Vietnam on the bayou: In 1975, New Orleans laid out the welcome mat
When Saigon fell to Communist forces on April 30, 1975, thousands of South Vietnamese citizens suddenly became refugees. Archbishop Philip M. Hannan invited them to come to New Orleans, even sponsoring 1,000 families, 2,100 people in all, through the Church. In addition to this official welcome, New Orleans — which, like Vietnam, is a former French colony, and heavily Catholic, to boot — was attractive to the new arrivals because the climate is similar to that in Vietnam. Also, because of the local coastal geography, many could continue fishing, as they had done in their native country.
The Vietnamese population in the New Orleans area has grown to more than 15,000 in the four decades since the fall of Saigon, with Vietnamese markets and restaurants adding another layer to the local cultural mélange. They have become so devoted to their new home that, after Hurricane Katrina, nearly two-thirds of the local Vietnamese population returned to the city, according to a Tulane University study, even though their core neighborhood in eastern New Orleans had been devastated by flooding in the wake of the storm.
- In 2008, Anh “Joseph” Cao — who fled Vietnam as an 8-year-old boy — became the first native Vietnamese member of the U.S. House of Representatives.
- The first appearance of the name “Ngyuen” — the most common Vietnamese surname — in a New Orleans phone book came in 1974, with just one number listed. By 1979, there were 318.
- Hannan provided land in eastern New Orleans for Mary Queen of Vietnam Church, which became a busy hub of the local Vietnamese community. Within a year after Hurricane Katrina trashed much of that part of the city, the church and its parishioners were active once again.
- In 2003, Monsignor Dominic Luong, who had been pastor of Mary Queen of Vietnam Church, was named the auxiliary bishop of Orange, Calif., making him the first Vietnamese bishop in the United States.
- Mary Queen of Vietnam Church’s annual Tet celebration — marking the Vietnamese New Year — has drawn as many as 10,000 attendees over the course of the three-day festival.
- On April 23, 1975 — a week to the day before Saigon fell — President Gerald Ford stunned a Tulane University audience when he announced the end of the war in Vietnam, saying that the long, divisive conflict was “finished as far as America is concerned.”
The influx of Vietnamese refugees into New Orleans altered the area’s demographics forever. Most of the city’s newest residents settled in eastern New Orleans and on the west bank of the Mississippi River, but their influence has been pervasive, with Vietnamese markets, businesses and restaurants operating throughout the city. In perhaps the ultimate sign of the melding of New Orleans and Vietnamese culture, readers of NOLA.com in 2017 named Dong Phuong Bakery — which was opened in 1981 by Vietnamese immigrants De and Huong Tran — the best place in the city to get that quintessentially New Orleans treat: a king cake.