In the 1970s, thousands of Vietnamese war refugees fled their native land, desperately seeking a new beginning, free of political persecution for themselves and their children. Many of those refugees settled just north of downtown Orlando and began opening businesses and revitalizing a fairly lackluster part of the city.
Now, dozens of Asian restaurants, shops and markets line a 10-block stretch of Orlando's Colonial Drive near Mills Avenue. Though most of the storefronts are decorated with Vietnamese characters, there is no shortage of Chinese, Thai, Korean and other Asian establishments. A stroll through the area also reveals an impressive number of Asian-owned medical and dental offices, nail salons, travel agencies, health food centers, martial arts studios, Boba tea shops and music and video stores. There's even a karaoke bar and a martial arts weapons store.
This area, home to the largest Vietnamese community in the state, once was called "Little Vietnam" by locals and visitors. Recently, however, the neighborhood was rebranded the "Mills 50 District," as part of the Orlando Main Street Program. The new name reflects the major intersection here – Mills Avenue and Colonial Drive (SR 50) – but it doesn't quite capture the essence of the area.
It is a place that beckons to visitors, a genuine and real-life attraction just a short drive from the nearby theme-park wonderlands.
The Orlando Main Street Program was designed to spur economic development in and attract new residents to some of Orlando's commercial districts. Mills 50 plans to achieve these goals by helping new and existing businesses resolve permitting and other issues and by promoting those businesses through the use of social media, according to Joanne Grant, executive director of Mills 50 Main Street Co.
Mills 50 also is busily improving the district's visual appeal by commissioning local artists to paint utility boxes at intersections throughout the district. Next on the agenda are murals for the sides of some of the area businesses, Grant says.
While this seems wholly beneficial on the surface, some residents of Little Vietnam are concerned that not enough is being done to highlight the distinctive culture and history of the area.
Tony Nguyen of Tien Hung Jewelry has some concerns. He says that while the rebranding has not directly affected his business, he thinks more could be done to draw attention to the area and bring in tourists interested in experiencing what he considers the only Asian destination in Central Florida.
Nguyen worries that the Asian character of the area has "gotten a little dim" since the rebranding, but he thinks the painted utility boxes and other artistic enhancements are beautiful and give the area a "nice twist compared to other Asian areas around the U.S."
Grant believes that any improvements to the area make the district more inviting and result in increased car and pedestrian traffic. And she has a point: More traffic means more business for everyone in the district.
But one central concern seems unrelated to any potential loss of business – and more related to potentially lost identity. Little Vietnam represents one of the oldest Vietnamese communities in the United States and is a rare example of a predominantly Asian-American community in Florida. Perhaps more Asian-themed art and community events would ease concerns of the Vietnamese business owners and other local residents.
At least one Asian event organized by the district has been a huge success, according to both Grant and Nguyen. In February 2012, an estimated 3,000 people lined up to watch a dragon-led lunar New Year parade and festival organized by the Mills 50 District and the Chinese American Association of Central Florida. Grant says the district intends to make it an annual event. Also being discussed is an Asian mural to adorn the side of a prominent building at the intersection of Mills and Colonial.
And some visitors say Little Vietnam is impossible to obscure, no matter what changes are made to the area around it.
"It's like a scaled-down version of New York's Chinatown," says Stephanie Sterrett, a graphic designer and frequent visitor to Little Vietnam. "You can't miss the brightly colored signs and Asian characters, or the delicious smell of Chinese and Vietnamese food as you drive or walk by."
Sterrett recommends dinner at Little Saigon or Anh Hong and banh mi at Boston Bakery & Cafe. If you want to buy authentic Vietnamese ingredients to make your own dinner, Saigon Market and Phuoc Loc Tho Super Oriental Market have an impressive inventory. Or, head up Mills Avenue and wander inside Dong-A Supermarket for a great selection of Asian foods, including fresh meat, seafood and produce.
Don't forget to peruse Little Vietnam's fashion stores and collectible shops – you won't find more authentic goods at better prices anywhere. Plus, many of the markets carry sake flasks and novelty items that make unique gifts for loved ones. Finish your day with a delicious Boba tea or smoothie from Lollicup Coffee & Tea.
And remember: As is the case with most Chinatowns and other Asian-American areas, many of Little Vietnam's greatest treasures are hidden from the main street. Tien Hung Jewelry, for example, is easy to miss as part of the larger Tien Hung Market on Colonial. So, if you really want to explore the neighborhood, wander the side streets and look inside every building before you leave.
To sample some of Mills 50's other offerings after exploring Little Vietnam, enjoy some live music at Will's Pub on Mills and then visit Bananas Modern American Diner for a tasty late-night milkshake. And while you're there, consider the contrast between what was and what is becoming.
This story was first published on VISITFLORIDA.com.