The photograph "Altar for Vietnamese New Year," made in 2007, is part of Mark Sindler's "Vietnamese New Year Traditions" series. Learn more »
The Vietnamese are among the most recent ethnic groups to settle in Louisiana. As refugees from their war-torn homeland, they began to arrive in the state only in the last quarter of the twentieth century. Nevertheless, they have become a substantial and visible part of Louisiana’s population, making contributions to local cultures and economies, with communities concentrated in a number of places across southern Louisiana. Like other, more established residents of the region, they endured the hardships of Hurricane Katrina and the 2010 oil spill along the Gulf Coast, and they worked with exceptional resiliency toward the state’s recovery from those disasters.
On April 18, 1975, the imminent fall of Saigon, the capital of South Vietnam, to North Vietnamese troops led President Gerald Ford to authorize the acceptance of refugees from Southeast Asia into the United States. During April and May of that year, the federal government established six refugee camps within the United States to prepare people from Vietnam and the neighboring countries of Laos and Cambodia for resettlement. The job of finding homes and sponsors for the refugees fell to social service agencies, including the US Catholic Conference. The Catholic dioceses of Louisiana, working within the Catholic Conference, became active in the resettlement of Vietnamese refugees. In particular, the Archdiocese of New Orleans sought locations and sponsors for the newcomers in Orleans and Jefferson parishes, and the Diocese of Houma-Thibodaux, after its creation in 1977, found resettlement opportunities in St. Mary, Terrebonne, and Lafourche parishes.
The availability of inexpensive, vacant housing encouraged the growth of Vietnamese communities under the sponsorship of the Catholic dioceses. In New Orleans, for example, an expansive and largely empty apartment complex in New Orleans East along Chef Menteur Highway led to the founding of the Versailles community, the largest Vietnamese enclave in Louisiana. Those who settled in Versailles were mainly Catholics; this prompted the building of Mary Queen of Vietnam Church, which became a major center of Vietnamese Catholicism as well as a cultural focal point the neighborhood. Across the Mississippi River, in Jefferson Parish, low-cost rental housing in the Kingstown area of Marrero encouraged the growth of another Vietnamese community that, unlike the New Orleans settlement, attracted a substantial number of Buddhists as well as Catholics.
The Vietnamese had become the largest Asian group in the state by the early 1990s. They were most heavily concentrated in Orleans and Jefferson parishes, with substantial numbers (more than five hundred people) elsewhere in the southern part of the state in Iberia, East Baton Rouge, Terrebonne, and Vermilion parishes. Few had settled in the north, except in or near the major cities of Shreveport and Monroe. By the end of the first decade of the twenty-first century, an estimated 26,400 Vietnamese people lived in Louisiana.
Work and Income
Since their arrival, the Vietnamese have become active participants in the economy of Louisiana. By the beginning of the twenty-first century, hairdressers and cosmetologists constituted the most important job concentration for Vietnamese women in the state. Among men, welding and metal cutting predominated, employing about one in ten Vietnamese men in 2009. Fishing and related occupations were also important for the men in this group, though, since these provided jobs to about 8 percent of Vietnamese men throughout the state and to 10 percent of the Vietnamese men in the New Orleans area.
Unemployment among the Vietnamese labor force in Louisiana was less than 3 percent in 2009, and the poverty rate for Vietnamese households was less than both the state and national averages. The relative economic success was clearly not the result of high-paying, high-status jobs, given the occupational specializations of the Louisiana Vietnamese. Instead, it has probably been achieved through the high labor-force participation and low unemployment. These characteristics can be at least partly attributed to cooperation and mutual assistance by group members. The Vietnamese who operate fishing and shrimping vessels in the Gulf of Mexico have often been able to do so because of financial assistance from group members. In turn, they often hire Vietnamese crews. Similarly, those who open small grocery stores or beauty shops frequently receive assistance from friends and family members and provide work for other friends and family members.
Language and Education
Most Vietnamese Louisianans retain their ancestral language. In 2009, 87 percent reported that they spoke Vietnamese at home and 12 percent reported that they spoke English at home. However, most had also become conversant in English. Only 4.2 percent of Vietnamese Louisianans spoke no English. Among the generation born in the United States, there is a clear movement toward relying more on English than on the parental language. Many young people report having limited Vietnamese vocabularies as a result of using that language mainly inside the household.
Vietnamese young people have often achieved recognition for academic achievement. They have also shown high levels of educational attainment. Among those aged 18 through 21, 62 percent were attending college and 11 percent were still in high school. In addition to impressive achievement and attainment, though, Vietnamese young people also have fairly high dropout rates. Over 8 percent of those aged 16 to 19 had neither finished high school nor were attending school in 2009, which may indicate that young Vietnamese Louisianans are splitting into two groups, characterized by upward and downward mobility.
Political and Civic Participation
The Vietnamese have become active in the political life of Louisiana. During the 1980s and 1990s, they began to organize Vietnamese Voters Associations in order to encourage all members of their communities to become US citizens and to vote. By 2009, the overwhelming majority of Vietnamese Louisianans were US citizens: about 45 percent were citizens because they were born in the United States and 39 percent were naturalized citizens. Many of those who had not taken American citizenship were older people.
In the early 1990s proposals to put landfills in the wetlands near the Versailles Vietnamese community in New Orleans East mobilized protests by Vietnamese Louisianans that ultimately defeated the planned land waste disposal facilities. After Hurricane Katrina, though, New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin, faced with the problem of disposing of toxic debris from the storm, used his emergency power to open the Chef Menteur landfill two miles from the Versailles Community, stimulating new political activism among community members.
In 2008 Vietnamese-born attorney Anh “Joseph” Quang Cao, a Republican, became the first Vietnamese American elected to Congress, representing the New Orleans-based Second Congressional District of Louisiana. Although Cao lost his bid for reelection from the predominantly Democratic and African American district in 2010, he continued to be active in the state’s political life.
Disasters: Hurricane Katrina and the Oil Spill
The settlement of Vietnamese Louisianans along the Gulf Coast exposed them to the two great disasters that hit the state at the beginning of the twenty-first century: the hurricanes of 2005 and the Gulf oil spill of 2010. Hurricane Katrina, in August 2005, and Hurricane Rita, a month later, forced many Vietnamese from the New Orleans area and other places along the Gulf to flee to Houston, site of one of the largest Vietnamese communities in the South. However, the Vietnamese were among the earliest returnees to the New Orleans area. Mutual cooperation enabled them to begin rebuilding even the most devastated areas of their community. Some were still rebuilding when another disaster struck.
In April 2010 the Deepwater Horizon drilling unit exploded and oil spilled into the Gulf of Mexico for months. Faced with a public outcry and political pressure, the BP oil company agreed to pay restitution to those damaged by the spill. Fishers, shrimpers, and crabbers figured prominently among the prospective recipients of the money to be disbursed by the Gulf Coast Claims Facility (GCCF).
Many people whose livelihoods were disrupted or destroyed by the oil in the Gulf were dissatisfied with the GCCF. But those whose incomes were derived directly from the yield of the sea experienced some of the worst difficulties. The Vietnamese fishers were not completely integrated into the bureaucratic system of the larger society, with its detailed records of formal financial transactions, and therefore faced challenges in documenting their losses. The hardships of those in fishing reverberated throughout the Vietnamese communities of southern Louisiana, affecting other family members and hitting Vietnamese enterprises that did business with those in the seafood industry.
Cite This Entry
Chicago Manual of Style
Bankston III, Carl L. "Vietnamese." In KnowLA Encyclopedia of Louisiana, edited by David Johnson. Louisiana Endowment for the Humanities, 2010–. Article published July 22, 2013. http://www.knowla.org/entry/1422/.
Bankston III, Carl L. "Vietnamese." KnowLA Encyclopedia of Louisiana. Ed. David Johnson. Louisiana Endowment for the Humanities, 22 Jul 2013. Web. 21 Jan. 2017.
Would you like to learn more about this topic from books and other reading materials?
Rumbaut, Rubén G. “Vietnam.” The New Americans:A Guide to Immigration Since 1965, edited by Mary Waters and Reed Ueda, 652–73. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2007.
Vu, Lung, Mark Van Landingham, Mai Do, and Carl L. Bankston III. “Evacuation and Return of Vietnamese New Orleanians Affected by Hurricane Katrina.” Organization and Environment 22 (2009): 422–36.
Zhou, Min, and Carl L. Bankston III. Growing Up American: How Vietnamese Children Adapt to Life in the United States. New York: Russell Sage Foundation, 1998.