Inside the red gateway arch flanked by stone lions, the parking lot just off Wilson Boulevard is jampacked on a recent Saturday. Children play near a fountain where groups gather to savor fruity or coffee bubble tea.
The merchants and most of the patrons speak Vietnamese, and the few non-Asians navigate the sidewalks and shops intrigued by the strong immigrant footprint at Eden Center. The Falls Church shopping plaza is a community gathering spot for many of the nearly 80,000 Vietnamese Americans in the Washington region.
It is a refuge of rice noodles, tropical fruits and Asian spices. People drive for miles to buy the sandwich special at Nhu Lan Sandwich or for dinner at Pho Xe Lua, where the noodle soup tastes as if it came straight from Saigon.
But merchants and community leaders worry that, outside their circle, their home away from home is increasingly viewed as a place for gambling and gang activity — a perception that some business leaders say hurts business and threatens the vibrant social hub.
That impression was reinforced last year when police raided the plaza, said Liem D. Bui, a Springfield resident who visits Eden Center regularly. The Aug. 11 sweep at 13 businesses resulted in 19 arrests on misdemeanor charges that included gambling and alcohol violations.
At the time, authorities said a gang known as the Dragon Family had been operating illegal gaming machines. Law enforcement officials say that the investigation continues and that they are tracking down gang members with a presence at Eden Center.
But business leaders say that police were insensitive during the operation and apprehended several bystanders. Six cases were not prosecuted, two people were found not guilty, and the rest were found guilty or pleaded guilty, according to authorities.
“Nobody knows exactly who the Dragon gang is,” said Bui, 66, who came to America in 1975 after fleeing the communist takeover of South Vietnam and hosts a Vietnamese news talk show on local public television. Last year’s raids increased the community’s distrust in the police, and some people resented the way the South Vietnamese flag was displayed in mainstream media reports of the raids, he said.
“That flag is the symbol of the spirit of the refugee,” Bui said, pointing at the large yellow flag with three red stripes that flies above Eden Center. It’s an emblem of freedom for those who fled Vietnam in the 1970s. “The bottom line is, somehow and somewhere it hurts. It hurts.”
Small stalls and a clock tower at Eden Center evoke memories of the central market in Saigon, now Ho Chi Minh City, but the bustling shopping complex bears little resemblance to Vietnam’s economic center. In a way, though, Eden Center has become an extension of it.
The businesses, mostly family-owned, started to settle here in 1984. Some of the businesses had been around since the 1970s, starting in areas such as Clarendon and Ballston, but development forced them to reestablish in Seven Corners.
Today, there are about 120 businesses at Eden Center, including a large grocery store and a variety of jewelry stores, bakeries and restaurants.
“It is for Vietnamese [Americans] what Potomac Mills is for other people,” said Joseph Wood, the provost at the University of Baltimore, who has studied the area’s Vietnamese community for decades. “But even more, because on top of being just a place to go shopping, it is a place for socializing in a comfortable kind of way.”
According to Wood, many of the goods sold at Eden Center aren’t available anywhere else on the East Coast. Many Vietnamese Americans have a tradition of spending weekends there. Some come for lunch, grocery shopping or to send money home. Some stay for hours, drinking chilled coffee with richly sweetened condensed milk or lingering over friendly games of chess.
Some shops have been there for decades and have built loyal clientele. Hung Hoang, 48, has cut hair there since the late 1980s. His father immigrated to the United States and established Hoang Tho Barbershop in 1986. The shop has seen three generations of customers, and many longtime clients have become friends of the
“It is Little Saigon of the East Coast,” said John Tran, a Silver Spring resident who has been getting his hair cut at Hoang’s for more than 20 years. “In Vietnam, we had a special spot during the weekend. The same thing happens here again, just like in our own country.”
Tran escaped from Vietnam by boat in 1980. Eden Center, with its traditional foods and streets named for South Vietnamese leaders, such as Maj. Gen. Nguyen Khoa Nam, offers a place of comfort where he and other expatriates can share memories.
It was at the center that Tran unexpectedly reunited with a friend he had made on the boat leaving Vietnam, and they had a chance to relive their rescue at sea and their arrival at a refugee camp in Malaysia.
“I made several attempts to flee [Vietnam]. I was captured and put in jail. One time they hit me in the head with a rifle,” Tran, 51, recalled as he talked to Hoang. “We are so lucky. We have so much freedom here. When you live in communism, you have to do what they say, you cannot do what you feel like.”
Concerns about the raid remain. Foot traffic is good, but some business owners say they were already squeezed by the lingering effects of the recession and high rents.
Falls Church officials say that they are working to improve the relationship between the Vietnamese community and the city and that they want Eden Center to be viewed not as a threat but as a cultural treasure.
The city is also working with businesses to provide training on licensing, taxation and how small businesses can maintain success, said City Council member David F. Snyder, who calls the shopping plaza an asset to Falls Church.
“It is a wonderful, unique environment,” he said. “I often say to people, ‘If you want to get a great, wonderful taste of Vietnam without going, taking your passport and spending a couple of thousand dollars on flying . . . just pop in your car and go to the Eden Center.’ ”
Ha Lu, 62, who took over her sister’s sandwich stall at Eden Center 14 years ago, shortly after she arrived in the United States, said she doesn’t make much revenue but is grateful for her loyal customers. Some come from as far as North Carolina and New York for the banh mi sandwiches she prepares, piling meats, cilantro, cucumber, radish, carrot and jalapeno on French bread.
“I feel very happy. I came here to find a job and work very hard,” said Lu, who talks proudly about her two daughters who grew up helping in the business and are now dentists.
David Hay, 41, a resident of Anne Arundel County, is a regular at Ha’s shop. On a recent visit, he and his mother, Julie Hai Nguyen Hay of Prince George’s County, ordered six banh mi subs to go and talked about how the strong flavors reminded them of home.
“We love it,” said Hay, whose American father met his mother while serving in Vietnam. “I try to stay with my culture, my heritage.”