For the Vietnamese refugees in New Orleans, food was and is a way to recreate a home left and lost. “As a culture, we are very family oriented and believe in the practice of gathering together,” says Mai Nguyen, the owner of Ba Mien Restaurant. For many, “At the center of all of this, is food.”
After Saigon fell in April 1975, many displaced Vietnamese migrated to American cities, to wherever might take them in. Many ended up in sunny coastal California, which explains the large Vietnamese populations in San Diego, San Jose, Orange County, or San Francisco today. But many others spread across the US to unfamiliar landscapes like landlocked Tennessee or frigid Washington DC.
New Orleans was different. Here, the Vietnamese community found a home that, in some small measure, felt like the country they would never know again. Vietnam boasts a coastline on its entire eastern side, so settling near the Gulf Coast was ideal -- for its resources, its work opportunities, its climate, and the familiarity of its lifestyle. There was a year-round market for seafood in New Orleans, and refugees found work as fishermen, shrimpers, and crabbers. And perhaps most importantly, displaced Vietnamese were able to catch or grow the food that represented a long cultural history. Linh Nguyen, of sandwich shop Banh Mi Boys, puts it this way: “We made a history here,” one that made a new country feel a little less alien. “Our community fits in well, as we are both the same.”
Indeed, the through-line between Vietnam and New Orleans goes beyond just geography and climate; in both countries, food is entangled, enmeshed, and inseparable from its history and culture. New Orleans' Cajun and Creole cuisines famously borrow from the French, who forever imbued the Crescent City with its influence when it founded the city in 1718. This naturally lends itself to Vietnamese cooking -- also heavily influenced by France, which colonized the country in the mid-1800s. A superb French baguette is essential to a good bánh mì, for example.
In recent years, many younger or enterprising Vietnamese Americans have introduced locals to Vietnamese cuisine by opening restaurants in well-trafficked parts of the city, like the Garden District or Uptown, and they’ve added their own twists to reflect the cultural fusion of New Orleans. Visitors can get a delicious bowl of pho in the hip, modern spaces of Magasin, a popular eatery in the Garden District and the Central Business District, or try Mid-City's Vietnamese Creole fusion at MoPho or the lamb lollipops at Namese. But the city’s best traditional Vietnamese mainstays remain mostly on the outskirts, in New Orleans East and the Westbank, where refugee communities first made their homes. Ultimately, the Vietnamese are also New Orleanians.
“The importance of the food relates to how close you hold those roots to you and how they are honored,” says Linh Nguyen. “Food equals tradition in Vietnamese culture, and tradition is important.” Luckily for the Vietnamese, a city like New Orleans is no stranger to tradition.