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Vietnamese Immigration and Its Culinary Influence on the United States

Cajun Boil | Cajun Kitchen
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It’s not uncommon to find long lines at Brodard, a Vietnamese restaurant situated in the Mall of Fortune in Garden Grove, an area also popularly known as “Little Saigon.” After all, this institution’s lauded nem nuong cuon — grilled pork spring rolls accompanied by an unimitable sweet and savory dipping sauce — has a fervent following.

Over the years, the Brodard brand has grown to three locations, but co-owner Chau Dang-Haller, 46, says it wasn’t always her and her 50-year-old sister Lisa Dang’s game plan to run a restaurant empire. “We were refugees [when we] came [to the United States] in 1986, so we didn’t come here to open a restaurant,” says Dang-Haller.

Brodard nem nuong | Courtesy of Brodard
Brodard's signature dish, nem nuong  | Courtesy of Brodard

Their primary goal was to get an education. As for their parents, Diane Nguyen and Thuong Dang, who ran a three-generation-owned bakery back in Vietnam, they wanted to open a small business so they could support their family. “It was just like any other family trying to survive in America, and to achieve your goal is to work and support your kids [so they can get an] education,” Dang-Haller says.

Her family’s story of survival in a new country is one that likely resonates with many Vietnamese immigrant families who experienced hardships fleeing their war-torn country and navigating their way through a new, unfamiliar one. Many Vietnamese immigrants, like the Dang-Nguyens, found a way to support their families while keeping their traditions alive, by opening restaurants that served the food that reminded them of home.

Little Saigon in Orange County is just one of the many thriving Vietnamese communities in the United States; other cities like San Jose, Houston and New Orleans are also flourishing as Vietnamese enclaves and culinary destinations. In an effort to dig deeper into the intersection of Vietnamese immigration and its culinary impact on the United States amid the backdrop of the Vietnam War, we turned to Vietnamese historians, ethnographers and restaurant owners in these regions to share their thoughts and stories.

The Waves of Vietnamese Immigration

The Vietnam War, which raged on from 1955 to 1975, was a long and devastating conflict between the communist government of North Vietnam, which was backed by allies like the Soviet Union and China, against the government of South Vietnam, which had the support of countries such as the United States, Australia and Thailand.

The war came to a head when North Vietnam’s communist regime captured Saigon in the South on April 30, 1975. The U.S. government estimated that in those 20 years of conflict, the war claimed more than 3 million lives, including 2 million civilians and 58,000 U.S. troops. There were 11 million Vietnamese who became refugees and sought a new home in the United States. Vietnamese communities may now seem so entrenched in the fabric of this country, that it’s easy to forget that American opposition to their coming in the 70s was even more virulent than opposition to Syrian asylum-seekers in the U.S. and in much of Europe.

There were several waves of Vietnamese refugees who immigrated to the United States, which impacted their experiences in their new country. The first wave took place right after the fall of Saigon in 1975 with a group comprised mainly the educated and wealthy class, who had ties to the South Vietnamese government or the U.S. military and feared political persecution. The second wave, which took place between 1977 to 1982, brought over refugees who were dubbed “boat people” on account of them desperately traveling by boat through dangerous waters to seek asylum in other countries, while risking the possibility of death, robbery and rape. Many of these people were ethnic Chinese who were fleeing persecution in Vietnam, and also were less educated than the first group and from more rural areas. And the third wave that took place during the 1980s and 1990s consisted mainly of political prisoners and Vietnamese Amerasians.

Lillys Cafe exterior | Lillys Cafe
Lilly's Cafe exterior | Lillys Cafe

Trinh “Lilly” Vuong, 45, who co-owns and runs the wildly popular Lilly’s Cafe in New Orleans with her family, says they were “boat people.” Her family attempted to escape Vietnam several times and failed, but finally, a Christian church in Falls Church, Virginia sponsored her father, brother and herself to the United States in 1982. It was only years later when Vuong’s father was able to sponsor his wife to America that the family was reunited.

Vuong says it was a difficult adjustment for her father, who immigrated when he was 42. Back in Vietnam, he had previously been a French chef before owning an extremely successful bicycle factory, but in his new country, he was doing carpentry work. “It was a big shock to my dad,” Vuong says. “He had to run out of his country, from his home, for the safety of us, and [then] everything [he had] was gone.”

Getting a Taste of Home

“Vietnamese refugees, regardless of their economic standing in the old country, were generally a working-class population here, especially when they first arrived,” says Phuong Nguyen, the author of "Becoming Refugee American: The Politics of Rescue in Little Saigon," which will be published this fall.

Opening restaurants was a logical next step for many Vietnamese immigrants “partly because that’s how Asian culture is commodified in this country,” says Nguyen. “The beauty of a restaurant was that it required little formal training, almost no certification, or professionalization — at least in the short term.”

Erica J. Peters, director of the Culinary Historians of Northern California and author of "Appetites and Aspirations in Vietnam: Food and Drink in the Long Nineteenth Century," says, “The immigrant story is that you miss the foods from your home country when they’re not available and you talk to each other a lot about, ‘Well, how can we make do? How can we recreate some of the flavors of what we had there?’ And you encourage someone in your community to start building the networks that allow them to set up stores and provide ingredients that you miss from your home country. And all of that energy around recreating our foodways as much as possible is a daily desire. It pricks you constantly to try to come together and find the resources you need to create your foodways.”

It was this same yearning that caused Binh Nguyen to found Pho Hoa, a successful pho franchise that first launched in San Jose and has now expanded to over 70 locations in seven countries. “After the mass migration of the Vietnamese population in 1980 due to the war, we wanted to bring a feeling of warmth and home to the displaced Vietnamese immigrants,” says Quoc Phan, the 44-year-old president of Pho Hoa.

Phan, whose family was sponsored by a church group in Detroit in 1981, says Pho Hoa was the first Vietnamese concept to venture into the franchising business in the Asian food industry, something that was unheard of at the time. “In 1986, our smartest move was to develop and manufacture our proprietary spice blend which allowed us to penetrate smaller Vietnamese communities as well as the international markets without compromising quality and consistency. This helped set us apart from other brands and has assisted in our growing success,” Phan says.

Pho | Pho Hoa
Pho | Pho Hoa

The Similarities and Differences of These Vietnamese Communities

By 2014, 1.3 million Vietnamese immigrants were living in the United States, and the population concentrated in the greater Los Angeles, San Jose and Houston metropolitan areas, according to nonpartisan think tank, Migration Policy Institute.

However, it took some time before these thriving Vietnamese communities formed. According to the Encyclopedia of Multicultural Psychology, in 1975, the “first-wave Vietnamese refugees were systematically dispersed throughout the country, an attempt by the federal government to discourage the formation of ethnic enclaves to minimize the impact of Vietnamese refugee settlement on any particular geographical area.”

But “with time, as social networks and family connections formed in the community, a lot of Vietnamese refugees migrated to a few parts within the United States," Jeanne Batalova, a senior policy analyst at Migration Policy Institute, told KPCC. The Vietnamese were attracted to states like California, Texas and Louisiana because of the warmer weather and the fishing and job opportunities.

“The social capital provided by social workers, counselors, religious institutions, newspapers, and such eventually reached critical mass in places like Orange County, San Jose, Houston, and New Orleans, attracting more Vietnamese to these locations where they could find help, assistance, or some kind of hook-up outside the formal economy,” Nguyen says.

There was a strong draw to New Orleans as well, which Vuong says reminds her of Vietnam, from the climate to the French architecture. “Many immigrants were from fishing communities back in Vietnam, so they made a relatively easy transition to fishing on the Gulf Coast,” Peters says. “[But] they were hard hit by [Hurricane] Katrina in 2005 and by the disastrous BP oil spill in 2010.”

John Nguyen, 38, who owns Cajun Kitchen in Houston’s Chinatown says Katrina led to a wave of Vietnamese immigrants in New Orleans to relocate to Houston. With the migration grew the popularity of the Viet-Cajun crawfish trend, in which Louisiana-style crawfish boils are punctuated with Vietnamese flavors and ingredients, like garlic butter and lemongrass, bay leaves and citrus juice.

“The whole [Viet-Cajun] crawfish craze in Houston probably started about 2000 to 2001. One or two shops opened up and they didn’t really have much competition for four or five years,” John Nguyen says, adding that everything changed in 2005 and now new shops are popping up all the time.

Cajun Boil | Cajun Kitchen
Cajun Boil | Cajun Kitchen

Cajun Kitchen was originally launched in 2005 by Vietnamese immigrants who had come from Louisiana, and John Nguyen, who previously worked as an accountant in the oil and gas industries, took over the business in 2013. He says when The Boiling Crab, whose chain is also popular in Southern and Northern California, first opened in Houston around that time, it “really helped put [Viet-Cajun] crawfish on the map.”

John Nguyen is confident that Viet-Cajun crawfish is a unique fusion that started in Houston. His family was one of the few ones that immigrated to Norway after the war; it wasn’t until 2000 that they all moved to Houston. He remembers that from the 1980s to the 1990s, his family would visit Louisiana every three years, and the crawfish boils that his relatives would make were generally by the book Cajun-style.

Cajun Kitchen owner, John Nguyen | Cajun Kitchen
Cajun Kitchen owner, John Nguyen | Cajun Kitchen

“If you’re in Louisiana and talk to [Louisianians], they’re very proud of their food — as they should be — so they want to keep it as is and they want to keep it pure,” John Nguyen says. “Basically, in Houston, there are so many restaurants and the industry is really fierce, especially in Chinatown and with how new restaurants pop up every year, that restaurants have to stand out somehow.”

Vuong, whose Lilly’s Cafe gets celebrity visits from the likes of Chopped TV judge Aaron Sanchez and actor John Goodman, is a purist when it comes to her restaurant’s pho — so much so, that she and her husband-chef Kiet Le’s visit Vietnam every year just to stay current on how to make the best-tasting pho.

“Anybody can cook pho, but not everyone can make a good pho because it takes patience and dedication. [It’s] not just throwing in water and a few pieces of bones in it and you call it a ‘pho,’” Vuong says.

There’s a reason behind the need stay true to the traditional flavors of Vietnamese cuisine in New Orleans. To Vuong, New Orleans is a big hub for Vietnamese families, and that means that the matriarchs are great cooks, so their children have high standards when it comes to Vietnamese food. “So when you go out to eat in a restaurant, they want to have that similar taste or better; otherwise they won’t go eat [at your business].”

Dang-Haller equates food to fashion and believes that because they follow the trends and stay fresh and unique, that’s why they’ve been so successful at Brodard. A decade ago when seared ahi was a trend, they started putting the fish in their spring rolls — and that became a hit. They often cater to their customer’s needs and are especially focused on how Californians are health-conscious people.

These restaurant owners similarly believe the key to their success is hard work. “Being immigrants, we knew that if we flunked out of school or if we didn’t work hard, we wouldn’t be able [to survive],” Dang-Haller says. “Nobody would give us anything — it’s not like your parents were [well to do] so you could inherit this and that.”

Vuong says, “I think family is the foundation of everything and Vietnamese people work hard — I’m not saying others don’t — but as a native Vietnamese person we strive hard because we’re minorities [and we’re in the] land of opportunity.”

Top image: Cajun Boil | Cajun Kitchen

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