguyen. “We have a large population of Vietnamese and Chinese immigrants here, and a lot of them escaped from the war. Little Saigon is the former name of South Vietnam and that was before 1975, so those that come here are usually from South Vietnam. When they left Saigon, it was like leaving their heart behind, so we're trying to bring that back to them. Even though they're in a different country in a different land, they can still feel the sense of Saigon that they lost.”

As the second generation of her family in America, Fiona feels a sense of responsibility in sustaining what her parents tried so hard to establish.

“Their sacrifice gave us a better opportunity by coming to America,” she said. “This restaurant is my parent's legacy, and I don't want to fail. At least I can try my best. If I fail, at least I can say I tried.”

The neighborhood could face changes in the future. The city of Sacramento hopes to revitalize the Stockton Boulevard corridor as an extension of its redevelopment efforts around Aggie Square. The project would expand the UC Davis Health Campus at the northern end of Stockton Boulevard.

WATCH MORE ON ABC10: The emergence of Filipino martial arts in Stockton

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