Beyond Gastronomy: Locating the Vietnamese Population in New Orleans

By Chani Jensen


I recently spoke with a young Vietnamese professional who expressed ambivalence about many aspects of traditional Vietnamese life. Yet, when discussing Vietnamese food culture, he closely identified with his cultural background. Like many second-generation immigrants, this man's relationship with his heritage was tenuous and complicated, yet pervasive.1 After many years spent working in the food industry, he spoke knowledgably about several Vietnamese restaurants in New Orleans. His passion for Vietnamese cuisine was paired with a nuanced understanding of the growth and spread of Vietnamese culinary flavors among the greater New Orleans community. When I mentioned one up-and-coming restaurant in the Uptown area, he turned to me, smiling, and said, "Yeah, I know the guys who own that place. They say the food could be much better, but they create the right atmosphere for Westerners, so they can get away with it."2 Whether or not his statement has any validity, it suggests that it is not the food itself attracting customers but, rather, the appeal of Vietnamese culture as it is represented in the city. One could say the recent popularization of Vietnamese fusion cuisine in New Orleans has eclipsed the need for culinary authenticity. My friend's statements led me to question the ways in which the greater New Orleans area perceives the Vietnamese population and how food plays a key role in the representation of their community.

Food is the greatest cultural representative of the Vietnamese population in New Orleans. As Vietnamese immigrants steadily integrated into Southern Louisiana's strikingly heterogeneous cultural landscape from the 1970s, they exchanged and borrowed with the pre-existing Southern Louisiana cuisine to create a creolized food palate.3 Throughout this process, Vietnamese immigrants emerged from obscure positions in food production along the coast and in backyard gardens to find a stable niche in the restaurant industry. The acceptance and integration of Vietnamese cooking into the New Orleans culinary landscape signified a greater assimilation of the Vietnamese population into Louisiana. New, creolized food patterns gave the Vietnamese immigrants a sense of continuity with the lands they had left behind, while simultaneously linking them with the inhabitants of greater Louisiana. However, this is only one part of a larger cultural creolization that continues to take place in New Orleans. Throughout this process, the publicity given to Vietnamese cuisine continues to mask the otherwise private, insular nature of the traditional Vietnamese community today.

In order to unravel the relationship between food, cultural representation, and creolization amongst the Vietnamese community in New Orleans, it is necessary to first turn to their arrival. In 1975, Northern Vietnamese forces invaded Saigon, the United States withdrew all troops from the Indochinese peninsula, and thousands of Southern Vietnamese citizens became refugees overnight. As these refugees flooded into Thailand, the US government admitted thousands of Vietnamese people into the United States as parolees (Loescher and Scanlan 1986, 102-146). Specifically in New Orleans, Catholic Charities sponsored one thousand Vietnamese immigrants to resettle in Louisiana. These sponsors believed the similar climates, combined with the lingering influence of French colonialism in both Vietnam and Southern Louisiana, made New Orleans a natural fit for resettlement. As family and friends rapidly joined the initial wave of immigrants, a thriving Vietnamese community settled in New Orleans East and on the West Bank, then spread throughout the Gulf Coast (Airriess and Clawson 1994).

The Vietnamese have always been a small minority in New Orleans. A 2010 census claimed that Asians, as a whole, accounted for 2.9% of the total population, and scholars estimated the number of Vietnamese in New Orleans proper and the surrounding areas to be around fourteen thousand (United States Census Bureau 2010; Carlin and Tran 2008). Despite their underrepresented numbers in Louisiana's population as a whole, Vietnamese rapidly became the backbone of the food industry upon their arrival. As they first arrived in New Orleans, many immigrants entered the service industry. They filled the work rosters at Café du Monde and, in doing so, quietly represented New Orleans to tourists from around the world as they served beignets and café au lait. Meanwhile, along the Gulf Coast, many Vietnamese people revitalized the slowly declining fishing industry by filling positions as shrimpers and fishers. In these coastal areas, they introduced Vietnamese models of fishing and boatbuilding and forced rural communities to cope with increasing diversity. Their success on the seas initially created backlash from the local community but eventually garnered the respect of their peers and industry leaders (Tang 2003; Comeaux 1985, 172). Many of these changes took place behind the scenes and, because of that, received little recognition until the catastrophic BP oil spill in 2010. At the time of the spill, Vietnamese Americans owned 44% of all fishing boats in the Gulf Coast area (Vietnamese Cuisine in New Orleans 2012). As a result of their substantial representation in the industry and their resilient techniques, Ralston Barns of the M. J. Bilich Oyster Co. was driven to claim, "most oyster shops would [not] be going without the Vietnamese" (Fertel 2012).

On solid land, the Vietnamese community led the push for urban agriculture with small market gardens. As early as 1981, the Vietnamese formalized an agreement with local property owners to allow for public gardening between Bayou Platt and the artificial levy (Airriess and Clawson 1994). In these public spaces and in small backyard plots, the Vietnamese of New Orleans East grew seasonal vegetables, fruits, herbs, and other fresh produce. Of the diverse array of "tubers, cucurbits, condiments and herbs, leafy greens, legumes, medicinal plants, and fruit" that could originally be found in these gardens, most were completely foreign to a Western diet (Airriess and Clawson 1994, 20). Backyard agriculture literally transplanted the flavors and plants of the Indochinese peninsula to New Orleans. Originally, many plants came directly from Vietnam as family and friends exchanged seeds they brought as they immigrated. As such, these gardens helped the new immigrant population maintain a sense of continuity in resettlement, while fostering interactions with local authorities and encouraging civic engagement. The expansion of Vietnamese farming into public land mirrored the increased visibility of Vietnamese in the food industry. Increasing the use of public land helped the Vietnamese navigate the local New Orleans civic life, and it did so in a way that emphasized and maintained the strength of Vietnamese communal bonds. The Tran family, who lives and gardens in New Orleans East, claimed that these gardening practices helped make New Orleans East one of the "rare places that still has a sense of family and a community tradition" (Peck 2008). These gardens gave Vietnamese immigrants a re-creation of their homeland practices. Through the tangible, ritualized actions of farming and communal dining, gardening practices created continuity with the past.

The produce grown from these gardens allowed the Vietnamese to build bridges with the city around them. Every Saturday at five in the morning, the Vietnamese population gathered in New Orleans East to peddle their wares in a street-market environment reminiscent of those found in Vietnam. Set up in an all-Vietnamese strip mall off Alcee Fortier Boulevard, two-dozen vendors displayed their goods on portable folding tables or on the concrete itself. In doing so, they disseminated produce to greater New Orleans while solidifying bonds amongst the Vietnamese community. This practice continues today. One April morning at the crack of dawn, I brought a visiting friend to peruse their goods. As we walked, the lot was bustling with activity. The first rays of sunlight on the pavement illuminated the front-most corner of the market, where middle-aged men clustered around cages filled with rabbits, roosters, and one goat. A few steps farther, one man sat flat on his heels and shucked scales off of a massive fish as the rest of his wares lay uncut and piled on plastic sheets in front of him. Various folding table stations displayed bags of shrimp and fresh fish, with intermittent collections of potted plants and children's clothes. Vendors sold a wide variety of fresh produce, including homemade tofu, fresh milk, homegrown herbs, and ripe mangoes. Traditional Vietnamese dishes were sold as well. Reminded of my travels in Vietnam during the summer of 2013, I bought home-cooked sticky rice wrapped in banana leaves and filled with red bean paste for breakfast. With a wide array of products, the markets served as a site of gathering for members of the Vietnamese community and greater New Orleans.

Because New Orleans natives frequent the weekly markets to purchase fresh produce and livestock and to explore, the Vietnamese market is a site for cultural and agricultural distribution across Louisiana. I quickly noted while at the market with my friend that it also represents a more traditional side of Vietnamese life in New Orleans. Not all of the Vietnamese immigrants have fully adapted to life in the United States and many of the vendors come from an older generation that engages less with mainstream US society. We would ask vendors to describe or explain a product, only to realize from perplexed yet amused expressions that many do not understand a word of English. For these Vietnamese people, the market community also relieves the pressures of assimilation. In doing so, these weekly markets show the blurred space between cultural continuity and cultural dissemination.

The traditional and unassuming roots of Vietnamese food in New Orleans have been eclipsed by the recent food coverage. In the last few years, food blogs and feature news articles have sprung up to both explain and praise traditional Vietnamese cooking practices and their presence in the city. Travel blogs rave about the Vietnamese presence in the city, and prepare travelers who come to New Orleans for the Vietnamese delicacies from local vendors (Beller 2012; Gold 2014). For these writers, Vietnamese food in New Orleans takes on a mystical, esoteric meaning. Recipes were "diamonds smuggled from [Vietnam] in the lining of a coat" that allowed Vietnamese immigrants to start life anew in the United States (Beller 2012). In recent years, Gambit and the New York Times both explicitly linked Vietnamese food with New Orleans cuisine.4 The popularity of Vietnamese fare has spread to several Asian restaurants in the area, where single Vietnamese selections can appear, or take up an entire subsection of the dining menu.5 Vietnamese food is widely admired as a distinctive gastronomic group inside of New Orleans, recommended both by the city and nationally to tourists. As state sponsored praise grew, the Vietnamese cuisine gained recognition as a legitimate and important cultural contributor. This coverage marks the Vietnamese food's move from small, local restaurants in Gretna and the West Bank to contemporary dining in uptown New Orleans. While this spotlight made Vietnamese food trendy and well represented, it did so in a way that selectively glamorized the roots of that cuisine.

Undoubtedly, from production to consumption, Vietnamese food continues to dominate the New Orleans culinary experience. New Vietnamese restaurants open up along Magazine Street every few months. Some are trendy and modern, others traditional and modest. Although their collective existence is praised, individual restaurants develop individual personalities and a strong base of followers from local residents. Any New Orleanian worth his or her salt knows the best bread can be found at Dong Phuong Bakery and the best pho at Pho Tàu Bay. Traditional Vietnamese foods also inspired the imagination of celebrity chefs Emeril Lagasse and John Besh, who are both widely known to be enamored with the spices and flavors of Vietnamese cuisine. On film and in interviews, Besh has rhapsodized about the spices in Vietnamese food and discussed how he integrates Vietnamese culinary techniques into his own local style (Vietnamese Cuisine in New Orleans 2012). Celebrity endorsements modernized and fully integrated Vietnamese spices into the culinary roadmap. These endorsements brought Vietnamese food into mainstream New Orleans restaurants. By adopting and glamorizing Vietnamese food types, these trends suggested a cultural culinary syncretism enacted both from the top-down and from the bottom up.

As traditional Vietnamese fare mutated with the culinary landscape of Southern Louisiana through new produce, markets, and fishing, it created a creolized food palate. Although the more traditional pho receives a lot of recognition, the most celebrated Vietnamese dish in New Orleans is the banh mi.6 Renowned as flavorful, inexpensive, and addictive, banh mi are made with light, crunchy bread similar to that which is used in New Orleans style po-boys. Its similarity to the New Orleans po-boy first eased, and then accelerated its integration into the culinary landscape. Various Vietnamese restaurants in the city also serve shrimp remoulade wrapped in rice paper, traditional Vietnamese coffee, Vietnamese crawfish boils, and an endless number of pastries and bakeries. Less widely known but equally as prevalent, these food items show that in Louisiana, Vietnamese cultural continuity also took the form of cultural convergence.

In 2012, the Times Picayune published an in-depth article about Cajun Seafood, a Vietnamese restaurant owned by the Nguyen family, on North Claiborne Avenue that serves fried catfish, boiled shellfish, and ya-ka-mein (Anderson 2012). Inspired by local flavors, Cajun Seafood quickly adapted to the local New Orleans food market. Other Vietnamese restaurants, like Pho Tàu Bay maintain a more traditional Vietnamese diet while becoming increasingly creolized in other ways. On a weekend trip to Pho Tàu Bay, I became lost and spent at least ten minutes on the phone with the store getting detailed directions. As I walked in the front door of the restaurant, an elderly, white man stuck his head out of the chef's window, smiled, and welcomed me with a wry laugh that a "local" could get so lost. I later learned that this was the owner, who was married to a Vietnamese woman whom he met on military service in Vietnam years ago (Vietnamese Cuisine in New Orleans 2012). On the day I visited, the restaurant served traditional Vietnamese fare, but was staffed by and served predominantly white patrons. Considered one of the best restaurants for Vietnamese cuisine in the New Orleans area, Pho Tàu Bay is a living example of the complete integration of Vietnamese into the greater New Orleans community. As Pho Tàu Bay and Cajun Seafood show, the food industry is a place where Vietnamese and the pre-existing New Orleans population fused food types, merged cooking styles, and entered co-existence.

While it is easy to find recommendations for Vietnamese cuisine on the Internet or while driving through the city, more substantial information on the Vietnamese population is harder to find. The popularity of Vietnamese food has overshadowed the fact New Orleans also serves as the center of Vietnamese life throughout the Gulf Area. This is partly because of the strong Vietnamese presence in New Orleans East and on the West Bank. However, it is largely thanks to the role of Vietnamese Catholic churches, which serve as sites of gathering. They also host, organize, and ensure the continuity of communal festivities amongst the Vietnamese population. However, these cultural sites are less accessible to the larger population and as such go unnoticed even by those who are tapped into Vietnamese food. And so, although the Vietnamese banh mi are always eagerly awaited at the annual Oak Street Po-boy festival, Vietnamese culture is severely under-represented in Mardi Gras celebrations.7 Instead, the Vietnamese celebrate Tet, the Lunar New Year, each February with food, drink, dancing, and ceremonial performance. In the New Orleans East community, Tet was celebrated this February with fireworks, dragon dances, fairs, and an abundance of traditional foods (Carlin and Tran 2008; Waddington 2014). 2014 was also the first year that the Times Picayune reported on the traditional Vietnamese Tet Celebrations that Vietnamese immigrants have carried out for years in New Orleans East. The enduring Tet festivities could explain the conspicuous absence of Vietnamese in Mardi Gras. However, little work has been carried out to explore the implications of Tet festivals in maintaining traditional Vietnamese identity in the face of integration and cultural creolization through food.8

Although food connected the Vietnamese to New Orleans, it also hid the strength of their community since its arrival. To focus too much attention on the culinary contributions of the Vietnamese population is to disregard their resilience and civic engagement. In A Village Called Versailles (2009), S. Leo Chiang charts the New Orleans East Vietnamese community's response to Hurricane Katrina. Despite the devastating effects Katrina had on the Vietnamese in New Orleans, they initially received little to no coverage. Organized around the central authority of Father Vien Nguyen of the Mary Queen of Vietnam Catholic Church, the community moved back to New Orleans East, rebuilt their homes, garnered state assistance, and successfully protested the opening of a landfill in the area. In New Orleans, where neighborhoods are fiercely delineated by the histories, struggles, and desires of their members, the Vietnamese fostered ties with their neighbors by assisting in their efforts to reconstruct the city. The Mary Queen of Vietnam provided supplies, organization, and physical support to other residents of the city. (A Village Called Versailles 2009). As such, the Vietnamese society became part of the backbone of the city. Their suffering and triumph became a source of pride for the greater New Orleans area through national and local coverage that centered on local resilience and activism in the months following Katrina.

Recent years have laid strain on the Vietnamese population. The BP oil spill devastated the livelihood of the Vietnamese fishermen who dominate the fishing industry throughout the Gulf. The Washington Times reported that in 2010 New Orleans, shrimpers like Dung Nguyen once again relied upon aid from Catholic Charities to provide for their wives and children. The oil spill decimated the fishing industry along the coast, leading to fights between fishermen in the industry, heavy debt, and uncertainty for the future (Ylan 2010). This increased visibility launched greater levels of civic engagement. So, in 2009, Louisiana's second district elected Anh Joseph Cao to serve as Congressman in the U.S. House of Representatives. In 2013, Vietnamese community leaders petitioned to have more translators present in the education system. At the same time, they have also engaged BP in lawsuits following the devastation caused by the oil spill (Bloch 2010; Dreillinger 2013). Increased civil engagement in the aftermath of disaster signified the rise of a strong communal Vietnamese voice and increased political power. At the same time, the decline in the fishing and shrimping industries takes place at the same time as the popularity of Vietnamese food increases in New Orleans, allowing more Vietnamese to open restaurants and cafes.

The slow integration and valorization of Vietnamese food continues to serve as the most visible impact of Vietnamese immigration to New Orleans, changing the city's physical and culinary geography. Vivid in public imagination, the Vietnamese community has become an idealized niche within New Orleans society, whose presence is magnified through the city's culinary lens. Both traditional and modern, insular and connective, Vietnamese food and gardening practices strengthen the bonds within the Vietnamese community and connect it to greater New Orleans society. However, the most significant indicators of Vietnamese creolization within New Orleans are far more subtle and telling. On a random February night at the Blue Nile, a well-known jazz club on Frenchmen Street, I danced to the music of a young Vietnamese boy who, alongside a group of grizzled old-timers, poured his heart into a saxophone while his older sister kept a watchful eye on him from the corner of the stage. Long after midnight, as the performance was coming to a close, the band's lead singer announced that the boy was only twelve-years-old. The crowd went wild with excitement. In New Orleans, where music above all else unites people in celebration of life, it is small integrations like these that normalize the Vietnamese presence in New Orleans and suggest a cultural integration that is tasted long after the last dinner course is served.


1. For more elaborate commentary on the typical patterns of immigrant assimilation please see The Changing Face of Home: The Transnational Lives of the Second Generation, edited by Peggy Levitt and Mary C. Waters (2006).

2. This conversation took place in March 2014 over dinner at Tan Dinh, a Vietnamese restaurant in Gretna. Over dinner, my friend and I discussed his family, his time spent working in the service industry, and many restaurants in the city.

3. Nick Spitzer provides a comprehensive discussion of the different forms of creolization within New Orleans and Southern Louisiana in the 2003 article "Monde Creole: The Cultural World of French Louisiana Creoles and the Creolization of World Cultures," Journal of American Folklore 116, no. 459: 57-72.

4. Both publications list Pho Tàu Bay and Dong Phuong as recommended dining for tourists online (Peyton 2009; Kugel 2013).

5. For an example, see Kim Son, a Vietnamese-Chinese hybrid restaurant in Gretna. See the restaurant's menu at

6. I base this assumption off of the amount of online blogs and writers that discuss banh mi, as well as its inclusion at the New Orleans PoBoy Preservation Festival.

7. The New Orleans PoBoy Preservation Festival is held every fall. It brings thousands of eager gastronomes together in search of the perfect po-boy. In 2009, Dong Phuong Bakery's banh mi, dubbed the Vietnamese po-boy, was pronounced the winner of the best pork po-boy. For a full list of 2009 winners see the festival website at "New Orleans PoBoy Preservation Announces 2009 Festival Winners," http://www.poboyfest. com/files/docs/2009/2009-Po-Boy-Fest-Winners-Press-Release. pdf.

8. Some work has been done to record and describe the folklore and traditional cultural practices of the Vietnamese community in New Orleans. Those who have done pre-existing research include Allison Truitt in "Offerings to Kings and Buddha: Vietnamese Ritual Activities at Chua Bo De" (2006), Emma Tomingas-Hatch in "Preserving Vietnamese Culture and Language in Southern Louisiana: Altars as Symbols of Identity" (2009), and Kathleen Carlin and Cam-Thanh Tran in "Tet, the Vietnamese New Year, in the New Orleans Vietnamese Community" (2008).


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Chani Jensen graduated from Tulane University in history and anthropology and lives, works, studies, and explores in Shanghai, China. This article was first published in the Louisiana Folklore Miscellany, Volume 24, 2014.