In Vietnamese enclaves across the country, discounts on everything from car repair to health care are about who you know and where you come from. Vietnamese, like many immigrant groups, create extensive networks of services with considerable discounts for their own.
By Andrew Lam, New America Media
SAN JOSE, Calif. – Apr 12, 2006 – For those who live in the various Little Saigons scattered across the United States, there’s a longstanding open secret. You save money if you’re part of the community, and you’re likely to be provided with a social safety net as well.
Since the Vietnam War ended, more than 1.2 million Vietnamese now make their homes in America. The three largest pockets of Vietnamese are in Santa Clara and Orange counties in California, and in Houston, Texas.
In these areas and in others such as Sacramento, New Orleans, Orlando, Las Vegas and San Diego, an infrastructure has been built to cater to the community. From Vietnamese-language newspapers to legal advice, from groceries to funeral services, from public transportation to medical practices, a new immigrant from Vietnam need not speak much English to get almost all of his or her needs met.
Take the bus system, for example. In Vietnamese newspapers, you’ll find bus companies that advertise direct routes that extend the length of California at prices cheaper than Greyhound. At one point, three bus companies vied for Vietnamese-American customers traveling from San Francisco to San Jose to Orange County. On the buses, passengers are fed a Vietnamese sandwich and soft drinks for lunch, while a television showing Vietnamese singers blares overhead. For those without cell phones, the driver will call their relatives to pick them up when they reach their destination. The buses are one of many bloodlines connecting the various Vietnamese communities in California.
Being Vietnamese helps save money when it comes to remodeling your home as well. Mrs. Chi Le, not her real name, told me that her San Jose home was remodeled by a Vietnamese contractor who used Hispanic laborers. “The kitchen cost $7,000 to remodel. The white contractor asked for $16,000 and the Chinese one asked for $11,000.” She said she was satisfied with the work, and especially because the manager spoke Vietnamese. She signed no contract and doubted that the contractor had an operating license. What if they didn’t do a good job? I asked. “It’s word of mouth. If he’s bad and not reliable, I call a few people and his business in the community is over.” When Mrs. Le put her house up for sale, her agent also agreed to take 1 percent off his sales fee because, well, she’s Vietnamese.
Though I do not live within a Vietnamese community, as someone who speaks fluent Vietnamese, I too can benefit. Recently, I needed to have a mechanic look at my car, which was making a rattling noise. I went to a Vietnamese-owned garage in San Jose where my parents live. The mechanic, who knew my father, decided to skip the diagnostic test charge. He also replaced the broken part with a used one, saving me more money. “Say hello to your father,” he said when I came to pick up my car.
“It’s a who-you-know economy,” observes Chanh Pham, who organizes Vietnamese fashion shows and San Francisco Little Saigon’s annual beauty contest. He says that community-owned services are crucial to his success. “Vietnamese services are more convenient and a lot cheaper. I use a Vietnamese printing press in Orange County for my calendars and posters because it’s good and cheap, then I get them delivered to San Francisco by using the Vietnamese bus service. It’s about 15 times cheaper than Fed Ex.”
Competition also helps drives down prices, Pham says. “Sometimes we underestimate the power of small businesses that thrive due to cheap labor and high volumes.” Take Lee’s sandwiches, he says. Its baguette sandwiches are sold for less than $3, and while the profit margins maybe low, the sheer volumes have made its owner, Chieu Le, very rich. Le, who started out with a catering truck, has parlayed his business into a multi-million dollar chain. He has 22 stores in California, Arizona and Texas and employs 500.
Health care, too, is available for those in the know. Vietnamese without Medicare or health insurance can still find medical assistance, for a nominal fee. Take the case of Mr. Thien Nguyen. He’s been unemployed for some time, but goes to a Vietnamese American doctor who charges $25 a visit. He gets his medicine for free as the doctor gives him promotional pharmaceutical drugs. “It’s not the best health care in the world, but it ties me over ’til I can find a job and get back on my feet,” he says. “If I don’t belong to a community, I don’t think that kind of service is available to me.”
At no other time was this more true than when Vietnamese all over the country responded overwhelmingly to help displaced Vietnamese from Louisiana after Hurricane Katrina. Millions of dollars were raised for all Katrina victims, but Vietnamese-American displaced were given special attention.
When displaced New Orleans resident Danny Nguyen and his family drove to Houston he did not listen to the local public radio station. Instead, he turned his dial to Saigon Radio KREH 900-AM in Houston. Nguyen and his family were directed by the broadcaster to go to the Hong Kong City mall instead of the Astrodome. At the mall they were greeted by Vietnamese-American volunteers and various Vietnamese religious groups, who took them in.
“Even in death, Vietnamese take care of each other,” my mother adds. She and my father belong to an association in which members’ funerals and cemetery plots will be paid for. “It was very different for us when we first arrived in the United States 30 years ago, because there was no Little Saigon. But now if you just arrive and don’t speak English, you just have to pick up the Vietnamese yellow pages to get all the help you need.”
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Andrew Lam is a New America Media editor and the author of “Perfume Dreams: Reflections on the Vietnamese Diaspora.” (Heyday Books, 2005).