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From Vietnam to New Orleans, he’s no stranger to catastrophe

On the sea, it doesn’t matter that Kha Van Nguyen knows few phrases of English. On his 92-foot boat he is Captain Nguyen, a man who understands the subtle clues of the wind and water.

He doesn’t dwell on the backaches that remind him he’s no longer a young man. He dreams of discovering a huge school of shrimp so he can shout to his deckhands, Chien thang! Victory!

But on shore, the 61-year-old Nguyen is restless, ill at ease. That’s how he has felt since the Deepwater Horizon rig exploded in April and oil began gushing into the Gulf of Mexico, forcing him to dock his boat.

Like many Vietnamese who live along the Gulf Coast, Nguyen is no stranger to catastrophe. He survived the Vietnam War, fled his homeland and started life anew in New Orleans, only to see Hurricane Katrina in 2005 flood his house and destroy his boat.

With every turn, the ocean welcomed him back, allowed him to make his own rules and reinvent himself. But this time feels different.

The long-term effects of the oil spill remain unknown, even if the flow has been halted. And though some Vietnamese refugees transitioned to jobs on land, others always have made their living at sea, whether those waters lapped against the shores of Vietnam or Louisiana.

“For the majority of Vietnamese who chose this path in life, this is all we know how to do to survive,” Nguyen said in Vietnamese. “Outside this, we don’t have any other experience. The future looks very dark.”

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An estimated one-third to a half of the fishermen in the gulf are Vietnamese, living in clusters from Palacios, Texas, to Gulf Shores, Ala.

If Orange County’s Little Saigon — with its restaurants, jewelry stores and doctor’s offices — conjures up images of the cosmopolitan former capital of Vietnam, Nguyen’s community in New Orleans is like Vung Tau, the rustic coastal village where he grew up.

Nguyen fondly calls this area lang, a word describing Vietnam’s rural parishes. About 5,000 Vietnamese live in the 2-square-mile area surrounding the Mary Queen of Vietnam Catholic Church. On Saturdays, people hawk bitter melon, Thai basil and water spinach grown in their backyards at a neighborhood street market. Like villages in Vietnam, everyone seems to know everyone.

Nguyen learned to catch shrimp using bamboo traps in the murky waters along Vietnam’s southern coast from his father, who learned from his father. As a teenager, Nguyen studied how the moon shaped the waves that shaped the path of the shrimp.

After the 1975 fall of Saigon, Nguyen escaped by sea, captaining a fishing boat carrying his pregnant wife, young daughter and dozens of family members. An American vessel rescued the boat and brought the passengers to Guam.

The family made its way to a refugee camp in Arkansas — where a second child was born — and then to Port Arthur on the Texas coast, where Nguyen, then 26, began working as a janitor and truck driver for a lumber company.

“I didn’t feel it was my full potential,” he said. “I wanted to do something where I could fly, jump, yell, stretch myself.”

Nguyen found a gig as a deckhand for a shrimper, who was impressed with his knowledge of the sea. His wages were nearly 10 times what he made with the lumber company.

“I felt like I could choose my own future,” he said. “It didn’t matter that I didn’t know much English or that I didn’t go to school. The money would come. All I needed were my two hands.”

Nguyen moved his family to New Orleans after visiting an uncle there. He liked the swampy climate that was a reminder of Vietnam’s tropical heat and bought his first boat, a 30-footer, purchased with the help of donations from friends and family.

Nguyen loved watching the sun creep up on the face of the ocean. He found trawling shrimp in the gulf much easier than off Vung Tau, where fishermen relied on their memory of the position of three tall mountains instead of radar systems.

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Word of the opportunities in the gulf spread among refugees, and, in time, thousands of Vietnamese fishermen and shrimpers — many who lived in the same fishing villages in Vietnam and whose fathers and grandfathers were also fishermen — moved to its bayous.

Nguyen spent most of this time at sea or with other Vietnamese fishermen. The life allowed him to raise nine children and help two of them buy houses, neat brick homes right next to his.

Nguyen relied on his eldest daughter to be the interpreter when he negotiated with shrimp vendors. Over the years, Anh, now 37, also helped her father with bookkeeping and picking up equipment.

“Growing up, I saw how hard this profession was for him,” she said. “But he has a passion for it. He talks about it all the time. He understands the sea. He feels it.”

So when the oil spill hit, Nguyen was one of thousands of Vietnamese fishermen who did not know where to turn. Many learned after the fact that BP had hired vessels to help scoop up or burn off oil. He found it difficult to understand company documents in English.

BP initially did not hire many Vietnamese translators to help with hiring or the filing of claims, but since then the company has conducted town halls and opened offices staffed with Vietnamese.

On a recent weekday, Nguyen and about 300 other Vietnamese attended a community meeting with BP officials and other agencies at a New Orleans Asian buffet restaurant.

Nguyen went around the room shaking hands with his fishing buddies. There was Khoa Nguyen, a crabber for 27 years, who worried that it could be years before shrimp and fish return to the contaminated gulf waters. There was Chinh Nguyen, a tuna fisher for 20 years, who is thinking of selling his boat but doesn’t know whether he can.

Experts disagree on the long-term effects on sea life from the crude and dispersants in the gulf, and many say the effect may not be known for years.

On an index card for the question-and-answer session, Nguyen wrote in Vietnamese: “If the situation continues for three to five to 10 years, what can we do for our future?”

An official’s answer was repeated in Vietnamese: If the $20-billion BP claims fund is used up, there is the possibility that more money would be committed. Continue filling out forms, she said, and keep abreast of developments.

Nguyen left the meeting unsatisfied. Yes, he could fill out forms, but when could he go back on the water? What if he can’t make as good a living anymore? He’d heard murmurs that Louisiana waters were slowly being opened for shrimping, but he figured it wasn’t a good bet to spend thousands of dollars getting his boat ready if the catch wasn’t guaranteed.

He returned home and finished reading a Vietnamese-language newspaper. He watched Vietnamese-language satellite TV with his wife in the living room, where he had installed shiny new tiles and decorated one wall with large statues of the Virgin Mary after Hurricane Katrina.

He’s been watching a lot of TV lately. There’s not much else to do. Over the winter, he’d already finished fixing the backyard fence and repairing the kitchen cabinets, anticipating he would be out shrimping this summer.

Now, he sometimes finds himself wishing grass grew faster so he could mow it again and have something to do.

As his friends have gotten older, Nguyen said, he saw many of them len bo, or climb onto shore, especially after Katrina. That is how Nguyen describes abandoning a career in the ocean. He suspects many more will now follow.

Nguyen wonders whether he should do the same. After more than three decades of reeling in heavy nets and hauling hundreds of pounds of shrimp, his muscles are weaker and the pain in his spine will not go away. He spends a few days a week at a chiropractor.

He misses his wife on trawling excursions, which can stretch for two weeks, and it’s been harder to turn a profit with the price of shrimp falling and the cost of fuel rising. Two sons work for him, and he worries that their future in the ocean seems less bright.

But good luck hasn’t followed him on land. Nine years ago, he invested in a Vietnamese market for his two eldest children to run, but it wasn’t profitable. After Katrina destroyed his boat, he became a part-time furniture salesman but didn’t enjoy working for someone else.

So, as he sits at home, he still dreams of being back on the water, of being Captain Nguyen.

my-thuan.tran@latimes.com


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