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A Portrait of Loss, Growth and Adaptation in New Orleans' Vietnamese Community

When it comes to the Vietnamese diaspora in the United States, everyone knows about California’s huge community.

Some may be familiar with other communities in Houston or the Washington D.C. area, but you rarely hear about Vietnamese in New Orleans. This group, which numbers around 15,000 people, is the focal point of Things We Lost to the Water, the debut novel from Eric Nguyen, the editor-in-chief of online literary portal diaCRITICS.

It tells the multi-generational story of a Vietnamese family who flees southern Vietnam at the end of the war and arrives in New Orleans under sponsorship by the Catholic church, tracking their lives all the way through the catastrophic impact of Hurricane Katrina on the city.

The three central characters are Hương and her two sons, Tuấn and Bình, who adopts the American name Ben as he grows up. Chapters alternate between their points of view, highlighting the different challenges they face: Hương works hard to make ends meet as a single mother, while Tuấn falls in with a Vietnamese gang called The Southern Boyz and Ben works to figure out his identity.   

They settle down in a small apartment in New Orleans East, a working-class part of the city far removed from the tourist destinations of the French Quarter and the Garden District. As a native New Orleanian, I was struck by Nguyen’s depiction of the Vietnamese community in New Orleans East over the years. While "the east" is a huge area, the Vietnamese part specifically is known as Versailles, after the Versailles Arms Apartment, public housing where many Vietnamese lived upon arrival from Vietnam. It is the subject of a documentary called A Village Called Versailles, and hosts a huge annual Tet celebration partly organized by the Mary Queen of Vietnam Church. (Many of the Vietnamese who ended up in New Orleans are Catholic, though Hương is stridently against religion.)  

While growing up in another part of New Orleans, I was ignorant of the city’s Vietnamese community, and really only became aware of it once I moved to Vietnam in 2010. Today, while Versailles remains a tight-knit neighborhood with its own Saigon Drive, second- and third-generation Vietnamese-Americans have opened popular restaurants in downtown New Orleans, drawing crowds that wouldn’t normally make the 30-minute drive to Versailles.

And, in a development that will surprise no one who lives in Vietnam, the community has also bested native New Orleanians at some of their own games: Dong Phuong, a bakery and restaurant which opened in 1982, has perfected the city’s famed French bread and now supplies top restaurants, while their king cake — a Mardi Gras tradition — is arguably the best in town. (They also happen to serve, in my humble opinion, the best bánh mì just about anywhere.)

Within New Orleans, Versailles has also become synonymous with resilience, as the area was massively flooded when the levees failed after the arrival of Hurricane Katrina in August 2005. Vietnamese shrimp and oyster fishermen were also devastated by the 2010 BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, yet Vietnamese have gone on to become a cultural force across the city.

In an interview for the Saigoneer Podcast, Nguyen told me that water was a key theme for his story: “Especially for people who fled by boat, water was a means for escaping, but also I was thinking how dangerous leaving by water on these usually small boats crowded with people was. So I was thinking water has this duality of it could save you, it's necessary for life, but also how it could kill you. And I think setting that in Louisiana specifically, that is also there, that duality.”

While my family was fortunate enough to evacuate New Orleans before Katrina made landfall, our house’s entire first floor was flooded, and I will never forget the destruction I saw when my mother and I drove into the city two weeks later when the water was finally pumped out.

The Lakeview neighborhood of New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina. Photos by Michael Tatarski.

My family's house after the floodwaters were drained. Photos by Michael Tatarski.

For myself — and countless other New Orleanians — the book’s title resonates strongly, and I also loved the distinctly New Orleans touches that Nguyen’s research in the city produced: for example, after their first Mardi Gras, Hương, Tuấn and Ben had their “beads packed away for the next year (a tangled mess no one would use again).”

Indeed, my family did this after each Mardi Gras as well, though for what purpose I’ll never know — there are probably still bags of useless beads collecting dust in our attic.

The bemused reactions to aspects of New Orleans’ distinct culture are great as well. Vinh, a Vietnamese immigrant who Hương develops a relationship with, says at one point that “he’d never been to any place that took food more seriously than New Orleans. [It’s true.] He said he once made the mistake of calling a muffuletta just a sandwich, and the cashier...refused to give him his food.” 

Beyond the New Orleans specifics that spoke to me personally, Things We Lost to the Water is a marvelous, beautiful read, with fully fleshed-out characters and thoughtful depictions of the immigrant experience. It is a worthy addition to the growing list of Vietnamese-American literature.

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