New Orleans is a Great Place for a Taste of Vietnam
New Orleans’ three hundred-plus years of history now prominently includes that of Vietnamese refugees and their descendants who’ve added to the culture of the Crescent City.
When you visit Maypop on O’Keefe Street, a popular “American South meets Southeast Asia” eatery in New Orleans, you’ll see a huge 3-dimensional accordion-like mural on the wall. It’s also reminiscent of a giant Vietnamese folded fan. If you’re on one side of the restaurant, you’re looking at a map of The Mississippi Delta. If you walk to the other side, your view is a map of The Mekong Delta in the southern part of Vietnam.
After a dozen visits to New Orleans spanning from the late 1990s through its tricentennial, it’s noticeable to me that New Orleans’ three hundred-plus years of history now prominently includes that of Vietnamese refugees and their descendants who’ve added to the culture of the Crescent City. Restaurants offering Vietnamese food abound in nearly every neighborhood. A culture is more than its food, however. A culture comprises its people, their creations, and the legacies that members hope to leave. There are Little Saigons all over America. New Orleans is lucky enough to have more than one hub of Vietnamese diaspora culture.
The New Orleans metropolitan area has sizable Vietnamese-American populations in New Orleans East and in the West Bank, just on the other side of the Mississippi River. Many Vietnamese people arrived there in the latter 1970s and early 1980s. They stayed in the region because of the similarities to their homeland. The Mississippi Delta can double as the Mekong Delta. In both places you’ll find rampant humidity, comparable vegetation, and gorgeous waterways. Around 14,000 people of Vietnamese ethnicity live in Orleans and Jefferson Parishes, all with opinions on where to find quintessential Vietnamese culture in their neck of the woods.
While touring the city, your nose will take you to places that define New Orleans— scents of butters and creams being cooked, smells of magical oils and candles from Voodoo shops, and then there’s the aromas of pho and other Vietnamese standards— anise, nutmeg, lemongrass, cinnamon, mint, basil, cilantro and more, swirling in the air.
The surface-level overlaps are numerous, allowing Vietnamese culture to often blend seamlessly with its surroundings in New Orleans. Louisiana and Vietnam are both former French colonies and both retain Catholicism. Many Vietnamese-Americans of the Big Easy are more like the Voodoo practitioners than they know— participating in customary ancestor worship and herbology. The greatest Vietnamese celebration is the Lunar New Year called “Tet” which often coincides with Mardi Gras, in February.
While the classic French, Creole and Cajun cuisines made New Orleans famous, Vietnamese food now draws people to the city too. Chefs famous worldwide have dedicated their time to featuring Vietnamese food of The Big Easy. David Chang did an episode of his Netflix show “Ugly Delicious” split between New Orleans and Vietnam. He covered “Viet-Cajun”, a fusion style food. Marcus Samuelsson also came to the city to talk with Vietnamese-American second generation restaurateurs for “No Passport Required” on PBS. Chef Emeril Lagasse has a show called “My New Orleans” for Conde Nast. He goes to Pho Tau Bay on Tulane Avenue, run by a couple who met during the American War in Vietnam. Tuyet Vu, whose family had a chain of pho restaurants in Vietnam, wed Karl Takacs, a soldier. Today they run their restaurant on Tulane Avenue with their biracial son.
New Orleans has many fun krewes, which are social groups that stage an event or parade for carnival celebrations. For example, Jewish revelers have Krewe D’Jieux and the Krewe du Mishegas, Jewish sub-krewes of the Krewe Delusion and the Krewe Du Vieux. Muses and Nyx are all women’s krewes. Although Vietnamese-Americans don’t have their own dedicated krewe yet, a local Vietnamese bakery gives Mardi Gras season slices of heaven. Dong Phuong Bakery in New Orleans East makes special king cakes. Jacob Jordaens says, “I had heard a lot about them and never tried one, figuring they were overhyped. I finally had one this past Mardi Gras and it was the best I’ve ever had.” Amber Cash describes why, “They’re absolutely delicious. Their crusts are super super flaky and the fillings aren’t too heavy, so it doesn’t weigh down the dough.” It’s a cake that’s won a James Beard award if that tells you anything.
Many different kinds of Vietnamese-Americans make up the diaspora in New Orleans. Stee Booskie is a rapper and former child refugee who grew up in Marrero in the West Bank. “We are a strong group that had to evade our homeland and were forced into America with little to nothing to our names”. He tells me, “Today we stand strong and are motivated to keep on pushing and becoming something great to make our ancestors proud.”
Stee says the most Vietnamese thing to do in New Orleans is to “go to Hong Kong Food Market and buy some roasted pork!”. Hong Kong is in Gretna in the West Bank. Even with its name, the grocery store is international with a very strong Vietnamese presence.
Amy Le was born and raised in the West Bank, and continues to live there. She’s an actress in television and film productions that come to the area. Amy credits Vietnamese culture and New Orleans culture merging so well due to the shared belief that in both “we don’t eat to live, but we live to eat.”
Amy’s favorite spot to get Vietnamese food is Hoa Hong 9 located on the Westbank Expressway. “My favorite dish is banh hoi thit nuong [rice noodles with grilled meat, usually beef] and I always order that there.” She says the suburbs now all have Vietnamese food establishments too, like Pho Orchid and Pho Michael, which opened in recent years in Metairie. “Saigon Bistro, also in Metairie, is like home cooking.” She credits this to the owners being recent immigrants.
Thanh Truong is at home in New Orleans, after moving from out of state to work as a television reporter. He covered Hurricane Katrina for WWL-TV and is one of the creators of the “New Orleans Unsolved Podcast”.
“As a first generation refugee, New Orleans is the most comfortable I've felt in the U.S.” he confesses. “I believe it's because of the way the people in the city have consistently accepted me as part of the community.” Observing the mixing of the cultures, he notes, “In New Orleans specifically, I've seen the Vietnamse embrace and incorporate the New Orleans culture and the Southeast Louisiana culture into their own. That can be seen in the banh mi, poboys, and the jambalayas many Vietnamese restaurants and families have perfected. Yet, it's still distinctly Vietnamese.” Thanh shares Vietnamese culture with his wife Anna Christie who is Caucasian. They reside in the Bywater neighborhood, where you can easily hop over to nearby Em Trai (Baby Brother) Sandwich for some banh mi.
Tina Le has lived in New Orleans since “the year before Katrina hit”. She moved from New Jersey to be near family and now teaches Vietnamese language at St. Joseph’s Catholic Church. Besides Vietnamese-Americans in her classes, Tina also has students of other races. Another way her church connects with others in the city is by having dragon dancers in the Krewe of Endymion parade during Mardi Gras. Her recommendations are off the beaten path: steamed chicken from Pho Ga Quang Minh, roasted duck from Mi Hong Minh. “For seafood I like to eat at Lucky Garden in Belle Chasse (twenty minutes south of the city). They make fresh fried fish and lobster really good and the price is good too.”
When Chef Michael Gulotta, owner of the Southeast Asian fusion restaurants Mopho and Maypop, is asked where to go, he points to Fharmacy run by Chefs Nhat Nguyen and “Bobby” Nguyen. Bobby says that he and Nhat were both born and raised in “The East Bank” in the “Vietsailles” neighborhood, a play on the French “Versailles”. Bobby is dedicated to teaching his staff Vietnamese cooking to keep the traditions alive. The Fharmacy menu is very American with burgers and fries. Then there are Vietnamese items such as lemongrass chicken, lemongrass wings and Vietnamse sausage. There’s a comradery amongst restaurateurs here. Vietnamese-Americans like Bobby and Nhat are home-grown and have planted roots in the city.
Multiple generations of Vietnamese-Americans are leaving their marks in the community. This includes Dylan Tran who was born (in the mid 1990s) and raised in Alexandria, Louisiana. Dylan now lives in the Uptown area of New Orleans and works for The New Orleans Opera Association. His mother is Caucasian and his father is Vietnamese-American. When not working and studying Vietnamese culture, Dylan writes his own music weaving in traditional Vietnamese styles. His go-to spots for Vietnamese food are Ba Chi Canteen on Maple Street and Jazmine Cafe on South Carrollton Avenue.
You may have heard that the U.S. is not a melting pot, it’s a gumbo. Vietnamese culture is now a forever ingredient of Louisiana’s and America’s gumbo. New Orleans is a known blend of Spanish, French, Irish, and African traditions. Vietnamese culture is now also firmly on that list. Perhaps we can say that what makes New Orleans New Orleans is an intoxicating cocktail of cultures, of all kinds of flavors creating layers, stirred smoothly together, not shaken.
To keep up with all your Vietnamese culture activities in New Orleans, you may need to pick up a whole growler of that strong special Vietnamese coffee with condensed milk from any of the three District Donut locations in the city, or have a “Cafe Hoodoo Sua Da” (iced coffee with milk) at Maypop. On top of that, practically every classic sno-ball stand in the city has a Vietnamese coffee flavor to get you going, even on the hottest days.