When a group of Vietnamese leaders came up with the idea of a heritage garden almost 40 years ago, the vision was grand.
The Viet Heritage Garden in San Jose was supposed to be a cultural oasis featuring mini-replicas of different historical Vietnamese landmarks, a reflection pond and a pathway to a community center.
Today, the garden stands bare in Kelley Park with a red brick imperial gate, a fence and three flagpoles. Overgrown grass, shrubs and trash cover the ground. Part of the entryway is graffitied.
The garden is rarely used, except for a monthly Vietnamese flag raising event. A corner of the four-acre plot functions as a community garden, where some older Vietnamese residents grow vegetables.
“I walk by it all the time, but I didn’t know what to make of it,” East San Jose native and college student Thao Truong told San José Spotlight. “I’m not even sure what it is.”
A passion project decades in the making, the Viet Heritage Garden project was tainted by years of delay and disputes between the city and the nonprofit in charge of development before funding ran out, community members and leaders say.
The project was touted as a way to pay homage to the journey that thousands of refugees took to flee Vietnam following the fall of Saigon in 1975, as it would also serve as a space for the largest Vietnamese population in any American city to gather and socialize.
Will the vision of a vibrant Viet Heritage Garden ever come to life?
“The enthusiasm and interest is still there,” former Vice Mayor Madison Nguyen told San José Spotlight. “But the biggest barrier right now is funding.”
Years of delays
Following her historic win in 2005 as the first Vietnamese American councilmember in San Jose, Nguyen started pushing for the heritage garden project in City Hall. But it wasn’t until she became vice mayor six years later that the project took off.
Community members long dreamed of the heritage garden, Nguyen told San José Spotlight.
“I had a little bit more discretion in terms of asking for funding then,” Nguyen said. “But it’s very hard for any one elected official to be able to convince their colleagues to spend that significant amount of money on one particular project.”
Visionaries came to her with sketches featuring a number of mini-replicas of Vietnamese historic structures, such as the One Pillar Pagoda, Hùng Temple, Pagoda of the Celestial Lady and Tomb of Lê Văn Duyệt. Similar to the Japanese Friendship Garden located on the other end of Kelley Park, the Viet Heritage Garden would also have a reflection pond filled with lotus, an iconic water flower in Vietnam.
The vision of the garden changed over the years, Nguyen said, but the support and desire for the project was “tremendous” during her tenure.
“It was significant because it’s a way to not only preserve the Vietnamese culture, but it is also taking an important part of history and ensuring that it is ever present in the city of San Jose,” she said.
While Nguyen rallied the city for funding, the Vietnamese Heritage Society, a local nonprofit, took charge in designing and building the garden.
Between 2006 and 2012, the project received more than $2 million in funding from the city, county and state. The heritage society also raised more than $1 million from community members to bring the garden to life.
The project broke ground in 2011, but construction halted after the city claimed improper management by the Vietnamese Heritage Society, an allegation the nonprofit disputed, according to a news report. But the longer they waited, the more expensive it was going to be, with construction costs rising across San Jose. The heritage society could only finish the first phase of the project, which included the imperial gate, a parking lot and three flagpoles.
Vietnamese Heritage Society Chairman Dr. Ngai Nguyen didn’t respond to inquiries about the garden.
In 2016, the city cut ties with the heritage society and took over the project, saying the site was a health and safety hazard, according to a city memo. In total, more than $3.5 million was spent on the project.
Little has been done since. The garden is maintained weekly, and its community garden program will undergo renovation later this year, said city spokesperson Daniel Lazo.
“It’s just been sitting there, for too long,” said one resident who’s lived across from the garden for 25 years. She requested not to be identified. “I think it ended up being a waste of taxpayer money.”
What lies ahead
San Jose boasts in its 2040 General Plan to be the first city in the U.S. to have a Vietnamese heritage garden, but plans to build out the empty lot on Roberts Avenue are nowhere in sight.
In a 2016 memo, officials noted that the city will oversee any further work on the garden, but funding must come from the community.
“I wish that we could have done more (with the garden),” Nguyen said. “And I hope that we still can make it a landmark… The hardest part about this project is getting the city to designate a space, and we do have that. Now it’s really up to the community to come up with the money, working with the county and the city and perhaps even the state of California.”
The former vice mayor said she’s helping with fundraising efforts to bring a monument project to the garden—a project originally backed by the city and Santa Clara County in 2019.
The monument will be a life-size statue of two soldiers, one American and one South Vietnamese. It will be a symbol of reconciliation and healing, according to the proposal.
Bien Doan, a San Jose Fire Department captain who recently announced his bid for the District 7 City Council seat, knows the garden issue is a sore subject for the community.
“The current state is unacceptable… All you see is a gate, some fences. There’s no movement and it’s sad,” Doan said. “It saddens me to see that (we’re) such a great community and we barely have anything. And I hope that someday we find funding and build a heritage center just like the Mexican Heritage Plaza.”
Lloyd Alaban contributed to this article.