Vietnam in Clarendon
For a brief period in the late 1970s and early 1980s, a small area of Clarendon became a hub of activity for America’s newest immigrant group, the Vietnamese – and even gained international fame.
For the first half of the twentieth century, Clarendon had been Arlington’s shopping and social center, with stores, movie theaters, offices and restaurants populated by people who used buses and trolley lines.
But in the 1950s, Arlingtonians starting spreading out and relying on cars to get around — Parkington (a large parking garage in Ballston) for example, was built in the late 1950s. These more auto-dependent shoppers bypassed Clarendon, which had little to no parking, instead shopping at malls farther west and south. Businesses started folding or leaving the area, and by 1970, Clarendon was a shell of its former self.
In the early and mid-1970s, the first wave of refugees from Vietnam came to the United States.
Many of these “first-wave” immigrants were middle-class and managed to leave Vietnam with their savings and valuables to help them start a new life. Arlington’s immigrant-friendly attitude made the county appealing to these Vietnamese, and the empty storefronts in Clarendon represented an opportunity. Rent was cheap at only about two dollars per square foot, and as immigrant numbers increased with the fall of Saigon in 1975 there was a ready-made clientele, homesick and unsure in a new county.
By 1979, the 3100 block of Wilson Boulevard (near Clarendon Circle) was the business epicenter of what was usually called “Little Saigon” but was also known as the “Ho Chi Minh Trail,” “Mekong Delta” and “Saigon Strip.” These businesses, along with others on N. Hudson, N. Herndon and N. Highland Streets, sold products familiar to Vietnamese immigrants and provided services by Vietnamese businessmen who knew the language and culture. Vietnamese people came from as far away as Pennsylvania, Kentucky and Tennessee to Clarendon to get a taste of home.
Little Saigon’s importance was so vast that “Arlington” was spoken of as a specific destination by those in refugee camps in Southeast Asia.
It was not to last, however; metro was coming and it would change the face of Clarendon. The Clarendon station opened in December of 1979, and over the next five years, rents started to rise in this now prime real estate. Housing was also getting more expensive, driving recent immigrants farther west. Business owners realized they had to relocate or close; with the fall of Little Saigon in Clarendon came the rise of the Eden Center in Falls Church, further south on Wilson Boulevard near Seven Corners.
Today, the 3100 block of Wilson has many restaurants and shops, but the only sign this area was a little taste of home for thousands of Vietnamese refugees is Nam Viet Restaurant on N. Hudson Street.
The following Vietnamese businesses on the 3100 block of Wilson Boulevard were listed in the 1979 Haines Directory:
- 3105: Pacific Oriental Department Store
- 3107: Mekong Center
- 3133: Far Eastern Food and Gift/Viet Nam Center
- 3143: Kim Long [a general store]
- 3147: Saigon Market
- 3153: Vietnamese Custom Tailor
- 3171: Kim Ngoc Food and Gift
- The 1980 Haynes Directory added two more Vietnamese businesses:
- 3103: Huong Que Restaurant
- 3169: Saigon Souvenir and Jewelry
In the 2012 Haines Directory, no businesses with obvious Vietnamese links/names were listed for the 3100 block of Wilson.