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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.

The Vietnam Center was one of many Vietnamese shops in Clarendon.

The Vietnam Center was one of many Vietnamese shops in Clarendon.

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.


Comments (9)

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  1. Keith Harbaugh says:

    Nice to have the memory jogged about this very attractive part of Arlington history,
    but missed some description of the restaurants which provided such interesting and excellent cuisine.
    Notable to my mind at least were two family-run restaurants on Wilson Boulevard,
    one featuring great Hanoi pork where the Clarendon Ballroom is now located,
    and one (roughly where Public Shoe is) run by a real Vietnamese “mama-san” (hope that’s not considered offensive these days–that was a term of respect for all older Vietnamese women at one time) which for a long time offered an “all you can eat” lunch special for $5!
    One was called the “Queen Bee”,
    and the other’s name I’m not sure of.
    Might be “Cafe Dalat”.
    Anyone remember those names?
    Or know what happened to the families that ran them so well?
    Anyhow, both offered excellent, distinctive and unusual food at moderate prices.

  2. Anon says:

    I remember Queen Bee! It was roughly where Spider Kelly’s is now, wasn’t it?

    I guess Nam Viet is the sole holdout from this era.

    • Keith Harbaugh says:

      At the west end of the block, next to Irving St., there was the Clarendon Alliance, in a glass-front office.
      East of it was the Queen Bee, with a conspicuous vertical neon sign in red.
      The west-most part, if not all, of the old Clarendon Alliance office became the Liberty Tavern.
      So the Queen Bee became either the Clarendon Ballroom or Spider Kelly’s, depending on how wide the Clarendon Alliance was.
      At least that’s how I remember it!

      • eric says:

        I ran the Clarendon Alliance from 1993 to 1997. I moved the CA into the ground floor of the Masonic Lodge in early 1994, I believe.

        Our space is now a portion of Liberty tavern.

        Next door, I believe I can do this:

        My-An Fabrics (Clarendon Ballroom)

        Spider Kelly’s is essentially four store fronts, which included:
        Queen Bee (3181 Wilson)
        Clarendon Watch (3175 Wilson)
        A&R Engravers (3173 Wilson
        Video Specialists (3171 Wilson)

        Eventide is essentially three store fronts which included:
        Bridal Gallery (3169 Wilson)
        Skyluck (3167 Wilson)
        Mimi’s Fashion (3165 Wilson)

        I got this out of the 1997-1998 Clarendon Business Directory which I published back in September 1997.

  3. Anne Griffith says:

    Cafe Dalat was wonderful. I always preferred it to Queen Bee. At one point in the late 70s/early 80s, there were 7 Vietnamese restaurants on those two blocks.

    However, that area was NEVER called “the Ho Chi Minh Trail” except by an idiot food writer in the WashPost. All the immigrants were South Vietnamese fleeing the Northerners – they hated Ho!

  4. fred morales says:

    that’s when claredon was great . Now it’s one big frat party

  5. C.M. Dunlap says:

    There was a large parking lot down the hill across from Sears. It was for Sears customers. I remember one time they had above-ground backyard pools on display in the parking lot. It was extremely crowded with people! We were there looking at pools and Dad bought one for us. So exciting! This would have been in the early 1960′s.

  6. Wendy W. says:

    Cafe Dalat was my favorite place in the world! I ate there with family & friends for what seems like 15-20 years. Will never forget “Mom” and her many friendly daughters working their way through school & college. So sad when it closed.

    • Deb D. says:

      I completely agree with everything you wrote. I think theirs was the first Vietnamese food I ever tried, and they were so sweet and patient when explaining not just what the different dishes were, but also how to eat them. The mother and daughters were wonderful. For me, they were the reason I preferred Cafe Dalat to Queen Bee.

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