May Be Nation’s Most Intensely Vietnamese Community : Refugees Re-Create Mekong Villages in Mississippi Delta
As the morning mist lifts, groups of mostly older men and women, faces shielded from the sun by cone-shaped straw hats, make their way to a large, low-lying field to cultivate garden plots.
It’s a ritual startlingly reminiscent of scenes shown on television during the Vietnam War. But this is the Mississippi Delta, not the Mekong.
“I have seen this same thing in Vietnam, many times,” said Tu Pineda, an interpreter for Associated Catholic Charities of New Orleans. She pointed to an elderly man harvesting small white eggplants, grinned and said: “Papa-san.”
The man, Moi Nguyen, 71, spoke to her in Vietnamese. “He says he and his wife sold fish sauce and anchovy paste in their village back in South Vietnam,” Pineda said. “He says they emigrated there (from North Vietnam) in 1954, after the French were defeated, and then came here in 1975.”
She slowly surveyed the other gardens, many bordered by banana plants, and added, “This is very, very much like Southeast Asia.”
The similarity to Southeast Asia of this village 12 miles east of New Orleans is no accident. More than 2,800 of its 4,000 residents, or 70%, are refugees from South Vietnam. They are part of the larger Vietnamese community, more than 12,000 strong, that has settled in greater New Orleans since 1975.
“There are larger populations of Vietnamese in this country, in California, New York and Texas, for example,” said Msgr. Dominic Luong. “But New Orleans certainly has the most unique refugee group in the country.”
What makes it unique is Versailles--the nation’s most intensely Vietnamese community, a place where cone hats are common and “For Sale” signs are as likely to be in Vietnamese as in English.
‘Versailles is . . . special because most of the people living here came from three small fishing villages near Vung Tau, about 50 miles southeast of Saigon; in a sense, they have re-created their villages. Also, many of them fled North Vietnam earlier, so coming here was their second major migration in two decades.”
He gestured toward the village’s commercial section, where more than two dozen shops and businesses--emblazoned with Vietnamese signs or bearing English names such as “Saigon Plaza"--were doing a brisk trade.
Luong, who has been in this country 20 years, said: “See all those stores, those groceries, those medical clinics, laundries and restaurants and so forth? Those were all built since the Vietnamese arrived here in 1975.
“Before that,” he said, a note of pride in his voice, “there was nothing there except weeds.”
He stepped into a Vietnamese grocery that offered a variety of Oriental vegetables as well as canned abalone, dried squid, pickled duck’s feet and a whole, roasted pig. The young Vietnamese clerk said the store’s customers were almost entirely Asian-American.
Later, driving down a street along a 400-unit rental complex that makes up half of the village proper, Luong pointed to a parking lot where youths were passing a football. “That’s where I held outdoor services for the first 18 months after I came out here in 1978.”
Jane Foley, director of Resettlement and Immigration Services for Associated Catholic Charities, also remembers those days in 1975. “The archdiocese sponsored 1,000 refugees that first summer, right after Saigon fell. We found apartments for a lot of them out at Versailles because it was a big subdivision that was failing and plenty of housing was available.”
By 1978, more than 5,000 refugees had poured into the New Orleans area, many sponsored by the archdiocese. Hundreds more arrived over the next five years, as thousands of “boat people” fled Vietnam. Tu Pineda, who fled with her son, a niece and two nephews, was among them.
Other refugees, like Minh Nguyen, a former helicopter pilot who runs an auto repair shop in Jefferson Parish, came to New Orleans from elsewhere in the country. “I was living in Kentucky, and we had a big, big snow that first winter,” he said. “As soon as spring arrived, I came to New Orleans. It is more like Vietnam here.”
Most of the refugees who came to New Orleans owned nothing but their clothes when they arrived. Only 5% spoke English.
“But they worked hard, often holding two or three jobs, and everybody helped each other,” Luong said. “Now, 40% of Versailles’ Vietnamese residents own their own homes. And we’re not talking about professionals here; most of the Vietnamese professionals live in the Washington, D.C., area, not in New Orleans.”
It hasn’t been easy. In the early years, no public transportation ran between New Orleans and Versailles, and language and cultural differences created constant tension with refugees’ American neighbors.
The simmering cultural problems boiled over in 1978, when the area economy was slipping. Death threats were mailed to several Vietnamese families amid rumors that missing pets were ending up in Vietnamese stewpots. And angry neighbors complained more than once when refugee families hung pungent fish from apartment balconies to dry in the sun.
“A lot of those things have been smoothed out,” Luong said. “However, I do still spend a lot of time handling misunderstandings with our black neighbors. Many of them are jealous of us, I think, because they feel our people are taking their jobs.”
The Vietnamese initially took the lowest-paying menial jobs, jobs nobody else wanted. They have slowly climbed the economic ladder, opening small stores and shops and moving into better-paying service jobs in restaurants and tourist attractions like the Cafe du Monde in the French Quarter. Fishing, however, is the refugees’ major occupation.
“Nearly half of Versailles’ workers leave home on Monday morning and stay out on the boats until the following weekend,” Luong said. “A couple of Vietnamese refugees even run shrimp-processing plants now.”
One such plant operator is Nguyen Cao Ky, who was premier of South Vietnam for three years beginning in 1965. He operates a boat dock and processing plant at Dulac, a small Cajun community 70 miles southwest of New Orleans.
“More than 60% of the shrimpers from Texas to Florida now are Vietnamese fishermen,” Ky said.
Ky, 59, who first visited southern Louisiana two years ago after his California liquor store went bankrupt, moved to Dulac in June. He said he has been well-received, despite recurring stories of friction between Vietnamese fishermen and other shrimpers along the Gulf coast.
“Vietnamese fishermen have been here for 13 years now. There was trouble at first but not so much anymore, I think,” Ky said.
Sonny Parfait, Dulac’s constable, said he doesn’t hear nearly as much grumbling about the Vietnamese but noted that tensions have risen in some areas because shrimp catches have been below normal for two fishing seasons.
“Then there’s the Louisiana economy,” said Eleanor Will, director of Associated Catholic Charities’ Office of Refugee Social Services. “The job situation here is so poor. There are so few jobs that some refugees are being forced to leave for other areas, such as California, which has a looser welfare policy.”
Will said the most persistent problem for the refugee community has been culture shock, especially for grandparents and older married males.
“Some married men are very threatened by their wives’ new-found independence,” she explained. “And the grandparents tend to be depressed because they came from a culture where older people were honored and made all the important family decisions; here, things are different.”
Squatting beside her garden near Versailles, 62-year-old Vi Nguyen, who left two daughters in Vietnam, said the garden helps her forget her troubles.
“I’m not so sad anymore,” said the gray-haired woman, whose youngest daughter soon will graduate from Louisiana State University.
Like many of the refugee gardeners, she sells her vegetables--including yellow ginger, lemon grass and ginseng--to the local Vietnamese markets.
“They use the money to help their children with school exenses,” said Luong. “About half of our high school graduates, those who don’t have to help their families on the shrimp boats, go on to college.”
But this sort of success points out another cultural problem, he said. “The children are forgetting how to speak Vietnamese. Their parents are so upset that we have begun language classes at the church. And you know, some of the children say they think the Vietnamese language sounds funny and foreign.”