An older gentleman, deeply reclined in a barber’s chair, is having his nose hairs expertly trimmed. Across the way, at the Café Nho, a group of men plays cards while a melancholy Vietnamese ballad spills out into the Thien Sanh China Herbs store where a young couple considers buying an herbal remedy whose primary ingredient is sheep’s placenta. The intoxicating smell of grilled pork sandwiches fills the air.
You’ve arrived at Falls Church’s Eden Center, 6751 Wilson Blvd., a sprawling indoor/outdoor mall that is the heart and soul of Fairfax County’s Vietnamese community. Aside from the imposing pagoda entranceway, you might mistake the place for any other suburban strip mall, but take the time to explore this intriguing warren of restaurants, bakeries, cafés, karaoke parlors and shops and you’ll feel like you’re in a back alley in steamy Saigon.
The complex of 120 Asian businesses — with no chain-stores in sight — features a replica clock tower modeled on one in downtown Saigon, and three indoor malls — Saigon West, Eden Mall and Saigon East. Originally called the Plaza Seven Shopping Center before being re-christened the Eden Center in 1984, the complex has expanded right along with Fairfax’s growing Vietnamese population.
“This place is a landmark — it’s a symbol of freedom,” said Gene Nguyen, president of the Vietnamese-American Chamber of Commerce, at the Eden Center’s Half Moon Festival in mid-September. “You’ll notice the honorary street names here- they’re named after our generals who fought the communists. That’s what our fathers fought for, so we can be here today, so this is a special place for us.”
According to the Department of Homeland Security, just 290 Vietnamese naturalized as U.S. citizens in the 1950s, but as U.S. troops deployed to the country in the 1960s, the figure grew tenfold to 2,949, and then exploded to 121,716 in the 1970s. In the last 30 years, nearly 800,000 more Vietnamese have become U.S. citizens, and in 2010, Vietnam was the fifth most common country of origin for U.S. immigrants. According to the 2010 census, there are 28,770 Vietnamese persons living in Fairfax County, which represents 2.7 percent of the county’s total population.
Intrepid visitors can browse for herbal remedies, bling that would make a rap star blush, acrylic paintings of fire breathing dragons, golden Buddha statues, and some of the tastiest, most inexpensive food you’ll find anywhere.
If you visit the Eden Center near lunchtime, definitely start with a bánh mì sandwich. Thanks to the French colonial legacy in Vietnam, a good bánh mì will be served on a fresh baguette, with various meats or tofu adorned with pickled radishes, carrots, chilies, cilantro and a tangy fish sauce.
My favorite bánh mì place is Song Que, 6769 Wilson Blvd., a Vietnamese deli run by four sisters, that serves up unbelievably good bánh mìs that go for just $3.25-$3.75. Celebrity chef Anthony Bourdain filmed an episode of “No Reservations,” in D.C. in 2009, and featured Song Que’s grilled pork sandwich. I’m a carnivore, so I too tend to go for the grilled pork, or the lemongrass beef or the meatball sandwich. If you’re more adventuresome than me, you might also pick up one of the offbeat snacks for sale, such as shrimp flavored chips, deer jerky or roasted green peas.
After lunch, pick up a delicious bubble tea. I’m addicted to the coconut, but you can’t go wrong with all but one of the flavors on offer at Song Que, Thanh Son Tofu, 6793 Wilson Blvd., or Huong Viet, 6785 Wilson Blvd.
The lone offender is the durian flavored drink. If you’re not familiar with durian and its appalling odor, consider the fact that it is illegal to carry this rancid smelling fruit in Singapore and other countries, and even Andrew Zimmern, the gluttonous host of the Travel Channel program “Bizarre Foods,” is repelled by the stuff.
Take a stroll and you’ll notice a host of travel agencies and video shops — two business models nearing extinction, but still thriving in Falls Church’s Little Saigon. I always make a point of inspecting the freshly slaughtered, swaying animal carcasses at Cho Saigon Supermarket, 6763 Wilson Blvd., but my can’t-miss favorite shops are China Herbs, 6763 Wilson Blvd., in the Eden Mall, and Thien Sanh China Herbs, 6757 Wilson Blvd., in Saigon East. The proprietor of China Herbs doesn’t speak English, but don’t let that stop you from entering her fascinating herbal remedy shop.
Thanks to a spirited game of charades, I was able to ascertain with about 50 percent certainty that a box of “imperial and superior sea dog pills,” with a photo of a deer on it, is a cough remedy. Boxes of “tri-snake pills,” an “armadillo-counter poison pill,” and an unnamed package with a crocodile on it are all for itchy skin. The orange box with a sexy woman on it is a skin-whitening cream, and the big boxes of “shark capsules” are for joint pain. And the one with the chicken’s foot is for — drum roll please — hair loss.
Over at Thien Sanh, you’ll find an equally intriguing array of bizarre items such as cobras and scorpions in a bottle, “delay spray for men” and, my personal favorite, sheep placenta.
As much as I like bánh mì sandwiches, bubble tea and the herbal remedies, a visit to the Eden Center wouldn’t be complete without sampling one of the first-rate sit down Vietnamese restaurants like Huong Viet, 6785 Wilson Blvd., which has a great carmelized fish in a hot pot for $11.50; Hai Duong, 6795 Wilson Blvd., a casual eatery known for its huge bowls of excellent pho (Vietnamese soup, $6.95-$7.95) and other noodle-based dishes; or the tiny little Seaside Crab House, where you can feast on a pound of snow crab legs for $12.99.
After dinner, migrate over to one of Eden’s karaoke bars, like Café Lang Van, 6755 Wilson Blvd), Hoa Vien Quan Restaurant, 6757 Wilson Blvd., Hoang Café, 6795 Wilson Blvd., or the wonderfully named Café Dang, 6795 Wilson Blvd., where you can mingle with stylish young Vietnamese out for a night on the town. If you’re hoping to do the electric slide, you might be disappointed, but the good news is that when Americans sing Vietnamese ballads, they can blame their poor performance on the language barrier rather than their singing skills.