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The Vietnamese residents of New Orleans East say that it is their shared culture that makes them so steadfast. That history, says Father Vien, goes back at least as far as 1954, when the country was partitioned and the residents of three North Vietnamese villages fled to the relative freedom of the South. Leading the migration were Catholic priests. When the south fell in 1975, the parishioners once again fled the communists together, this time to America, most of them by way of refugee camps. They settled in New Orleans at the invitation of the Catholic Church here.
As he stopped by the food distribution center operating out of the church's compound, 69-year-old Tuoc Nguyen put Hurricane Katrina into perspective. He recalled a typhoon that leveled his village in North Vietnam in the late 1940's. Then, too, the storm surge broke the levy and the village was flooded. He remembers seeing the bodies of dead villagers and dead fish floating around the village. He can still remember the stench. Like Katrina, that storm produced a flash flood when the levy was breached, sweeping away homes made of mud and straw. There was another difference, though. "After the storm in Vietnam, everyone was just left hungry and cold. Here we have help, in Vietnam there was no help at all," he said, speaking through a translator.
Cynthia Willard-Lewis, who represents New Orleans East in the city council, says the Vietnamese community has set a good example for other communities that desperately want to return to their homes but have not gotten the support they need. Despite the mayor's opposition to signing a blanket right of re-entry into all New Orleans neighborhoods after Katrina and the federal government's reluctance to commit funds to the reconstruction of the whole of New Orleans, the Vietnamese community has gone ahead with not only returning, but presenting a plan for an enhanced neighborhood. "From day one [the city council] has been fighting for every neighborhood to return. They may have jump-started that process," Willard-Lewis said.
There is some fear that the neighborhood will remain isolated among the ruins of more flood-prone neighborhoods that will not rebuild. They mayor's office has argued that since many New Orleans residents are still in exile, it is inappropriate to commit to reconstruction in all neighborhoods. Other groups, like the Urban Land Institute, have called on the city to pay heed to the city's topography and make green spaces out of the most flood-prone areas.
Katrina had a disproportionately negative effect on the city's poor neighborhoods, which are the most vulnerable to flooding, and thus less likely to be repopulated. Many of those neighborhoods are in the Ninth Ward. The better off, but still insular Vietnamese community is straddling the line between recovery and uncertainty.
Father Vien estimates that most Vietnamese-owned businesses have reopened. Among them are the Tram Anh video store, specializing in Vietnamese movies and karaoke videos as well as biographies of Ho Chi Min and Ngo Dinh Diem and books recounting battles during the Vietnam Wars. Nearby, a locally touted Vietnamese Po'boy shop has reopened, selling overstuffed sandwiches made with three kinds of pork and Vietnamese iced coffee, made with New Orleans French Market coffee.
In the recently opened Anh Hong restaurant, the server attended to a buffet lunch as a young woman in a Viet Pop karaoke video sang forlornly about a lemon tree on a big screen television. Some businesses are ready to open, but the owners cannot find any workers, said the 42 year-old server, who asked to remain anonymous because she was shy about her stilted English.
When she returned to the city after her exile in Houston and Dallas, the server said she was frightened. There was no electricity and no people, only stray cats. "It looked like a death city," she said. But with each passing day, more residents returned. "I hope we will rebuild again," she said, shrugging off rumors that the neighborhood might not be incorporated into the future New Orleans. No matter what, she said, "Everyone will still go back and fix their house[s] and don't care what people say."Texas didn't feel like home to the Vietnamese in exile there, the server said, so they hurried back. "Even if your home is nothing, it is still your sweet home," she said.