National News

Vietnamese Forged a Community in New Orleans. Now It May Be Fading.

Posted May 6, 2018 10:27 p.m. EDT

NEW ORLEANS — Glancing at the street signs on a stroll through uptown and downtown New Orleans can serve as a kind of shuffled-up history lesson. The references to French royalty, to prominent Spaniards, Creoles and African-Americans, and to words derived from American Indian tribes betray a complex past, one indelibly linked to the array of cultures that have found their way to the center of a city approaching its tricentennial.

But a handful of signs — Saigon Drive, My-Viet Drive, Tu-Do Drive — in Village de l’Est, a neighborhood at the city’s eastern edge, some 15 miles from the French Quarter, hint at an immigrant community that, in many respects, has existed only on the margins.

For decades, Village de l’Est has been home to several thousand Vietnamese-Americans — not the largest such community in the country (those are found in California and Texas), but one of the most concentrated. Yet, “even here in New Orleans,” said Cyndi Nguyen, seated on her front stoop, “a lot of people don’t know much about our culture.”

Like many of her fellow residents, Nguyen, 48, settled here with her parents as part of a wave of refugees who escaped from Vietnam beginning in 1975, after the fall of Saigon. (Many of the initial refugees were tied to the U.S. presence in Vietnam, either as soldiers or civil servants. Others feared religious persecution.)

A large portion of the population here — including Nguyen’s father, 68, once a fisherman, and her mother, 65, who peeled shrimp at a seafood company — was drawn to New Orleans by the promise of the southern Louisiana fishing industry, and with sponsorship from the local Roman Catholic Church. And for the first 30 years, Nguyen said, the close-knit community existed in something of a cocoon, kept at arm’s length from the rest of the city by language and cultural barriers and by its isolated location.

All of that changed in 2005. The devastation wrought by Hurricane Katrina, along with a series of struggles in the hurricane’s aftermath, forced the Vietnamese community to assert itself politically, starting with successful campaigns to restore city services to Village de l’Est and, more prominently, to oppose the establishment of a nearby landfill.

Less than five years later, the Deepwater Horizon oil spill — which affected the community disproportionately, given its ties to the seafood industry — precipitated another round of community activism and civic engagement that was centered on the creation of alternative economic opportunities and the pursuit of compensation for widespread loss of income.

Then, more recently, came another seminal event: Nguyen won a seat on the New Orleans City Council in last year’s municipal election. When she takes office Monday, she will be the city’s first Asian-American council member.

Now, 43 years after the fall of Saigon and almost 13 years after Katrina, the Vietnamese enclave within Village de l’Est is changing, in some ways drastically, and many residents think the community is nearing another inflection point. Some of the strongest ties that once bound people together here — particularly the reliance on a shared language and religion — are beginning to fray within the younger generations, many of whom are no longer fluent in Vietnamese and, following a general trend, are less invested in the Roman Catholic Church.

Greater access to education, and the subsequent job prospects that such access provides, are also driving younger Vietnamese-Americans increasingly farther from New Orleans East — especially in light of a dearth of local economic opportunity. Collectively, these changes raise broad questions about the life span of concentrated immigrant communities within the United States, and about the seemingly opposing aims of maintaining rich cultural practices — often kindled by forms of isolation — and providing for greater degrees of engagement and integration.

“It’s something we’re all thinking about,” said Lang Le, 49, who settled here with her family as a Vietnamese refugee in 1975. “My generation, we’re mostly still here. But the younger generations are moving out. They’re going to college, getting their degrees, heading for Texas and California.”

And those concerns are influencing the community’s long-term outlook, along with its plans for the future, both large and small. “We’re talking about investing tens of millions of dollars in a new church,” Le said. “But do we need to build a church if 10, 20 years from now, the kids won’t be here to attend it?”

To be sure, Village de l’Est is still home to a vibrant array of Vietnamese traditions, many of which revolve around three cultural pillars: religion, family and food.

It is hard to overstate the centrality of religious life. An overwhelming majority of the Vietnamese community here is Roman Catholic, and the local church, Mary Queen of Vietnam, serves the residents in ways that extend far beyond the liturgical.

“All kinds of social issues come to the church, and to the pastor,” said Tony Tran, 54, a longtime parish coordinator. “Political, social, medical issues — the whole nine yards.” In its early days, he said, the church even helped to educate residents about, and translate, the state’s electrical codes.

The church hosts the community’s annual Tet festival, a celebration of the Lunar New Year — an event that includes firework displays and dragon dances. The church was also instrumental in helping to begin a community development corporation, MQVN, that since 2006 has advocated a range of development programs, including those tied to health care, education, housing, social services and economic development.

Among MQVN’s successful ventures was the establishment of a farming cooperative, Veggi, which helped provide much-needed income to residents whose livelihoods were wiped out by the Deepwater Horizon spill in 2010.

“After the spill, a lot of people basically lost their jobs overnight,” said Khai Nguyen, 32, a program officer at MQVN, who estimated that a third of the community worked in affected industries — predominantly fishermen and shrimpers, he said, but also restaurant owners, servers, seafood wholesalers and oyster shuckers. The organization raised money to help residents build greenhouses and aquaponic systems. It also established a community farm on land across from the church.

“If you drive around here, most people are growing something in their front yards or backyard,” Khai Nguyen said. “So we recognized that a lot of people already had the commitment and passion for farming.” Personal and community gardens aside, the community’s intrinsic connection to agriculture is nowhere more evident than at its weekly farmers market. Beginning before dawn on Saturday mornings, residents gather in a parking lot to sell and barter a range of products, from herbs (shiso, cilantro) and vegetables (kohlrabi, wax gourd, green onions, eggplant) to fish, shrimp and poultry.

The produce is mostly laid out on the ground on mats or plastic sheets. Vendors sell homemade cooked food, too — sticky rice, banh tet rice cakes, seafood dishes. Outsiders are welcome, of course, but should not expect any special accommodation; a vast majority of conversations take place in Vietnamese, and often by necessity.

“The farmers, they grow everything in our own backyard,” said Thong Phan, a fisherman who, on a recent Saturday morning, stood over a selection of dried shrimp, king mackerel and soft-shell crab. Part of the secret to their success, he added, lies in the origin of the seeds, which, over the years, many residents brought from Vietnam

Despite its robust agricultural life, the Vietnamese community in Village de l’Est faces considerable economic challenges.

“There’s just not enough business,” said Anh Hoang, who runs a grocery store, Minh Canh, that serves the local area. “Not long ago, this whole corridor was full of Vietnamese-owned businesses — and it was fully occupied. But now the occupancy rate is way down,” he said, gesturing across the street at a string of aging and shuttered businesses. And the declining economic trends, he said, are at least partly tied to the community’s cultural shifts.

“As a culture, we used to be more family-oriented,” said Hoang, who opened his store in 2005 with his parents — refugees who settled in Village de l’Est in 1976 and initially worked as food vendors. “Back then, the Vietnamese people here stuck together. But it’s different now. We’re transitioning. Every generation, it moves toward that American way, oriented toward the individual.” Aaron Truong, who owns a shopping strip and runs a dry cleaning business in Village de l’Est, attested to similar declines. “As you can see, about 60 percent of the offices here are empty,” he said. “Nobody comes around asking to rent anymore.”

“There’s bigger economic opportunity elsewhere,” he said, “especially for younger people.”

Some of the successful businesses to have sprung from Village de l’Est are those that have integrated more broadly into greater New Orleans. Dong Phuong Bakery, for example, which supplies many restaurants in the city with bread for banh mi sandwiches, has gained national attention for its baked goods, most recently as a winner of a 2018 James Beard Foundation America’s Classics award.

More generally, the proliferation of pho and banh mi restaurants throughout the city, several residents pointed out, is proof of the degree to which certain elements of Vietnamese culture are being integrated and assimilated into greater New Orleans. (As is often cited, Louisiana and Vietnam are both onetime colonies of France, and French influences abound in both culinary cultures. The po’boy and banh mi, for example, share a common ancestor in the baguette; locally, banh mi is sometimes marketed as the Vietnamese po’boy.) But even in the food industry, the role of family can be a powerful form of inspiration, as is exemplified by Namese, a Vietnamese restaurant in the Mid-City neighborhood. Built at the same location as a corner convenience store run by Soi Tran, who settled in Village de l’Est as a refugee in 1975, Namese is now owned and run by Tran’s children, Hieu, Loi, Vinh and Long Doan.

“We’ve inherited so many of our culinary traditions from our parents,” Hieu Doan said. “But our generation, we’re a little more business savvy — and more willing to incorporate elements of New Orleans culture as well.”

“We grew up making, eating and selling gumbos and po’boys,” he added.

When asked about the future of the Vietnamese community in Village de l’Est, residents offered a range of responses.

Some, like Aaron Truong, doubt the community will last another generation. “Down the road, 20 years from now, you’re not going to see a whole lot back here anymore,” he said. “The people are going to end up spread elsewhere.”

Cyndi Nguyen, the councilwoman-elect, also thinks the community here may diminish — though she interprets it more positively. “We may spread out into other parts of New Orleans,” she said, “but in a way I think that’s good thing. That should be a victory for us.”

“We didn’t come over here just to stay by ourselves,” she added. “No matter where I live, as a Vietnamese-American person, it is my responsibility to keep up the traditions and the culture. I don’t have to live next door to a Vietnamese person to feel like we have kept my culture intact.” Surprisingly, some of the most optimistic responses about the community’s continued survival come from the younger generations. Tuan Nguyen, 37, executive director of MQVN, who grew up in Village de l’Est, acknowledged that, even though many of his peers had left, the community and its culture had a way of drawing people back.

“We may not become farmers or fishermen, but we do rotate back to those fishing grounds and growing grounds,” he said. “I find myself wanting to be out on the farm, wanting to go fishing — not commercially, but to be out on the water.”

And there are few things his daughter loves more, he said, than spending an afternoon with her grandmother at Village de l’Est’s community farm.

“Somehow,” he said, “it all loops back around.”