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After 32 Years, Saigon Market Closes in Orlando’s Mills 50 District in November 2023

Late last year, Saigon Market announced they would close their doors after serving the Orlando community over 32 years since 1991.

My first memories of Saigon Market were on trips to Orlando as a young boy with my parents, driving the two hours or so from West Palm Beach, visiting Walt Disney World and then afterwards, dropping by Mills 50 for a hot rice plate of com dac biet from Anh Hong, Asian groceries at Dong A, Trung My, Tien Hung and Saigon Market, nail supplies for the shop, and maybe some buy 5 get 1 free banh mi sandwiches for the road.

In 2003, I enrolled as a freshman at the University of Central Florida and recall fondly the first of many trips to Saigon Market, especially on weekend mornings when the pastries from their onsite bakery were fresh and hot out of the oven. And of course, I remember meeting for the first time my friends Teresa and Tiffany Chan, who alongside their family, beamed from behind the counter serving customers like me. It was a home away from home.

For immigrants, these markets offer more than just produce and bottles of soy sauce – it’s a taste of home, reminiscent of family meals and holiday feasts made by grandma or auntie. For people so far from home, these places are oases where they could escape the pressures and stresses of being in a foreign land with foreign tongues, and just relish in a baked barbecue pork bun or some rolled banh cuon rice noodles.

I spoke with my long-time dear friend Teresa Ly Chan, daughter of the owners of Saigon Market and now founder of Sus Hi Eatstation, about her thoughts on the closing, memories of Saigon Market, and what the future holds.

Ricky Ly: How have customers and the local community reacted to the news of Saigon Market closing?

Teresa Ly Chan: I was personally overwhelmed by the support from our community. I worked at the market for a few days and was blessed with sooo many visits from my regulars! They watched me grow from a 5 year old to now a mom of 3 – it was surreal. Just knowing we will be losing our connection with them was quite emotional – there were definitely alot of tears. I handed out my business card to my closest customers so hopefully we can rebuild through there.

How and when did Saigon Market start in Orlando?

1991 is when we opened the market here in Orlando. We started the business back in St. Petersburg and opened up this second location. My mom and dad were managing the one in St.Pete while my aunt and uncle managed the one in Orlando. When my mom and dad separated, our family moved to Orlando to help my aunt and uncle.

What has been Saigon Market’s role in promoting and preserving Asian culture and cuisine in Orlando? What do you think Saigon Market meant to the immigrant community in Orlando?

We operated in an old school kinda way so it was very reminiscent of life in Vietnam. We kept things messy and most of our items didn’t have price tags. There was a scent when you walked through the doors that reminded me of my time in Vietnam (maybe a mix of fresh seafood and durian? lol) Hopefully all that we did was able to capture the essence of Vietnam and made our customers feel like they were home.

Can you share any of your favorite memorable stories or experiences of Saigon Market over the years?

My most memorable days were the countless busy weekends – Sundays especially. I remember going into work like I was going into war. It was a non-step mess from open to close. Since we offer so many things, we were constantly being pulled in multiple directions – packaging bakery, making sugar juice or baba, assembling banh mi, cashiering, answering questions, helping customers find items, etc. We were bombarded with loud customers shouting at each other, but it was always fun. When I was cashiering, no semblance of a line formed anywhere near my register. It was great. But above all, the relationships I formed with my regulars meant the most to me.

In your opinion, how has the market evolved or changed since its opening?

When we first opened Saigon Market, we focused primarily on meat and vegetables. We slowly started adding more offerings — dry goods, bakery, sugarcane juice, BBQ (roast pork, duck), ready-made meals, desserts, kimchi, banh mi sandwiches, boba, etc. Our tiny market did it all lol. With all the wonderful offerings, we never changed our systems. We still operated pen and paper, in a sense – very mom and pop, but we liked it that way.

Have there been specific challenges or successes that stand out in the market’s history?

The biggest challenge my family faced was probably when the kids started getting older and leaving the nest. We all started our own careers and families of our own. The stress of the store was left with aunt and uncle who did the best they could, but they were getting tired. They also didn’t want to pass on the store to any of us because they wanted us to start our own lives and not bare the burden. We all offered.

What is next for your family?

My aunt and uncle are retiring. They have been working the market for 32 years straight. They are most excited about having holidays off and being able to celebrate with family. My uncle’s passion is fishing so they will be moving to Clearwater to be near the water. All the kids are grown and working on their own careers. Saigon Market was beautiful for all of us – it really brought us together as a family. There’s something about overcoming and sharing vulnerabilities that brings people together and we did that.

How would you like the community to remember Saigon Market?

We would like to be remembered as the family market – the place where you’re guaranteed to see familiar faces each time you walk in. We would like to be remembered as a family who truly cared about our people and our community. Our employees stayed with us for years, decades even. We worked very hard, but we did it together as a family.

Michael Nguyen, who grew up going to Saigon Market and now owns and operates The Moderne across the street in Mills 50, spoke to us about his thoughts on the closing.

“As an Orlando native and of Vietnamese descent, Mills 50 has always been a home to me. For as long as I can remember, my family has shopped at Saigon Market.  I have countless memories of that place. From wholesome ones like Co Linh drowning me in my favorite bakery items to mischievous ones of my youth like my brother and I releasing blue crabs on the market floor ( Co linh & Chu Khanh if you’re reading this IM SO SORRY!)

However, one of my most fondest memories is a recent one. We were missing a few items on our shipment to Moderne so I hurried on over to Saigon Market to get them. At check out, I’m greeted by Co Linh. We have the usual small talk and at the end she says “I’m proud of you Michael. I remember when you used to be a baby shopping with your mom. Now look at you! Such a businessman! Keep up the great work honey.” In the moment, I felt shy and bashful from receiving such praise from her. Shortly after, Saigon Market announced their closing. Heartbroken, I looked back at that moment and realized how symbolic it was. It felt almost as if a torch was being passed from one generation to another. And as proud as I am to receive that torch, I am absolutely gutted to say goodbye to such a staple in the community. Little Saigon will never be the same without Saigon Market.”

Farewell, Saigon Market – and my deepest appreciation and gratitude for the memories.

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