Following the fall of Saigon to the Communist North Vietnamese, 130,000 refugees were evacuated from South Vietnam.
Operation Frequent Wind, the largest boat and air lift in refugee history was a rousing success that would lead to 1.4 million Vietnamese émigrés resettling in the United States between 1975 and 1994.
The Gulf Coast South was a favored destination.
A 21 acre site that housed Versailles Arms Apartments near Chef Menteur Pass in New Orleans East initially saw five families from Vietnam put down stakes.
And finally more than a thousand.
In the resulting diaspora this influx of fresh arrivals became known as the “first-wave.”
Most of the immigrants who began homesteading in Versailles were from small fishing villages in southern Vietnam so it was a natural fit for them to join Louisiana’s seafood industry. New Orleans East’s lush swamps and bayous bear no small resemblance to the Mekong Delta and the warm sultry climate would’ve been welcoming to these new arrivals.
Time to roll up their sleeves and get to work.
But how did the Vietnamese successfully straddle their culture and world alongside the New Orleans culture? It was tough going at first.
Enter Chalin Perez, the tough-talking son of notorious political boss Leander Perez. Chalin was the president of nearby Plaquemines Parish Council and he took an immediate dislike to the new fisherman working the rivers and estuaries calling them “aliens, non-residents, non-property owners (and saying) they want to come in and take our areas.”
His father, Leander, called the area that stretches from just outside New Orleans 120 miles south to the Gulf of Mexico “The Promised Land,” and amid the sawgrass, swamps, bayous and alligators the Vietnamese saw something just like that: the promise of a place where they could peacefully go about their lives and earn a seafaring living some 10,000 miles from home.
And those who were not interested in the life of a mariner slowly saved their money and opened lunch counters, curb stores, and gas stations. By the late 70s, the Versailles neighborhood, which housed the most densely-populated group of Vietnamese outside of Vietnam, had turned into a thriving commercial district where you could get food as good as any served in Ho Chi Minh City.Food like the classic Franco-Vietnamese sandwich, the banh mi. In Vietnam proper the word banh mi just means bread but here in the US it gets fancified a bit and is commonly used to describe one of the most luxurious foodstuffs on the planet combining mayonnaise, pork belly, pâté, pork shoulder, cow’s butter, and a bounty of herbs and vegetables such as cucumber, cilantro, daikon and carrots marinated in white vinegar and sugar, spring onions, and chile peppers.
If you have an especially gifted chef she may sprinkle the melange with a few drops of precious Maggi sauce.
The result will be rapturous.
When the French effected colonial control of Vietnam in 1887 with the formation of La Fédération Indochinoise,
one of the first orders of business was to teach the locals how to make baguettes. The Vietnamese proved to be quick studies and to this day some of the finest bakeries on earth are owned and ran by Vietnamese people. When World War I erupted and supply chains of wheat were strangled they nimbly shifted to rice flour in their baking routines.
To this day some bakers of Vietnamese-style baguettes swear by rice flour while others scoff at the inclusion preferring instead to use dough enhancers.
The French were just entrenching themselves in Vietnam when G.H Leidenheimer migrated from Germany to New Orleans and opened his eponymous bakery on Dryades Street. His hot loaves of bread were soon being used at restaurants across the city including the Little Palermo section of the French Quarter where the nearly yard-long hunks of bread were stuffed with all manners of cured meats before being sold to the dockhands and stevedores for a pittance.
In a example of reverse migration, Vietnamese dishes first appeared in France during the Colonial Exposition in Marseilles in 1922. A bit of Indochinese exotica in la République.
Meanwhile, according to banh mi historian Erica J. Peters, it would be 1934 before the first sandwiches that could be recognized as banh mi were being sold on the streets of Vietnam by a vendor named Madame Hai Yểng.
By that late date the po boy industry of New Orlean was running wide-open with dozens of diners, lunch counters, butcheries, hash houses, and pool halls selling the foot-long sandwiches.Homegrown favorite Blue Plate mayonnaise, New Orleans dominant brand, was at such a fever pitch of production that the Federal Surplus Commodities Corporation okayed the purchase of 100 railroad carloads of cottonseed oil for the production of their sauce.
Line cooks of the era kept gallons of the precious emulsion at the ready when the sandwich orders were being barked out by the waitresses.
Meanwhile in France, the banh mi would begin enjoying an extended moment in the sun from the mid-20th century onward with the diminutive sandwich seeing increased popularity in the émigré community as well as among students who needed quick, cheap fuel to power through their workload.
In Vietnam in 1954, the French colonialists were routed by Ho Chi Minh’s forces signalling the end of France’s near century-long occupation but the ever-resilient Vietnamese people would be met with more turbulence in their day to day lives.
In northern Vietnam in the Red River delta there lived communities of devout Catholics who immediately drew the ire of the suddenly successful revolutionaries. The Catholic faith was considered a boon to the now departed French soldiers colonization and as such Minh’s forces simply felt that these parishioners could not be trusted.
The Catholics fled to the south of Vietnam where safety beckoned and the reach of Ho Chi Minh was substantially dimmed. Just two decades later it was this group that was once again forced to flee when Saigon fell to the Communist North Vietnamese.
Their destination? Biloxi, Ocean Springs, Port Arthur, Houston and New Orleans where these fresh transplants integrated themselves into the fabric of their new communities using one of the oldest tools of them all: food.
How successful were they? Banh mi, was officially added to the Oxford English Dictionary in 2011, and the American Heritage Dictionary in 2014.
Today if you started in Houston and began slowly working your way to Biloxi you would find thousands of hardworking Vietnamese in every imaginable occupation including operating hundreds of southeast Asian restaurants serving banh mi sandwiches along this route. The people running them have become well-adapted to American culture over the last 40 plus years.
They bridge the two cultures with aplomb. The US and Vietnam are inextricably intertwined. The nations that once warred against one another have now achieved détente
Vietnam is the second largest producer of coffee on earth. The US is the leading importer of coffee on the planet.
Today, Vietnam is the largest producer and exporter of black pepper in the world. The US imports more of this precious spice than any other nation.
The Vietnamese are culinarians of the highest order. The Americans? Trenchermen one and all.
You know when the Vietnamese arrived in New Orleans – they took the lay of the land; saw the cafes and markets brimming with copious fresh herbs and meats and every other manner of high-caliber groceries – then nodded inwardly and murmured “this is a good place.”
The History of the Bánh Mì by Diana Stegall
A Gulf Unites Us: The Vietnamese Americans of New Orleans East by Eric Tang
The Sandwich That Ate The World by Simon Stanley
An Initial Interpretation of 2010 Ethnic and Racial Geographies in Greater New Orleans by Richard Campanella
To Understand France’s Food, Look at the Places It Colonized by Mayukh Sen
Suburban Swamp: The Rise and Fall of Planned New-Town Communities in New Orleans East by J. Mark Souther
Surviving Katrina and its aftermath: evacuation and community mobilization by Vietnamese Americans and African Americans by Wei Li,
Creating Vietnamese Landscapes and Place in New Orleans, in Geographical Identities of Ethnic America: Race, Space and Place by Christopher Airriess,
Culture, Gender, and Vulnerability in a Vietnamese Refugee Community: Aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, in Water, Cultural Diversity and Global Environmental Change: Emerging Trends, Sustainable Futures? by Gennie Thi Nguyen