Kim Đô Serves Thriving Vietnamese Community

By Anastasia Farmerie and Victor Essel

After you grab a quick jumbo egg roll, a side of fried noodles and a hot BBQchicken kabob at the Moonlight Express food vendor, you’ll find you are right next-door to a special Vietnamese grocery store on 1808 Penn Avenue. A bright yellow sign with red text reads: “Kim Đô Oriental Grocery. Wholesale Retail: Vietnamese Foods, Chinese Foods, South East Asian Foods, American Foods, African Foods.”

At Kim Đô, there is more than just food – you can find Vietnamese magazines, music, and, of course, traditional ingredients to cook traditional meals. It is a resource for all Vietnamese community members.  Built by the hands and minds of immigrants, shops like Kim Đô represent a community’s pursuit of something universal, or as it has been called: the American Dream.

Two Vietnamese immigrants came to the strip to open Kim Đô, which offers Trung Nguyen Coffee, Vietnamese homemade chili sauce, dried noodles for every kind of Southeast Asian soup, fresh fruits and every kind of tea imaginable.

Tam and Phuong Nguyen own Kim Đô.  They grew up and married in Saigon, which is now Ho Chi Minh City, the biggest city in southern Vietnam. But Phuong wanted to start his own independent business in the United States, so his wife, Tam, came along to support his dream.  Finding work with Westinghouse, she and her husband were able to settle in Pittsburgh. When Phuong decided this was the place to start his business, he asked Tam to join him.

“I was working at Westinghouse and my husband made me do it,” Tam says, conceding that operating the neat Vietnamese grocery store full-time in the Strip District was a great idea.

Photo by Anastasia Farmerie

Photo by Anastasia Farmerie

Twenty-seven years ago, they opened a Vietnamese grocery store in Oakland, but felt they needed more space and even more exposure to a diverse community. So, 13 years later, they landed in the midst of varied businesses on Penn Avenue’s Strip.

“More and more Vietnamese families began to relocate to the Pittsburgh area,” says Hanh Nguyen, Vietnamese Professor at the University of Pittsburgh and member of the Vietnamese Catholic Community and the Vietnamese Association of Pittsburgh (VAP).

“There were about 2000 Vietnamese people that lived in Pittsburgh. This number has certainly increased since 1979,” she says. “The community is very close and most of the people know each other.” Before Phuong and Tam, Mrs. Hanh Nguyen came to the United States in 1975, and settled in Pittsburgh in 1979 when her husband was offered a job as an anesthesiologist.

“Moving to Pittsburgh was great as more and more Vietnamese people have relocated to the area.  This has helped create a vibrant community that I enjoy being a part of,” she says.

A poster taped on the front door of Kim Đô tells of a Christmas Celebration for the Vietnamese Catholic Community of Pittsburgh.

Every month, the Vietnamese Catholic community holds a Vietnamese mass, followed by a community gathering and a traditional meal.

“We also have the Christmas mass where traditional music is sung by the choir that I direct.  After mass, everyone gathers for a feast and celebration,” says Mrs. Hanh Nguyen.  “We also do something similar for New Year’s Day. In the VAP, we host many smaller gatherings.  Our most popular event is the Lunar New Year Celebration. In February, we gather for a day of traditional food, dragon dancing, Vietnamese games for the children, and giving good luck money in the red envelopes. We gather together to celebrate, talk, and look forward to seeing old friends,” she says.

Tam and Phuong Nguyen help raise money for these events. Right now, they are in the process of raising money to bring in a famous Vietnamese singer from California for a performance at the Tết Lunar New Year Festival. Community members will prepare food. “We give back to Vietnam,” Tam says.

A small old TV broadcasts a football game behind Phuong, as he rings a customer up. Shelves of Vietnamese CD cases and music line the wall above, along with posters of Vietnamese movie stars and soap operas. Tam speaks to a customer in a language that most Americans cannot understand.

“We get people from Thailand, Vietnam, Africa, Columbia, Mexico, people who come over and study,” Phuong says.

Tam and Phuong achieved what they initially set out to do, and they are satisfied with their shop.  Although it has become a hub for the Vietnamese people, it also serves as a place for diversity –everyone is welcome to enjoy the unique products there.

The Vietnamese couple is confident that Kim Đô, will still be here years from now. Their children have already graduated from college and became professionals and moved on to other cities. One might ask, who will take over once they retire? This doesn’t matter – according to Tam and Phuong –as long as someone in the community keeps it going, they’ll be happy. This way, the immigrants’ passion and care will be preserved and consistent, presenting the products in a way that has kept the business thriving.

“This is a place for Vietnamese people and others to go. This is so we have a voice,” Tam says.