Little Sài Gòn of Paris

Published November 2, 2015 in Episode 28

Paris is the city of love, lights, high fashion and fine cuisine. It's also a multicultural mecca for many Vietnamese. The French capital is divided into twenty districts or  “arrondissements” that  form an outward-winding spiral beginning at the city’s center. Paris’ 13th district, also known as the Asian Quarter, is home to a large community of Chinese, Laotian, and Vietnamese.

Loa’s Vinh Trần takes us on a tour through the sights and sounds of this neighborhood’s bustling Vietnamese landmarks.

Vinh Trần: Bienvenue! I'm right outside the metro station Porte D'Ivry, the closest station to Chinatown! I can already smell the delightful food coming from the restaurants! For this tour, Monsieur Sơn Trần will guide us. He is a longtime Parisian and he definitely knows each nook and cranny of Paris' 13e arrondissement, or quận 13, the 13th district.

Hello Monsieur Trần, thank you for taking Loa along with you today.

Sơn Trần: It's my pleasure!  

Vinh Trần: I know that you have been in Paris for a long time, and that you come to this district quite often. So I guess you must have seen its evolution. Could you please tell us when and how it became Chinatown?

Sơn Trần: Oh sure, you know in the middle of the 1970s, in order to address the lack of housing in Paris, the French government decided to build a lot of apartments here, high towers. But the towers did not meet the expected success with French populations.

And at the same time, with the Fall of Sài Gòn, more and more Vietnamese refugees came to France fleeing the communist regime. So the French authorities decided to settle them in the high towers of Olympiades in this quarter and so that is the starting point of the Parisian Chinatown.

Vinh Trần: So the Vietnamese refugees came here because it was more affordable?

Sơn Trần: Sure, there was very low and cheap rent here in the 1970s.

Vinh Trần: And how is Chinatown now?

Sơn Trần: You know 40 years later now, the population is now very diversified with people coming from China, from Laos, from Cambodia. Most of the Vietnamese first inhabitants have moved to other places in Paris or outside Paris. And more and more young French people are coming into this quarter. They are attracted by the multi-cultural environment and cheap-rent apartments. And there is a lot of visits and activities to do here.

Vinh Trần: That's great! What's the first place we should go?

Sơn Trần: Ah there is one store, everyone has to visit once! I'll take you there.

Vinh Trần: Great, let's go!

We walk pass Asian music, jewelry and fashion shops and find ourselves in front of a supermarket on Avenue d’Ivry, near the metro station. Two magnificent lions greet us on either side of the entrance of the store. You definitely cannot miss it.

Vinh Trần: So Mr. Trần, where are we?

Sơn Trần: We are here in the Paris Store supermarket.

Vinh Trần: What so special about this store?

Sơn Trần: You know, the Paris Store supermarket is one of the first Asian supermarkets founded in Paris in the late 1970s. They were founded by two Vietnameses families, the Trinh and Giang families. Now 40 years later, the company is a very big company with many shops in France and they have many employees. You can find here a lot of things you need to cook Asian food, such as rice noodles.

Vinh Trần: Oh yeah I can see some rice noodles for phở or bún bò Huế.

Sơn Trần: Oh yeah sure it’s very delicious and you can find here vegetables and fruits, so it’s very easy to get here to shop for food.

Vinh Trần: And there are a lot of French people that come here?

Sơn Trần: Yes as you can see around us there is a lot of French people coming here to do their shopping because they enjoy Asian food.

Vinh Trần: Oh I see that it's almost lunchtime. Do you have any recommendations for restaurants?

Sơn Trần: Sure! I can get you to Phở Bánh Cuốn 14, it’s one of the best of phở restaurants in Paris.

Vinh Trần: Amazing, let’s go!

Sơn Trần: Okay let’s go.

Monsieur Trần takes me a short distance down the same avenue. Phở 14 is located at the corner of a big intersection, Avenue d’Ivry and Avenue de Choisy. We can already see the popularity of the restaurant despite numerous other restaurants around. There is a long line of hungry clients at the door. After 15 minutes of waiting, we are finally inside!

Vinh Trần: So Mr. Trần, do you know the story about this restaurant?

Sơn Trần: Oh basically, the concept of restaurant serving only phở and bánh cuốn has been created by my uncle and my aunt in the early 1980s.

Vinh Trần: Oh really?

Sơn Trần: Yes, they have created a restaurant serving only phở and bánh cuốn inside Paris in the fifth district and their clients were mostly French people. At that time people needed half an hour to get a table. Unfortunately my uncle died in 2001 and my aunt had to close the restaurant. Now I’m happy that someone has resumed the concept by creating this restaurant serving only phở and bánh cuốn. And I’m happy to see that this restaurant is really crowded like my uncle’s restaurant.

Vinh Trần: Wow it’s amazing. And do you know the difference between the phở in Việt Nam and the phở in France?

Sơn Trần: Well, in Việt Nam the broth in the North, the broth [is] mostly very tasty, in the South of Việt Nam people eat phở with more herbs and fresh soy [bean sprouts]. In France, the phở, what we eat, it’s a mix of two styles. That means the broth is very tasty and with many herbs and soy.

Vinh Trần: Oh that makes this phở so unique.

Sơn Trần: Yes.

Vinh Trần: Oh here’s our, plates, Merci. Guys, it looks so yummy!

The succulent smell coming out of the bowl is already transporting me to Việt Nam. I just have to add some fresh cilantro and soybean sprouts. The broth is clear and tasty, and the slices of beef are so tender!

Vinh Trần: It's really delicious! It was definitely worth waiting for! Thank you Monsieur Trần for bringing me here, it was a great and authentic phở. For Vietnamese people, are there other must-see places in the 13th district that you recommend us to visit?

Sơn Trần: Oh yes there is Khai Trí store for example. You can find you know Vietnamese sandwiches everywhere in Chinatown but the best bánh mì thịt Vietnamese [meat] sandwich are made here by Khai Trí and there is no doubt about that. You know originally Khai Trí was a book store.

Vinh Trần: Oh really?

Sơn Trần: Yes hence its name, because Khai Trí means ‘open you mind.’ Now Khai Trí still rents and sells Vietnamese books, calendars and dictionaries and so on. Now Khai Trí is very famous for their sandwiches. You know the first clients of the shop were Vietnamese refugees and they were very poor so the owner of Khai Trí had the marvellous idea to make sandwiches to sell to their clients. And now most of the clients come here for some sandwiches and at least half of them are not even Vietnamese people.

Vinh Trần: Oh and what’s so special about the bánh mì Khai Trí?

Sơn Trần: Oh bánh mì Khai Trí is made with a special sauce and French fresh baguette and so that makes them so delicious compared to the other sandwiches.

Vinh Trần: Oh amazing! Thank you for this wonderful tour! I definitely learned a lot about Paris’ 13th district and why Vietnamese people from everywhere love to come here.  

I'm Vinh Trần, with Monsieur Trần Sơn. We hope to see you in Paris. Au revoir!

Sơn Trần: Au revoir Loa!