In the final days of April 1975, the capitol of south Vietnam, Saigon, fell to the People’s Army of Vietnam. The city, was quickly being overtaken by the communists from the north, forcing those that had sympathized with the American’s to quickly and by any means necessary evacuate the city. “I was young and really didn’t think about what was going on around me it was a singular though of I’m hungry, so I need to eat.” Tuan Pham, a child at the time was one of those evacuees visiting relatives in the city during the time of the evacuation. Crowded on to a cargo ship it was the last time that Tuan would be able to call Vietnam home. Speaking of the evacuation to his brother, Peter Pham would later say of their father: “My father said when he stepped on that boat that they would be gone for a week or two. He never realized he would never go back to Vietnam. Tell you the truth even 10, 15, 20, years after the war I don’t think he ever left Vietnam mentally.” Through the stories we heard during our reporting that theme would pop up regularly. Cyndi Nguyen, now a council woman representing New Orleans East District, said at the time of the evacuation she thought they were just going on a vacation. “I was on my father’s back when we came over to America, and I remember a little whisper he would give me just to keep me calm.”
Initially those that were fleeing would head to other countries in Southeast Asia, such as Singapore. The political situation in those countries, however, would mean that they would have to look elsewhere for a more permanent home. Since many of the refugees had sided with American forces the United States took on the responsibility of relocating and settling thousands of families.
Hear it in their words:
A camp was set up in Guam, a staging area where refugees could wait until they were given a sponsor and they could continue their journey on to the mainland. Families would end up in all corners of the country from California to Massachusetts, but as more and more refugees arrived word was getting out that there was a place similar in climate to Vietnam with jobs that would be familiar to those looking for work. That place was Louisiana. A coastal country, the southern portion of Vietnam contains the Mekong River Delta, a system comparable to the same delta created by the Mississippi River off Louisiana’s coast.
These geographical similarities offered up something that other places couldn’t, jobs in the seafood industry. “That’s what my dad did when he was in Vietnam. That’s all he knows how to do farming and fishing. It’s part of the Asian culture,” said Tam Nguyen talking about his father’s move down to the Gulf Coast after being relocated in Boston. This industry would be a major draw down to the Gulf Coast, and something that other parts of the country couldn’t offer. It wasn’t all jobs either, the hot, humid climate of south Louisiana was reminiscent of the climate they had left behind. “When you’re exposed to something you’ve never experienced before you want to find things that you can identify with. I don’t know how you can be any more humid than New Orleans, but my parents say it’s more humid in Vietnam,” said Tuan Pham.
Even the food was what they were used to in Vietnam, courtesy of a heavy seafood influence. Cuisine from both areas could even still trace some of its lineage back to the same colonial heritage. As both were former French colonies there were dishes that overlapped, perhaps none so apparent as the Bahn Mi. A sandwich like the po'boy whose star ingredient a piece of well baked crusty French bread. As more and more refugees resettled in Louisiana the draw down to the state would eventually be more than just climate and jobs, it became a sense of community.
The Vietnamese population in south Louisiana was growing with those seeking a community that would understand not just their language, but cultures and customs. As a result, entire Vietnamese neighborhoods started to develop. Cyndi Nguyen, whose district still contains some of these neighborhoods, said, “My parent, and my grandparent, and my aunt were able to interact with people they could communicate with. And that was very important to them.” Strong cultural ties to the catholic church caught the eye of Bishop Dominic Dinh Mai Luong a Vietnamese bishop in Louisiana who would become instrumental in helping resettle Vietnamese families in Louisiana. These areas would build up around a church in the center of the town, such as Versailles's Mary Queen of Vietnam, which would become the community's focal point.
The church is the cornerstone of the culture, not only the physical center, but for the older generation a spiritual one. It was in fact part of the reason why so many had been forced to leave Vietnam. “What you have to understand,” Peter said standing outside of his childhood church, “is that they escaped Vietnam from the religious persecution. So, what they had was Catholicism, their faith. It was the one thing that couldn’t get taken away from anybody.”
As the Vietnamese community became more established, their mission would grow, and they’d go on to be a safe haven for those who would arrive in the United States later. People such as Justin Lai whose family wouldn’t come over until the mid 1990s. Justin’s father worked with U.S. forces during the war, helping to capture Viet Cong spies. Once the new government came to power his father was arrested and sent to a prison camp, where he would live for six and half years. “After we lose the war, the new government they took everything.” Since his father had worked so closely as an ally, they were granted permission to relocate. Their new home, Abbeville, Louisiana. “When we flew to America, they already had a Vietnamese group. They got a house ready for us, they got medication and everything. They line up everything for us before we arrived in the U.S. We really appreciate that because we didn’t know that could happen.”
Over the last 40 years the cultures of south Louisiana and south Vietnam have started to blend, as kids who grew up in those communities start to move away. “Although they still have connections to those communities, they don’t live in those communities anymore. You’re starting to see that move away,” Peter Pham said, “Sometimes in these little communities you can only grow and thrive in the community, you can’t grow outside of it.” As the president of the Acadiana Asian Business of Commerce, Peter is working to make sure that the network grows beyond the borders of the communities. While the importance of these Vietnamese communities isn’t as pronounced as they were 40 years ago that doesn’t mean that they are any less important today. “I think the culture, the community is still very vital. I think what I love now is how integrated everything is,” said Cyndi Nguyen. “We’ve got to break this silo and interact because we’re not going back to Vietnam this is home.”
The communities still play a key role in helping teach a younger generation where they came from by offering Vietnamese classes and cultural exercises. Their contributions go beyond just the sons and daughters of refugees but have reached out to help the communities around them. A non-profit created by Councilwoman Nguyen called V-I-E-T, Vietnamese Initiatives and Economic Training, is an example of the work that these communities have produced. “This creates a space where, not just Vietnamese families, but for all the families in the surrounding area can come together and share their culture and interact”
Firmly established in south Louisiana, and 40 years removed from that first exodus, those that came from an ocean away are helping move Louisiana forward. Some still with memories of Vietnam, but their homes here along the Gulf Coast.