Get Your Chopsticks on Route 66
In the back of Pho Lien Hoa, a family-style restaurant on Oklahoma City’s NW 23rd Street, hangs a large piece of art, the kind you automatically associate with Chinese or Vietnamese restaurants for its dark lacquered wood, inlaid with mother of pearl. You know the type. Six horses pull a covered wagon, right out of the Land Rush, dashing across the dusty landscape. There’s a blocky Oklahoma University logo in each of the top corners, and in iridescent all-caps at the bottom: “SOONERS.” Could this exist anywhere else but Oklahoma City’s Asian District?
I’d been looking forward to visiting the Asian District since joining the National Trust on their road trip across Route 66 in an effort to garner public support for the highway’s designation as a National Historic Trail. Situated on a former stretch of The Mother Road, off North Classen Boulevard and NW 23rd Street, the neighborhood is a lively hub for Asian American restaurants and businesses. People of numerous Asian heritages call it home, but the neighborhood—something of an Asian cultural oasis in the South Central United States—is also known as “Little Saigon” for its predominant Vietnamese population.
I have always been interested in the Vietnamese communities sprinkled across the country, which strike me as both familiar and strange. I grew up with a giant Vietnamese family in a small Alabama beach town—most people there saw someone who looks Asian and assumed they were part of our family. Most of the time, to my annoyance, they were correct. Visiting Vietnamese neighborhoods feels like peering into an alternate reality: What would it have been like to grow up here, rather than there? Where they have movie rental stores dedicated to Vietnamese cinema alone, or groceries with my grandmother’s favorite herbs in stock, entire aisles dedicated to rice noodles, 10 (10!) unique flavors of Pocky?
These things, I expected. Not so familiar: the feeling of being on Route 66 and not knowing it, if not for my map. Little Saigon was a stop on my Route 66 trip, after all—and there are all sorts of expectations one carries with her on such an adventure.
Note: Polaroid is a sponsor of the National Trust's Route 66 National Treasure campaign.