An inside look at the new San Jose site for Vietnamese Americans

With bamboo glass walls and green exterior lighting, the Vietnamese American community in Santa Clara County will soon be able to access a sleek new building to either collect a medical prescription or get dental work done.

The newly built 37,000 square foot Vietnamese American Service Center, located near the corner of Senter and Tully Road and about a 10 minute drive south from San Jose’s Little Saigon, includes a pharmacy, health clinic, dental and mental health services, meeting rooms and child care facilities. The site will fully open starting February 2022 and will operate Monday through Friday, 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. and Saturday, 10 a.m. to 5 p.m.

While anyone can use the center, it is focused on serving the second largest concentration of Vietnamese Americans in the country, with more than 140,000 such residents. The building’s health clinic is the thirteenth such facility in the county and aims to serve approximately 3,000 patients per year.

“This is a culmination of years and years of work,” said Santa Clara County Supervisor Cindy Chavez, one of the main advocates for the project.

SAN JOSE, CALIFORNIA – OCTOBER 18: A multi purpose room on the first floor of the Vietnamese American Service Center (VASC) during a media tour in San Jose, Calif., on Monday, Oct. 18, 2021. The lights are arranged to echo a conical hat. (Nhat V. Meyer/Bay Area News Group) 

Multiple parts of the building carry odes to Vietnamese culture. For instance, the bamboo glass that can be found on parts of the facility resemble villages in Vietnam that used to surround themselves with the plant for “natural protection,” said Betty Duong, project manager for the center. On the first level of the building, spiral lighting in one of the rooms is supposed to look like a conical hat, known as a nón lá in Vietnamese.

The idea for a Vietnamese American center goes back a decade. In 2011, then-Supervisor Dave Cortese, now a state senator, commissioned a health assessment of the community.

The study found that the community experienced cancer rates much higher than other groups Liver cancer, for example, in this community causes death at four times the rate nationally compared to other adults in the county. The assessment also found a number of risk factors among the community. Smoking rates among Vietnamese men were twice as high compared to others in the county. In addition, the study revealed that poverty rates among the community are some of the highest in the county.

“What we really started to glean was that we needed a very specific approach to making sure that we can keep the Vietnamese American community healthy,” said Chavez.

Cortese said that the study created a “challenge” for the county, too.

“So many in the county said, rightfully, ‘What is this? Another study that is going to sit on the shelf? What good is it to know what our health assessment is if we’re not going to do anything about it?’” recalled Cortese.

SAN JOSE, CALIFORNIA – OCTOBER 18: An exterior of the Vietnamese American Service Center (VASC) during a media tour in San Jose, Calif., on Monday, Oct. 18, 2021. (Nhat V. Meyer/Bay Area News Group) 

In 2015, both Cortese and Chavez called for the creation of a service center. A $33 million construction contract was awarded in 2018 and builders broke ground in 2019. In addition to the construction costs, another $17 million was put towards an architect, permitting and furnishing the inside of the building, said Chavez.

When asked whether the county had any goals in mind for closing some of the health disparities its identified among the Vietnamese American community, Chavez said the center should first be focusing on medical exams of patients, and referred to a statistic in the study that women in the community have some of the highest rates of cervical cancer in the country.

“As we think about community goals, those goals that we’re going to be setting will probably be done with community partners in mind,” she said. “So that we can look at the implications of the first health assessment and then start to do these health assessments at more regular (intervals).”

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Author: Gabriel Greschler