(credit: Colleen McGuire)

If you are looking for a place to enjoy a day and don’t want to be outdoors, there’s a place for you in the heart of St. Paul.

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St. Paul is known as a river town, a major stop for lumber and railroad at the turn of the century. And like most cities in the United States, St. Paul was built by immigrants, many of them Irish, who settled on the river banks and worked along the Mighty Mississippi or in downtown factories.

I’m sure the immigrants in St. Paul never gave a thought about who would take their place as new Americans a century later.

Today one of the largest immigrant populations in the U.S. resides in St. Paul, and they have adapted to American culture while maintaining their homeland roots. The Hmong (pronounced “mung”), who now call St. Paul home, are from southeast Asia. Many were once concentrated in Laos, but they also resided in Vietnam and Thailand.

One of the unique things about Hmong culture is how strong and tightly woven the community is. To find that culture and community in one place, I like to visit Hmong Village.

Hmong Village is the perfect stop is you’re struggling to find family entertainment on a day when the weather is less than perfect. My first visit to Hmong Village was on a drippy, wet day when I was eager to escape gray skies. Parking on a residential street, I walked one block to avoid the parking lot, and walked in the door.

Before you go, here’s a brief history:

The Ho Chi Minh trail passed through Laos from North to South Vietnam. The CIA recognized in the early 1960’s that to stop supplies, communications and military forces, they needed guerilla forces in Laos to help American soldiers fight the North Vietnamese. A “secret” army of Laos soldiers fighting on the U.S. side was born. It’s estimated that more than 18,000 Hmong died during the Vietnam conflict.

In December 1975, the United States recognized the Hmong’s contribution, and opened its doors to Hmong refugees. Today over 250,000 Hmong live in the U.S., the largest concentration in California, then Minnesota and Wisconsin.

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What you must see:

Photo Credit: Colleen McGuire

Hmong Village is a former warehouse, and still feels like one. However, what you don’t expect are the types of vendors that provide the color, smells and smiles that make you feel like you’re part of the population.

There is traditional clothing, shoes, dollar stores, pots, pans and jewelry stalls. There’s a farmers market and a grocery. You can get your hair cut, and one stall offers eyebrow waxing. There’s even an arcade.

The most surprising item for sale is DVDs. There are about a dozen DVD movie stalls in Hmong Village. It quickly became apparent during my first visit that the Hmong love Asian movies. Most movie stalls have several TV screens, all playing different films. Families wandering the Village will stop and watch a movie for a few minutes, then move on to the next DVD stall, and start the stop-and-watch process all over again.

What really makes Hmong Village a destination spot is the food. Definitely go for the food. There are 17 restaurants serving piping hot bowls of Pho, curry noodles, roasted chicken legs, and barbecue ribs just to name a few. There are individual tea houses in certain stalls, and bubble tea vendors. There is a bakery as well, serving croissants and miscellaneous French pastries. There is even a vendor selling pizza by the slice, which is perfect for the kids.

As you wander through Hmong Village, save the farmers market for last. When you are finally ready to stand among the fruits and vegetables of the market, look at the walls. Hand-painted murals of Laos transport you to the country that this population once called home. The first time I really took a moment to look at these murals, I realized the Hmong have known America longer than we have known them, and they might just be home here in St. Paul.

Hmong Village

Hours: 11 a.m.-7 p.m.
1001 Johnson Parkway
St. Paul, MN 55106
Free Admission

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Colleen McGuire is a marketing communications professional and author of the blog, Travel Snapshots. When she is not touring the Twin Cities for interesting festivals and events, she is wander the world with her camera and notebook.