History Races Forward
When French missionary, Alexandre de Rhodes arrived in Vietnam in 1620 – 98 years before the founding of New Orleans and 157 years before the birth of the United States — he was one of the first Frenchmen to do so.
It would have been impossible to know it at the time, but de Rhodes’ arrival set off a chain of events with results that were far-reaching. In 1825, concerned about the effect Catholicism was having on his countrymen, Vietnamese emperor, Ming Mang, issued an edict prohibiting foreign missionaries in Vietnam:
The Westerner’s perverse religion confuses the hearts of men. For a long time, many Western ships have come to trade with us and to introduce Catholic missionaries into our country. These missionaries make the people’s hearts crooked, thus destroying our beautiful customs. Truly this is a great disaster for our land. Our purpose being to prevent our people from abandoning our orthodox way, we must accordingly completely eliminate these abuses.
This led to Napoleon III sending the French Empire’s army to Vietnam in the name of protecting followers of the Roman Catholic faith who lived there. And, by October 1887, Vietnam had become a colony of France, called “French Indochina,” which resulted in a long war between the French and the Vietnamese, concluding in the defeat of the French in 1954 and the splitting of Vietnam between the communists – backed by the Soviet Union and China – in North Vietnam, and South Vietnam, backed by the United States and its allies.
But the North Vietnamese were dissatisfied with a split country. To them, this was all a continuation of French – and now American – colonialism. They fought to reunify the country, whereas the United States (led by Kennedy, then Johnson, then Nixon, then Ford) fought to contain the spread of communism.
In March and April of 1975, a couple of years after the United States halted their own direct military operations in the war, the North Vietnamese took advantage of their absence and were scorching their way south. As the invading army approached, the South Vietnamese became refugees, racing toward what they hoped was protection from Saigon – South Vietnam’s largest, and most southern, city.
By late-April, the fall of Saigon and South Vietnam was inevitable. The United States, aware of the massacre that might occur when the North Vietnamese captured the city, began the evacuation of tens of thousands of South Vietnamese.
Finally, on April 30, 1975, amid the shelling of the capital by rocket fire, tanks rolled into the Palace, and the Fall of Saigon was complete. Flags were replaced, the city was renamed “Ho Chi Minh City,” and the Vietnam War had come to an end.
Tết Nguyen Dan
I was there. I watched the Vietnamese lobbing explosives at one another. The scene was chaotic. The sound was deafening. And the lights illuminated faces in the crowded grounds, while civilians – children, really – patrolled with large guns resting on their shoulders. I was horrified. The taste of blood stained my tongue.
What? Oh, sorry, I was talking about Tết Fest. Was that not clear? Signifying the start of Spring, the Lunar New Year lasts several days and is Vietnamese culture’s biggest celebration.
Those explosives were tiny, white “poppers” being tossed at the feet of unsuspecting passersby. The sound was the driving beat of live Asian pop music, backed up by a full rock band and occasionally interrupted by American favorites like “Stand by Me.” (I must have made the joke, “Stand Banh Mi,” upwards of 30 times during the four-minute song.) The lights were the strobe lights coming off the stage and shimmering against the singers’ sequin-covered gowns.
The patrolling civilians were actually children with giant, toy automatic weapons which, despite them being toys, still felt a little unnerving.
And the blood? Well, Tết – and Vietnamese culture, in general — is renowned for its food. The salty-sweet combos southeast Asian cooking balances so well, combined with hundreds of years of French colonial culinary influence, topped with a healthy dose of Americana gluttony? All for the super cheap price of street food? Come on!
The smell of grilled meat fills the festival. There are quasi-familiar dishes like Vietnamese poboys, pork and beef on skewers, waffles and pastries, bubble tea, pho, and chicken wings. But there are also the less familiar.
“What is this?” I point to cubes of pink meat or candy – I can’t quite tell — at a stall underneath the crowded food tent.
The old lady I spoke to, round and no more than 5’0”, shakes her head and retreats toward a coworker who appears to be a stretched out version of the same person: slightly younger, slightly taller, slightly thinner. She looks at me — apron covering her clothes, bandana covering her hair — and I have no idea how much English this woman knows.
I point down at the mystery cubes and — over the glee of children chasing each other with tiny firecrackers, the chatter of smoking men eating who-knows-what at tightly-packed tables, and a woman on stage in very high heels and the shiniest dress belting out the chorus of “Wind Beneath My Wings” — I say, “What. Is. This?” so slowly and loudly, I’m afraid I’m being offensive.
“Ohhh,” she nods, “I’m sorry,” she apologizes, I assume for not knowing a second language — which is a weird thing to apologize for. (It reminds me that when I lived in Japan, one of the first phrases I learned – and certainly the one I used the most often — was “Sume masen, sume masen, sume masen!” I’m sorry, I’m sorry, I’m sorry. I’m sorry for not knowing what you’re saying. I’m sorry for having such big feet, I break all the slippers you let me borrow. I’m sorry for – everything, really.)
The apologizing woman turns around and hollers something in brisk Vietnamese at another lady passing by carrying a crate of abnormally large eggs. This woman – even younger, even taller, and even thinner — stops and looks at the cubes my finger is still pointing at. She looks back up at me through her glasses and says, in perfect English, “Lamb. It’s lamb,” before hurrying off with her box of eggs.
I look closer at the serving of six cubes of pink, wrapped together in plastic on a small Styrofoam tray. This is lamb? I wonder. I look next to it at another styrofoam tray, this one covered in irregular shapes of meat – or maybe some vegetable – too dark and shiny to be anything I’d see before. I consider asking about it, but I spare all of us. “Okay, one lamb, please.”
I rejoin my friends, who are near the front of the stage, swaying back and forth to what appears to be a very popular Vietnamese ballad. One is holding two goldfish, and I still don’t know why. I try to trick them into eating one of the lamb squares, but have no luck. The closer I examine the meat, the more I notice it has the tightly-packed-but-loosely-held-together look of raw ground beef. But surely the woman who told me, “It’s lamb,” would have added, “and it’s raw.” Or maybe even, “It’s raw lamb.” This isn’t lamb lamb.
The only thing I’m more afraid of than eating raw ground beef is wasting $4 worth of food, so I pop the pink treat into my mouth. It’s a little sweet, a little spicy, and very slippery. It’s probably raw. It’s definitely not my favorite. I need something to cleanse my palette.
“Come over to this tent,” my friend Khai, a Vietnamese-American, has me follow him. We purchase a skewer full of pork balls, a couple of beers, and sit down at a large communal table in the rare empty spots next to a few older Vietnamese men, whose space is filled with cans of beer and boxes of food. Khai and the men chat in Vietnamese while I savor the sweet familiarity of grilled pork.
“They want you to try this,” Khai says. One of the men puts a cigarette in his mouth and slides a box of food toward me that looks like it was the site of a miniature warzone. A mound of unrecognizable meat sits next to a forest of red chili peppers and thin, leafy greens. Blood – unmistakably blood – is splattered all over the styrofoam box.
I eat the irony goodness and immediately fill my mouth with beer to mask the taste. The older men laugh and nod and then slide over an egg.
“It’s balut,” Khai tells me.
“Is that like a hard boiled egg?” I ask.
I would learn it’s not like a hard-boiled egg. Balut is a common street food in southeast Asia. An egg – usually a duck egg, which explains why it’s so big – is incubated for two to three weeks before it’s boiled or steamed. The length of incubation varies based on local preference, and the Vietnamese are at the high end, waiting as long as 21 days before boiling.
That explains why, when I peeled the shell away and ate a bite, the fact I was eating a mostly developed duck embryo was clear. One blogger wrote that some men prefer to eat an embryo that is much more developed “so that it looks gross, because that is a way to prove your manhood.”
Navigating the tender bones of the baby bird wrapped in something embryonic, I dipped the egg in as much salt as I could fit. I didn’t feel more manly. But I was surprised – and a little ashamed — at how delicious it was.
In Spring 1975, as Saigon’s fate became clear, it was estimated that the United States Embassy in South Vietname employed approximately 90,000 Vietnamese. By the time the city fell in late-April, the U.S. Ambassador declared that 22,294 such employees had been evacuated. There is no definitive account of what happened to the remaining more-than 65,000 people, but a 1977 piece in the National Review alleged that some 30,000 South Vietnamese had been systematically killed using a list of CIA informants left behind by the U.S. Embassy.
(I assume someone got into trouble for that oversight?)
In the last few days of April, in a mission called “Operation Frequent Wind,” 130,000 Vietnamese refugees were evacuated from Saigon. That included 2,600 orphans in “Operation Babylift.” The evacuation efforts were meant to focus on those who aided the U.S. government’s war effort, but that’s not how the chaotic evacuation worked out. A Congressional report read, “Half the Vietnamese we intended to get out did not get out – and half who did get out should not have.” For example, the report indicates an entire fishing village was accidentally evacuated.
Of those 130,000 evacuees, 113,000 were transported to Guam, as part of “Operation New Life,” where they were housed in tent cities for several weeks before most were processed and taken to the United States for resettlement in communities across the country.
One of those was New Orleans.
Before 1975, there was not a single “Nguyen” in the New Orleans phone book. By 1979, there 318. By 1980, according to church officials, there were 6,000 to 7,500 Vietnamese living in the city. By 2010, there were 15,800.
The statistics are interesting, but so are the individual stories. Dam and Quyen Nguyen fled with their nine children from South Vietnam, where Quyen fought in the military against the North. They described their final days in the country, Dam leading her children through the jungle toward a harbor from which they could escape, while Quyen went back to get his elderly parents and bring them to the same port.
His parents were slow and, when Quyen finally arrived with them, he could see the ship sailing away. His choice was between his wife and children or his parents. So he said his goodbyes and left his parents on that beach, swimming to Dam and their kids.
Thinking of making that decision makes me sick.
They left all their belongings behind. Their family behind. They ran out of food on the overcrowded ship, which broke down and floated aimlessly for days through the unbearable heat of tropical waters before they were rescued.
So how did they end up in New Orleans?
Archbishop Philip Hannan was launched into the national spotlight when he – acquainted with the Kennedy family – was asked to give the recited Requiem Mass at President Kennedy’s funeral. As his star rose, he was asked to take over as the eleventh archbishop of the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of New Orleans, serving from 1965 to 1988, and guided it through one of its most turbulent times.
Hannan took his position only a week after Hurricane Betsy ravaged the city, becoming a leader during the rebuilding of both the city and the archdiocese. When the Second Vatican Council concluded on December 8, 1965, Hannan was tasked with leading the effort to implement the Council’s policies. He also reformed the Archdiocesan Catholic Charities system, which now serves as the largest non-governmental social service agency in the New Orleans metropolitan area.
The archbishop had experience resettling Cuban immigrants in America, and so it was with this experience – and the capacity of his Catholic Charities organization – that in May 1975, he was the first archbishop in America to visit the Vietnamese refugees being transported from Guam to one of four main bases around the United States.
When he traveled to one of those bases, Fort Chafee in Arkansas, Hannan’s intention was for Catholic Charities to sponsor the resettlement of 100 families in New Orleans. By the time he left the fort, he had upped the archdiocese’s commitment to 1,000 families.
A few weeks later, the first 200 families trickled into New Orleans, half going to apartments in Marrero, and the other going to an apartment complex in New Orleans East.
Some say it was religion – many of the Vietnamese were Catholic, and New Orleans is a very Catholic city compared to others in America – that made New Orleans a good fit for these new immigrants. Others say, both Vietnam and New Orleans being past colonies of France, there’s a shared history. Still others point to other familiarities, such as the sub-tropical climate, an active shrimping community, or access to a rich and convenient major river.
It was probably a mixture, but – whatever it was – it was appealing.
One funny story I read was that one of the first groups of Vietnamese immigrants – 11 families – came in from Arkansas on an old, rusty school bus. They were looking for their apartments in New Orleans East and the bus stopped at Abramson High School on Read Boulevard.,.during school hours.
The Vietnamese attempted to enter the building — some needed to use the bathroom — and the rest just wandered around the parking lot waiting for further instruction. Their English wasn’t very good, and the school principal spoke no Vietnamese, but eventually he realized one of the men was saying, “Philip Hannan.” They called the archbishop, who rushed over and helped them find their new home, at the nearby Versailles Arms apartment complex.
Many of the arrivals in the apartment were Catholic, so Mrs. Melanie Ottaway, the owner of the complex, agreed to make one of the rooms available for daily Mass. Soon enough, a portable altar and platform was created to allow the growing number of Vietnamese to hold Mass outside, but — for at least a year and a half – services were still held in the apartment complex during inclement weather.
Late-1976 threatened to be an unseasonably cold winter in New Orleans, so $18,000 was raised to purchase a mobile chapel that was placed at the end of Peltier Drive. The mobile chapel was erected one week before Christmas and extension cords ran from nearby congregants’ private apartments to power the church.
In the summer of 1978, with the Vietnamese population in the city now up to 3,000, a neighbor complained the mobile chapel sitting on the edge of his property was in violation of his rights (hm, probably true). With only three days to solve the problem, the archdiocese purchased some of that land from him and built a permanent structure on the lot called the “Vietnamese Martyrs Chapel.”
But the congregation continued to grow. Their 300-seat chapel wasn’t enough. In 1983, Hannan issued a degree for the formation of the “Mary Queen of Vietnam Parish for the Southeast Asian Catholics of the Archdiocese.” $750,000 later – in 1986 – Archbishop Hannan consecrated the new church for Mary Queen of Vietnam Parish.
It’s the same church used today, and – as the center of the Vietnamese community in New Orleans East – it’s where Tết Nguyen Dan is held.
The Present Races Backwards
The festival was calming down for the night, so Khai suggested we continue elsewhere. Ten of us walked off the church complex, and through the neighborhood that surrounded it, back toward our cars. I took a bite of a sweet waffle I had purchased to try to mask the taste of blood and not-fully-formed chicken. The sound of a woman singing something that sounded optimistic faded to the background.
It felt like a different world out here. The food, the music, the people, the smell. But, also, I noticed the homes were raised off the ground like most on the more well-known side of the Industrial Canal.
The stars were out, the yards were lush, and it felt like every third home had a statue of the Virgin Mary – arms stretched down, palms open – holding court. The only thing holding court in my neighborhood is a roaming gang of wild chickens.
People often note that this “other world” is one of the most pure and isolated in New Orleans. Sure, but that’s only part of the story.
We hop in our cars and Khai leads us to Nha Trang, a restaurant/karaoke bar down the street. We’re full, but he says we need to try the food, so we place a few orders of chicken wings and fried rice.
Khai and Yinchen sing Vang Trang Khoc (sing along, below), the table of Vietnamese-Americans next to us sing music that sounds a lot like what we heard at the festival, and then those of us who don’t speak Vietnamese sang, “A Whole New World,” from Aladdin (which seems extremely cheesy now that I’m sober). Everyone – Vietnamese, American, Vietnamese-American – were eating, chatting, laughing, and cheering each other on as we attempted to sing the music we were too drunk to realize we couldn’t sing.
Isolated? Sure, but that’s only part of the story.
You can see more of the story at the karaoke bar, and by looking at the rising number of attendees coming from all over the city to Tết. You can see it at many of the Vietnamese-inspired restaurants around New Orleans, like Mopho, where the owner, Michael Gultta attempts to “merge the Mekong Delta with the Mississippi Delta” with menu items like pho with hogshead cheese, fried oyster banh mi, or a pork belly rice or noodle bowl topped with cracklins.
And you can see it in Dam and Quyen’s family, now with 17 grandchildren – the oldest of which is attending LSU. Some still live in New Orleans East, of course, but others have moved on to Metairie, Slidell, Lafayette, and Houston. They put down roots, and now those roots are spreading.
Isolated? Or just in the middle of a slow integration of cultures? Maybe these things just take time.
After all, it’s been 400 years since a missionary from France arrived in Vietnam. And, now, the thriving Vietnamese-American culture in New Orleans is a part of that same story.
Sometimes that story has been desperately sad. Sometimes it’s been much more hopeful. But it – like most stories – has always been, and will continue to be, a story of change.