If you’re looking to experience some real Asian culture, Hmong Village Shopping Center is the place to check out in St. Paul, Minnesota.
Estimated with a population of more than 60,000 Hmongs who either settled or were born here in St. Paul, it is home to more Hmong than any other metropolitan city in the U.S.
Cultural tourists are fascinated with this marketplace because it offers an altogether, unexpected snapshot of Minnesota, one that has nothing to do with the clichés of lutefisk, cabins on the lake, or Ole and Lena.
The 108,000-square-foot market offers an Asian village with more than 230 merchants selling every conceivable product — from cookware and martial arts DVDs to faux designer bags, clothes, shoes and groceries.
Started in 2010 and owned by a handful of Hmong investors, the village is the second such indoor market in St. Paul after Hmongtown Marketplace in the Midway area. Wong Yia Vang and other investors own the project, which they proudly note involved no public money.
They studied Asian markets locally and on the West Coast to figure out what kind of retail atmosphere they wanted to achieve for the one in St. Paul. They conducted a feasibility study and asked around the East Side of St. Paul to determine whether there was enough interest in a second Hmong market in a different part of town.
Hmong Village is the creation of local Hmong entrepreneurs, who in 2009 had a bold plan in a lousy economy. They dreamed of opening a multimillion-dollar shopping destination in St. Paul so large it could house more than 250 Hmong businesses.
Bankers found it too ambitious and wouldn’t loan them the money. So the investors “asked our friends and family members to help us out.” By pooling resources, they bought a vacant warehouse, then employed relatives on 12-hour work shifts to transform the space. As word of their plan spread, would-be Hmong shop owners began lining up.
Hmong Village opened in November 2010, featuring 17 eateries, two grocery stores, a chiropractor, a pharmacy, hair salons, an insurance agent and a law firm, along with a vast checkerboard of small shops. Most of the businesses are Hmong-owned, but not all.
In the past decade or so, the Twin Cities has become home to clusters of similar ethnic marketplaces, from Mexican mercados, to Somali souqs, to sites like Midtown Global Market in Minneapolis that feature a fusion of foreign-born entrepreneurs.
Three miles west of Hmong Village is 5-year-old Hmongtown Marketplace, at Como and Marion, not far from the State Capitol. Located in an old lumberyard, Hmongtown Marketplace has become both a shopping destination and a Hmong community social hub.
Hmongtown Marketplace and the new Hmong Village are each so large that, if combined, they’d boast more merchants than Mall of America, the nation’s largest shopping mall. Yet outside of Asian communities, these St. Paul centers remain little known.
From the outside, it looks like a huge warehouse building, but you’d be surprise what you can find inside! It includes a farmer’s market, a food court, a pharmacy, and TONS of booths full of clothes, recordings, random goodies, and Asian house supplies that you won’t find elsewhere.
That’s partly because both are located in industrial buildings, so it’s easy to bypass either Hmong center without realizing it’s there. And the first time you do arrive, the stark exteriors make you wonder if you’re in the right place.
Hmong Village has a number of food vendors to choose from. Although they may seem to have the same food that is being sold at each vendor, such as egg rolls and sausage, it’s about picking the right vendor for the best food choice! Sometimes this place may just get too busy and the food area could get very packed.
Hmong Village is the place to be for market style street food. A huge bowl of pho sells for $5 (which would’ve cost $9 elsewhere), bubble tea for $3, sesame balls, sticky rice, fried pork belly, fried tilapia, and …fried everything else. Most of the restaurants here have the same offerings but different prices. You just have to walk around and find the one that fits the bill.
Hmong Village offers a blend of laos, thai, hmong food, there are a few other stalls that have desserts and even one offered American-like food with a spin.
Thanks to the Hmong migrations through China, Vietnam, Laos, and Thailand, Hmong food takes considerable inspiration from other East Asian cuisines. While you might find something you probably haven’t had before (say, for instance, a sticky rice intestine), you’ll also find pho, banh mi, Peking duck, bubble tea, green papaya salad, and lots of other delicacies.
They had everything for Asian cooks and foodies to crave from chinese broccoli, persimmons, Thai eggplants, oyster mushrooms, logan fruit, different herbs, lemon grass, taro, and on and on it goes.
Shopping ‘til you drop
Once inside it completely reminded visitors of the markets in Vietnam and Thailand. There were all sorts of venders for clothes, shoes, lotions, fake designer bags, tea shops, toys, there was so much variety of just stuff. This place is huge.
It offers Hmong music CDs to videos, toys, fresh fruits and veggies, clothing, jewelry, kitchenware, and a whole buffet of vendors offering Southeast Asian, stomach hugging, delicious goods.
The large, cacophonous wonderland teems with aromas, trinkets, jewelry, tinctures, herbs, spices, shoes, headdresses, bootleg DVDs, and on and on and on. It’s a wholly different and no less enduring piece of our culture, cranking away in relative obscurity thanks to the enclaves that Hmong have created in St. Paul’s East Side and Frogtown.
A majority of the shops want cash only so bring cash or you will have to take out money at the ATM inside $2 fee.
Arresting all senses
Within getting to about 10 feet of the entrance, visitors could smell incense, teas, spices, all kinds of intense smells.
Engulfed in the sights, smells and sounds of another land.
For more information:
The Hmong Village:
1001 Johnson Parkway, St. Paul
Year built: 1959, 1999
Occupancy rate: 100 percent
Lease rates: $500 to $2,000 per month
Owner: Hmong Village LLC
Tip #1: Bring cash so you can haggle and bargain for lesser prices.
Tip #2: Come hungry so you can sample delicacies from East Asia.
Tip #3: Take about three hours to spend in this area.