Garden Grove Mayor Draws Ire With Stand on Riverside Sister City Letter

Garden Grove Mayor Bao Nguyen delivering his 2015 State of the City address at the Embassy Suites. Photo by Thy Vo.

In Little Saigon, old wounds are reopened as often as the sun rises.

Painful memories, seared into the minds of many older Vietnamese Americans — their years in a North Vietnamese concentration camp, the execution of a loved one, poverty and graft — surface in the chambers of city councils, where refugees often seek symbolic resolutions and commemorations of historic dates to mark their collective struggle.

But in the Garden Grove City Council chambers Tuesday night, Mayor Bao Nguyen took a stand previously unheard of among Vietnamese American politicians.

The 34-year-old mayor urged his colleagues not to sign a letter asking the city of Riverside to drop its sister city relationship with the southern Vietnamese city of Can Tho.

“The issue here is that Garden Grove should not tell another American city what to do,” said Nguyen.

Nguyen’s words ignited outrage in the chambers, with members of the audience — mostly elderly first-generation Vietnamese — shouting “recall Bao Nguyen” and “I voted for you” as they walked out on the meeting.

Only Councilman Steve Jones agreed with Nguyen. The rest — Chris Phan, Phat Bui, and Kris Beard — voted to send a letter without Nguyen’s and Jones’ names.

The backlash did not deter Nguyen.

“Because we are survivors of bad government, we are charged with a duty to ensure the highest standards of good government ourselves here at home,” Nguyen said. “So I urge you to please vote against this letter – stay out of telling Riverside what to do.”

Riverside’s newest international affiliation — Can Tho is one of its nine sister cities — has sparked outrage among Vietnamese activists across Southern California over what they see as endorsing an oppressive regime and routine violator of human rights.

Before Nguyen’s announcement, many of the protesters — just a slice of the two hundred who protested earlier this month in Riverside — gave emotional testimony about how communist rule in their homeland affected them in the past and continues to affect them today.

Can Nguyen, a resident of Can Tho before she came to the United States, told the council about her inability to claim her husband’s property, eventually seized by the government, after he died.

“They took everything from me. I saved all my money to raise my children, I went to school here — I am very poor — but they still cheated me,” she said.

Others spoke of the emotional distress they felt when they heard about Riverside’s new relationship, which city officials there describe as focused on educational, cultural and business exchange.

“It has reopened the wounds, and caused emotional distress,” resident Julie Nguyen told the council. “Do not betray us.”

Bui, who is leading the protests in Riverside, pointed to the Vietnamese government’s record of human rights violations, past and present. In a halting voice, Bui spoke of his grandfather, who, he said, was shot in 1954 and buried alive by communist soldiers.

Bui emphasized that the purpose of the letter was a simple expression of sentiments already made by many of the city’s 70,000 Vietnamese constituents.

“You have heard many emotional testimonies – and that’s why I think it’s our duty and responsibility to give them a view and express the concern…to the city of Riverside. And that’s all we do,” Bui said.

For his part, Nguyen reminded the crowd of his own background “as a son of freedom seekers born in a refugee camp.”

“Many have made the ultimate sacrifice for what we have today. We should honor them by being responsible and holding true to our own ideals. We must respect Riverside…and act in a spirit of mutual respect,” Nguyen said.

Nguyen also spoke to the anti-communist ideology that has long governed Little Saigon politics.

“Seeing that politicians have used and manipulated the sensibilities and traumas of those victimized with terror, I can’t stand by and continue to focus on what is not our priority,” said Nguyen.

He added: “Listen, the reality is, if this is our only issue as a community, as a Vietnamese community, we’re not taking care of what is right here at home.”

Following the meeting, many of those who had walked out waited to confront Nguyen in the parking lot outside the chambers.

Some shouted at the mayor, telling him he would be facing a recall and asking him if he bowed to the communist flag. One woman told Nguyen he is too young to remember the atrocities of the Communist regime.

With Police Chief Todd Elgin standing close by, the mayor spoke to the crowd in Vietnamese for several minutes, repeating his earlier points.

“Of course I don’t know about the North Vietnamese Communists. But…we have to act according to the rules of democracy. And when an American city has made a decision, who are we to tell them what to do?” the mayor said.

“Go home, go home – don’t listen to this anymore,” one woman said.

“It’s a shame, children like this. Blame his parents for not teaching him, don’t blame him,” said another man.

As the crowd dispersed, one of the few young Vietnamese who attended the meeting lingered.

David Nguyen, a 27-year-old student, did not share the vitriol of the older residents, and, in fact, said he appreciated the mayor’s attempt to change the political conversation. But the young man felt the mayor picked the wrong time to make such a stand.

“In my eyes, he’s not a communist — they’re just misunderstanding,” said David Nguyen, who was born in Vietnam. “But you can’t change peoples’ minds. I would sign the letter — for the sake of my community.”

While younger Vietnamese might be craving a different kind of civic conversation, he said, the mayor shouldn’t have “gone against the majority.”

“Ironically, I think this is going to make people lose interest in their representative,” David Nguyen said. “I feel sorry for Bao. He should have been elected in another time.”

Contact Thy Vo at or follow her on Twitter, @thyanhvo.

  • aristotle

    I seem to agree with Mayor Nguyen on every issue and he gives me joy in that really smart and ethical people can get elected.

  • Truth Be Spoken

    Bless these ignorant people who attack Bao. It’s obvious that these people take their freedom and democracy for granted or don’t know the meaning of democracy. I’m ashamed that “these” people of Garden Grove do not see real leadership. God help us all for I cannot distinguish “these” people from the people they hate so much.

  • Jose Joe Moreno

    I think nobody would argue that the country of Vietnam’s record on human rights is terrible and its targeted, brutal, and inhuman treatment of those brave enough to stand up against the government is well documented and excessively “discriminatory”

    Those who chose to be silent are not targeted by the government but those who challenge the government for their rights are targeted.

    I use the word discriminatory because that was the word that prompted Garden Grove School District board-member Bao Nguyen to organized and vote against the GGUSD participation in the city of Westminster’s TET parade. here’s the story;

    I’m just wondering what is the difference in Mayor Nguyen thinking here?

    • Truth Be Spoken

      @ “I’m just wondering what is the difference in Mayor Nguyen thinking here?” Try Pro-Democracy? Leading by example? Education > Ignorance? to name just a few.

  • Roderick Powell

    The reality is the Viets who are here in The USA are no longer “in danger”. Some apparently do not get that. This kind of issue is drama queen stuff. Is this why these Viets vote for someone. What a shame! This is why we have Andrew Do maybe on the county board of supervisors. How sad! What are these Viets doing to THIS country. This using the commie angle for political purposes grew very old a long time ago. Many Viets seem to be drama queens, while many Viets take advantage of that. NO, we in this country live city to city. We in the USA DO NOT dictate to other cities or states (other than maybe Texas). We are a United States. That is what this is, let’s make this clear! FYI, what if we send them this letter and they tell us to “go to Hades”? What then? Declare war? To all the drama queens….try gardening!

  • The VOC transparency is so good that you can see the empty page through the comment.

    Soon the VOC will be so transparent that you will see through it only the empty cyberspace.

  • Mike Tardif

    It seems to me that the Vietnamese population of Garden Grove has a legitimate interest in this issue and that it would not be inappropriate for the City of Garden Grove to inform another city of their views in this regard.

    • Spencer Jacobson

      And they did by protesting. The letter itself is pointless.

    • Hollywood

      What legitimate interest is that?

    • Truth Be Spoken

      Yes, it is as legitimate as owning something made in China but don’t talk bad about Apple.

  • Paul Vance

    My poor Bao, It’s a political suicide!

    • Hollywood

      I doubt it. What America needs in their politician is a back bone.

  • Mike Burtin

    While I understand his point, I have to say I disagree. As Mayor, you represent ALL the people in the city. Including the older Vietnamese who were so traumatized by that government. Sending a letter is not “Telling another city what to do.” But providing feedback to that city that may have not been considered at the time of approval. A letter requesting reconsideration is NOT direction but input. Garden Grove has the largest Vietnamese community outside of Vietnam and he is supposed to represent EVERYONE. Including them. It takes less then 10 seconds to sign a letter drafted by city staff. So saying things like, “We need to address things in our community first” is disingenuous at best.

    • Spencer Jacobson

      “providing feedback” LOL yeah I’m sure NO ONE in Riverside has ever heard of the Vietnam war or Communism. You are the one being disingenuous.

    • Truth Be Spoken

      As a Mayor of a US city, you would at least understand what a Democracy is and yes, Bao represents the people he governs in his city and acts accordingly within a Democracy. It’s not democratic to tell another city how to govern.

  • SoCalSteve

    Mayor Nguyen is right on target. God forbid that the Vietnamese/Americans in the OC should become like the Cuban-Americans in Miami, unduly influencing foreign policy and preventing the healing of old wounds.

    • Hollywood

      The Vietnamese in the US is on the same level as the Cuban in Miami, bunch of welfare bums, nail salon tax cheats.

  • “Eventually the old guard will just die out and that will be that; no more hysteria for the politicians to demagogue.”………… Hmmmmmm

    I agree as long as it will apply to the holocaust survivors too.

  • David Zenger

    Eventually the old guard will just die out and that will be that; no more hysteria for the politicians to demagogue.

    It’s happening in Dade County, too.

  • Tony Flores

    I may not agree with Mayor Nguyen on every issue, but when he’s right he’s right.

    “Listen, the reality is, if this is our only issue as a community, as a Vietnamese community, we’re not taking care of what is right here at home,” Nguyen said.
    And in this case he’s right.

  • Hollywood

    At least there’s one smart Vietnamese around in Little Vietnam.

  • billy strikero

    Bao Nguyen is a hero to stand against stupidity and ignorance.