It’s a Saturday night and the Little Saigon Night Market is bustling with activity.
People line up for barbecued pork skewers, grilled squid and bánh khọt — crispy shrimp rice pancakes. On a stage in front of the Asian Garden Mall, a female Vietnamese singer croons ballads while a live band deftly backs her up. Bubbles float through the air as crowds undulate and vendors sell toys, dresses, shoes, jewelry and ginseng candy.
“I’ve been coming here since I was a girl,” says Kathleen Nguyen, 20, a Fountain Valley resident. “It’s a very family oriented type of event. I used to come here all the time. There’s a lot of food, fun activities, music. I go inside the mall too.”
Every Friday through Sunday night from mid-June to the beginning of September, the parking lot in front of Westminster’s Asian Garden Mall transforms into a busy street market, with authentic street food, shopping and Vietnamese music.
The night market opens at 7 p.m., but things don’t really get busy until the sun goes down. Closing time is 11 p.m., although some vendors shut down before that to get an early start on the next day.
“We started very small and local. We never wanted something big and extravagant,” said Lena Li, manager at Asian Garden Mall, which organizes the summer night market.
“We target the Vietnamese community. It’s really well received by the local customers and the community here. Not only that, but we also get phone calls from people who are out of state. They ask when the dates are so they can come and visit.
“We do see a growing number of non-Asians coming. The feel of it is very Vietnam.
Our food is pretty much Vietnamese, but there are no boundaries. All ages, all ethnicities enjoy it.”
This is the ninth year of the popular nighttime event. The Little Saigon Night Market was inspired by the night markets in Ho Chi Minh City, formerly Saigon, Li said.
Westminster’s night market is one of the originals in the region. It started before night markets became a huge trend in Southern California, and a year before Arcadia’s popular 626 Night Market, which started in 2012.
It also began before the OC Night Market at the OC Fair & Event Center, which is six years old.
“We actually started before them,” said Li, referring to 626 Night Market and OC Night Market, both founded by Jonny Hwang, a Taiwanese-born entrepreneur who grew up in Buena Park and La Palma. “They were at our night market, and they drew inspiration from us.”
Hwang recalls things a bit differently, saying his 626 Night Market already had a year under its belt when he visited. But both markets are in the same cultural boat, so to speak, and are part of a larger trend sweeping across the West Coast.
One big difference between the other night markets and Little Saigon’s is free admission. While 626 and OC charge $5, with an additional $10 charge for parking at the OC Fair, the Little Saigon Night Market has always been free, with free parking in the back of the mall.
Parking can fill up pretty quickly, however, so organizers recommend that visitors get there early. The market also offers free valet parking, which, quizzically, isn’t used very much. Is it because people just want free parking and don’t want to tip the valets?
“That’s the Asian mentality, I guess,” Li said.
Plenty to Eat and Drink
Of course, the real star of the Little Saigon Night Market is the food. The choices are plentiful, but here are some popular items at the market:
- Bò bía – spring roll filled with yam, bean, jicama, carrots, shrimp, omelet and lap xuong sausages (Chinese sausage)
- Bò lúc lắc khoai tây chiên – “shaking beef” with onions and red and green peppers
- Bánh trứng cút nướng – considered a Vietnamese-style pizza, filled with minced pork, shrimp, scallions, quail egg and butter, cooked over a grill
- Bánh tráng trứng chiên – a Vietnamese-style omelette, stuffed with vegetables and shrimp
- Bánh tráng trộn – rice paper salad
- Bánh mì – a traditional Vietnamese sandwich, usually made with pork and a French baguette
- Bánh mì nướng muối ớt – grilled bread seasoned with chili and toppings
- Bánh ống lá dứa – steamed pandan cake with coconut filling
- Bánh khoai mì – cassava cake with coconut milk and mung bean
- Bắp nướng – grilled and seasoned corn
- Bắp xào – sautéed or stir-fried corn with dried shrimp, scallions and butter
- Bắp xào trứng muối – fried corn with salted egg
- Chả cá nướng – grilled fish cake
- Kem xôi dừa – coconut ice cream with glutinous rice
- Chè khoai môn – taro pudding
- Đường thốt nốt – sugar palm
- Xôi nếp than – black glutinous rice
- Nui chiên trứng – fried macaroni with egg
- Chuối nếp nướng – grilled banana wrapped in sweet, sticky rice
The “Cajun Islands” stand serves a fusion of Viet/Cajun street food, featuring prawns and crawfish smothered in Vietnamese and Cajun spices.
There’s a booth that offers Japanese street foods such as Tonkotsu ebi fry ramen, chicken karaage and takoyaki, a ball-shaped snack made of wheat flour-based batter and filled with minced octopus.
The “Gà ác tiềm” stand sells packages of slow-cooked black chicken soup that visitors are supposed to make at home.
One stand and a food truck serve sugarcane drinks and smoothies of various fruit flavors, from strawberry, watermelon and coconut to mango, passionfruit, kumquat and durian.
The Little Saigon Night Market also offers some typical American fair food: funnel cakes, ice cream and tornado potatoes, or fried potato swirl sticks.
Most visitors like to try a variety of dishes, which are made to order and generally range from $5-$8 each.
But It’s More Than Food
“We’re having a good time,” said Samson Lai, 28, of Huntington Beach, at a recent night market. “We wanted to try something different.”
Lai’s girlfriend, Sang Quach, 24, concurred.
“We tried some other stuff (besides the squid and the bánh trứng cút nướng) as well,” she said. “I’ve been here before, on Tet, which is Chinese and Vietnamese New Year. It’s really fun here.”
It’s not all food at the Little Saigon Night Market. Other vendors sell clothes, toys, knickknacks and house plants. Some provide services, such as key duplication and water purification systems.
Tech Village sells chamois to dry your car and quality tempered glass covers for your cell phone. They’ll clean your phone surface and apply it for you on the spot, all for $7.
This year, representatives from Golden West College have set up a booth and are encouraging night market visitors to sign up for free English classes at the Huntington Beach-based community college.
“We’re trying to serve the shifting demands of the community,” said Melissa Lyon, director for the Center of Global and Cultural Programs at GWC. “We have a very diverse group (of students). We have full-time workers, stay-at-home parents, a lot of people who are newer to the community.
“We get people who want to communicate with their children or their children’s teachers during parent-teacher conferences. Everyone is welcome. It’s been pretty well-reviewed so far.”
For the first time this fall, the college is also offering free bus passes to students. It’s a community-oriented collaboration with Orange County Transit Authority, intended to help defray transportation costs.
While the primary entertainment consists of six Vietnamese bands and vocals by professionals, there’s a regular flow of volunteer karaoke singers who sign up for their moment under the spotlight. This occurs in between sets, and the karaoke singers range from decent to hair-raising, fingernails-on-the-chalkboard awful.
“Some are not the greatest singers,” Li admitted. “Even though they sometimes don’t do so well, (the karaoke singing) became a big community event where people come out, hang out, listen to some karaoke and have some good food.
“You can see they already set their lawn chairs out, before the market even starts,” Li continued. “Some people come out nightly. It’s part of the culture — they really love karaoke or something. I don’t really understand it. They have a lot of courage, and that’s what they wait for. They sign up and patiently wait their turn.”
Even as vendors are packing up their wares and stands at the end of each night, the karaoke singers keep going until the bitter end. It’s become a summertime tradition for stalwart songbirds in Little Saigon.
Richard Chang is a contributing writer for Arts & Culture at Voice of OC, focusing on the visual arts. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.