Oakland Stories and Tips

Oakland’s Bahn Mi

Fruitvale Photo, Oakland, California

Oakland is famed for being a workers’ enclave in the East Bay Area, but the first glimpses showed a different picture; spending a day there turned out being an enjoyable adventure. Cain had left me at his home and went to his business. We agreed to meet in the late afternoon. I dropped my backpacks at his living room and went out; the BART metro system turned out to be economical and reliable.

The 12th Street BART station was at the very center of Oakland’s downtown; the exit of the station through the shopping plaza offers a splendid view of downtown and an opportunity to buy a bottle of cold water before beginning to explore the city. One block to the north was the Ogawa Plaza and a block away at the corner of Broadway was a spacious branch of Tully’s, which served an excellent coffee. After the four bus trip, that was what I needed to recover my stamina. Fully awake, I began noticing a substantial Eastern touch to the city.

Oakland’s Chinatown was enclosed between Broadway and Franklin streets and 8th and 11th streets, between downtown and the waterfront. Smaller than its neighbor in San Francisco, it was less congested and more pleasant for a walk. There, I was left speechless by BC Deli Sandwiches at 818 Franklin Street, which offered twelve variations of Vietnamese Bahn Mi sandwiches. All of sudden, I was aware my favorite places on earth were just across that large pond named the Pacific Ocean. The bread used was slightly different than in Vietnam, and sandwiches cost here up to $2.25. That was roughly twenty times the price in Hanoi or Saigon. I accompanied them with a good version of Vietnamese coffee, which was prepared with condensed milk, thick coffee prepared through a metal filter, and ice.

Shortly afterwards, I found someone to tell me the story of this New Southeast Asia. Chinese were the first Asians to arrive in Oakland in the 1850s; they were followed by Japanese, Koreans, Filipinos and South East Asians, who began arriving in the 1970s during the Vietnam War. The area was highly diverse with shop signs in a plethora of languages and alphabets.

Walking southwest along Broadway, the Jack London Square and Waterfront appeared after crossing the Amtrak railway; across the Oakland Inner Harbor is the island and city of Alameda. The place features half of the author’s original hut in Alaska (the other half was given to a Canadian city; the missing logs were replaced), with high grass growing on its roof. The hut was surrounded by a plethora of shops and boats and metal wolf-steps—featuring donors’ names—on the sidewalk, nearby was the historic Heinold’s First and Last Chance Saloon. However, the latter couldn’t fool me; the area was mainly Asian. I was delighted.

West from there was Lake Merritt, which was wonderful with its gentle curves, blue waters, grassy shores, ducks and joggers. The lake was a tidal lagoon surrounded mainly by parkland and a 3.5 mile walking and jogging path. After Oakland’s foundation in 1852, the estuary became the city’s sewer; in 1870, it became the United States’ first official wildlife refuge. Since 1925, a "Necklace of Lights" brightly surrounds it at night. The lake is home to the Black-crowned Night Herons, Canada Geese, Great Egrets, Cormorants, American Coots, Mallard Ducks, Pelicans, and Western Gulls. The Lake Merritt Wild Duck Refuge became a National Historic Landmark in 1963.

Searching for a proper end for such a day, I entered the nearby Lake Merritt BART station, and while looking at the station names, one of them caught my attention: "Fruitvale." Was it a valley of fruits? Would I find peaches and oranges amidst the metropolis?

The place turned out to be one of the southern neighborhoods of the town; at the exit from the station was the Fruitvale Village, which combined apartments on its upper floors with a small commercial center at its base. Powderface, at suite 134, was one of these. It offered fresh and tasty New Orleans Style Beignets. The latter was the name given to fried dough, covered with powdered sugar. Square and hollow in shape, it was served piping hot. The sugar melted in the mouth and combined with the soft inner crust to create a delightful experience; it was similar to the "buñuelos" served in Bolivian markets. Their coffee is excellent; the place is spacious and comfortable. Oddly, the classical music played in the background fits the surrounding.

Climbing deeper into the neighborhood along the 35th Avenue, I reached the True Buddha Vijaya Temple, 3440 Foothill Boulevard. A Buddhist temple in a mainly Hispanic neighborhood was worth a visit. Renee, a friendly American in charge of explaining the place to non-Chinese visitors, showed me the place and commented about its history. The temple practiced the Vajrayana Buddhism, which is related to Mahayana Buddhism. That was hinted by the hanging flags around the main altar featuring five imposing statues over many other lesser ones. Despite belonging to the "big-vehicle" schools, the Vajrayana Buddhism speaks about the personal achievement of illumination. Spreading out the message was their path to the global illumination preached by more traditional Mahayana schools. With over one and a half million students around the world, it seems they are working hard at it. However, by now, one of the sights at Fruitvale Village kept bothering me. After saying goodbye to Renee, I almost ran all the way back to Fruitvale Village for a Saigon wrap.

(Excerpt from The Cross of Bethlehem II – Back in Bethlehem; the book reads independently of Part I, The Cross of Bethlehem - The Memoirs of a Refugee.)

The Cross of Bethlehem II – Back in Bethlehem is available at Amazon in paperback and Kindle editions.

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