FOR THE SECOND time in nearly a decade, ground will be broken in San Jose for a Vietnamese garden and cultural center, a project first proposed 20 years ago.But unlike with the first groundbreaking in 1997, the project’s promoters, the Viet Heritage Society, have the fundraising know-how, the political support and the vision to finally make the dream a reality.

When project leaders, supporters and dignitaries gather Sunday at a four-acre wedge of land in Kelley Park, they’ll see only a sign reading “Vietnamese Cultural Garden” and a pole bearing U.S. and South Vietnamese flags. But the visionaries also will see gardens, pagodas, a fruit orchard and a history museum.

The Viet Heritage Gardens is destined to become a gathering place for the country’s largest Vietnamese-American population and a way to share with the rest of San Jose hundreds of years of history through architecture, art and horticulture. The project is believed to be the first of its kind in the nation.

“It’s just a great testimony to the sheer willpower of the community,” said Ryan Nguyen Hubris, executive director of the Viet Heritage Society, a non-profit group that stepped in three years ago to jump-start the project stalled by funding woes, disagreements and a change in locations. “I think the victory is that much sweeter because the journey had been so long and trying.”

By early 2008, the first phase of the $5.2 million public-private project is expected to be completed to offer visitors a cherry grove, an imperial gate and flag monument, a lotus pond, a one-pillar pagoda, a fruit orchard, meditation gardens and palm court, as well as sidewalks, streets and a parking lot.

The second phase, expected to be finished in 2011, will include a 7,000-square-foot museum and a 4,500-square-foot Ben Thanh building that will house cultural exhibits, an information center, restrooms and an office space. Long-term planning calls for a $10 million community center, a project supported recently by a $1.6 million allocation from the city’s redevelopment budget for planning and design work.

The Viet Heritage Gardens is located just across Coyote Creek from San Jose’s History Park. Supporters think it will be an ideal neighbor to Kelley Park, which already offers a re-created Victorian village, a Chinese temple, Portuguese and Greek museums at the History Park, as well as the Japanese Friendship Garden and Happy Hollow Zoo.

“We think it’s the right place to be,” Hubris said.

He and other society board members also believe it’s the right time to give back to a community that helped them evolve from struggling immigrants —many of whom arrived in boats after the fall of Saigon in 1975 — to influential business and community leaders.

“In 1975, you had a group of people who had no country, no future and very little hope,” Hubris said. “Thirty-one years later, they’re business leaders, political forces and community leaders.”

Said Ngai Nguyen, a San Jose cardiologist and society member, “It’s time to pay back to the community,” referring to the Vietnamese and San Jose communities. “Both communities are mine,” he said.

The first proposal for a Vietnamese garden and cultural exhibit surfaced in 1985 and was promoted by the Indochinese Resettlement and Cultural Center group. In 1987, a five-acre city-owned site was chosen for the garden, along Capitol Expressway and about a half-mile east of Senter Road. The group set out to raise $3 million to $4 million for the garden, and in 1991, flags were raised to mark the project’s start and its expected completion in 2000.

In 1997, a groundbreaking steeped in tradition and ceremony gave promise to the park project. But city officials eventually determined the land was better suited for a golf course. In 1999, the Kelley Park site was eyed after the city spent $85,000 to survey the area. Construction was expected to start in 2000.

At that point, however, the group had raised only $800,000. The turning point came in 2003, Hubris said, when the Viet Heritage Society led the project, with 12 board members committed to donating $10,000 out of their own pockets or staging an event that would raise $100,000. They also could provide technical expertise, Hubris said.

In the past two years, the society’s events and donations have amounted to $1.6 million of the $5.2 million needed for the project, said Helen Duong, a society member who oversees fundraising. The city has contributed $1.6 million to the project, and the state has given $1.3 million through a grant, bringing the project’s fund to $4.5 million.

In an agreement approved by the San Jose City Council in April 2005, the Viet Heritage Society will donate the park to the city on completion and the city will take over maintenance.

“This garden is not just for the Vietnamese community,” Duong said. “This is a park everyone can come to.”

She also had diversity in mind when she organized the inaugural Viet Heritage Day at History Park to celebrate Sunday’s groundbreaking. Besides Vietnamese art and music, the day’s entertainment will include Mexican, African, flamenco, Chinese and belly dancers, Japanese taiko drummers, and demonstrations from Asian chefs and martial-arts experts. More than 45 booths will provide ethnic foods and community information.

In her kitchen, Duong has hung an artist’s rendering of the garden’s entrance. Under a blue sky, people of all ages are approaching an elaborate red brick gate framed by blossoming foliage.

Contact Janice Rombeck at or (408) 275-0917.