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Vietnamese in Louisiana

Vietnamese Americans are one of the newest major ethnic groups in Louisiana

Vietnamese in Louisiana

Dr. George Castille, III, Louisiana Sea Grant Digital Images Collection

Sign for "Steven Seafood Inc." in English and Vietnamese, St. Mary Parish, LA, 1997.

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.

Origins

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 in 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.

Geographic Distribution

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 2018, according to the American Community Survey of the US Census Bureau, approximately twenty-nine thousand people of Vietnamese ancestry lived in Louisiana.

Work and Income

Since their arrival, the Vietnamese have become active participants in the economy of Louisiana. Nail salons have become a major occupational niche for Vietnamese Americans over the years. In Louisiana in 2018, approximately one out of every five Vietnamese women and one out of every ten Vietnamese men in the labor force worked as manicurists and pedicurists. The next most common occupation for women was that of janitor or building cleaner and for men that of construction laborer. Earlier in the century, fishing had been an important occupational concentration, accounting for 8 percent of Louisiana Vietnamese male workers in the state in 2009. During the following decade, though, Louisiana Vietnamese tended to move away from fishing. By 2018, fishing employed approximately 3 percent of Louisiana Vietnamese men.

Unemployment among Vietnamese in the Louisiana labor force was 5.8 percent in 2018, compared to 6.2 percent among non-Vietnamese. In the United States in general, Vietnamese also had an unemployment rate lower than the national average (3.5 percent, compared to 4.9 percent for non-Vietnamese). The poverty rate for Vietnamese households was also less than both the state and national averages. These statistics can be at least partly attributed to cooperation and mutual assistance by group members. From the 1980s onward, Vietnamese who operated fishing and shrimping vessels in the Gulf of Mexico had often been able to do so because of financial assistance from group members. In turn, they often hired group members as crews. As businesses such as beauty salons and nail parlors became increasingly important as places of employment, similar ethnic network support helped Vietnamese entrepreneurs, who then hired Vietnamese employees.

Language and Education

Most Vietnamese Louisianans retain their ancestral language. In 2018, 83 percent reported that they spoke Vietnamese at home and 17 percent reported that their home language was English. However, most had also become conversant in English; only 7.3 percent of Vietnamese Louisianans reported that they 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. Over one-third of young people, aged five through seventeen, spoke only English. Many young people report having limited Vietnamese vocabularies as a result of using that language mainly inside the household.

Compared to their non-Vietnamese peers, Vietnamese young people show high levels of educational attainment. By 2018, 87 percent of Louisiana Vietnamese aged 18 through 21 were enrolled in higher education, compared to only 45 percent of non-Vietnamese Louisianans in this age group.

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 2018, 38 percent of Louisiana Vietnamese were foreign-born, naturalized citizens and 38 percent were citizens by birth. 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 Ánh “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. Cyndi Nguyen, who arrived in the United States from Vietnam when she was five years old, became the first Vietnamese American member of the New Orleans City Council in a 2017 election.

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, operated by the BP oil-and-gas company, exploded, and oil spilled into the Gulf of Mexico for months. Faced with a public outcry and political pressure, BP 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. Vietnamese Americans made up a substantial proportion of those laborers.

Many people whose livelihoods were disrupted or destroyed by the oil in the Gulf were dissatisfied with the Gulf Coast Claims Facility. 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. The Deepwater Horizon incident may have encouraged Louisiana Vietnamese to begin moving away from the fishing industry, as suggested by the employment data cited above.