Refugee kitchen worker at Fort Chaffee in 1975 ~ pc Southeast Asia Archive, UC Irvine

Last month my wife and I took a few days of vacation in the northern part of the state.  Looking for a motel near the beach, I decided on the Pelican Point Inn in Santa Cruz on the basis of strong customer ratings on Yelp, Google, and Trip Advisor.  (Were it full, I’d have tried to book at next-door Bella Notte, whose ratings were also high.)  Each morning we watched two of the World Cup matches and, during the break between them, went to the beach only three short blocks away.  We went to downtown one evening and ate at the wharf, whose structure looked longer than the Santa Monica pier.  We drove on Highway 1 to the Bixby Creek Bridge and stopped along the way to soak in the gorgeous sights of coast and mountains.  My wife had never been to Pebble Beach, so we went through the 17-Mile Drive.  On the way to see relatives in San Jose, we stopped at the city’s Vietnam Town for lunch and Kelley Park for a walk and a nap on the grassy ground.  It was a short but very nice change of scenery, represented by the predominance of pine trees over palm trees.  

A stop between Monterey and Bixby Creek Bridge

For the purpose of this post, the best part of those few days might have been a couple of conversations that we had with the owner and manager of the hotel. They are sisters and Vietnamese.  In my limited experience, it is rare to find Vietnamese running hotels and motels outside of Little Saigons.  I think South Asians, especially Indians, make up the largest Asian group in this business.  So it was a delight to talk with Teresa and Anne Marie, who told us that the owners of Bella Notte are also Vietnamese.

The sisters left the country with their parents and other siblings a week before Saigon fell to the communists.  Traumatic experiences stick and stay, and they still remembered very well being pushed as if sardine into the cargo plane that took them to the Philippines.  They stayed in refugee camps in Guam and Arkansas before resettlement in Grand Forks, North Dakota under the sponsorship of a Catholic parish there.  The cold winter and cultural isolation prompted a move to California a year later, where most members of the family still live to this day.  It is a familiar story among Vietnamese refugees.  Yet I’ve noticed that narrators are not tired of telling such stories to another Vietnamese decades later, usually with many details and nuances that do not necessarily come up when they tell them to a non-Vietnamese.

I also noticed that food and cooking came up a lot in the stories and memories that the sisters told us.  Anne Marie recalled, for example, that the authorities at Fort Chaffee initially served American-grown white rice, canned fish, and a lot of Mexican hot sauce on the assumption that they ate rice, fish, and spicy sauce.  In North Dakota, the American church sponsors bought them black rice (historically grown and consumed by Native Americans), which, of course, was not what the Vietnamese normally ate.  Moreover, black rice was not cheap and the Americans wondered why the refugees had such expensive taste.  There was plenty of cultural comedy in the early interactions between the Americans and refugees. 

Arrival of a large Vietnamese family to Brainerd in northern Minnesota under the sponsorship of the First Lutheran Church. It was quite common in 1975 to find Vietnamese refugees in communities with few or no Asian residents such as Brainerd, Grand Forks, and Winona. ~ pc Grand Forks Herald

Not long after their move to California, the family came upon a run-down taco joint with a sign advertising for new management.  The sisters’ mother was one of those classic entrepreneurs. Back in Saigon in the late 1960s and early 1970s, she was a major force behind the creation of the market Chợ Bà Hoa that still exists to this day.  Now in San Jose, she led the family’s effort to rent the place and learn how to make tacos and burgers.  The school-age children pitched in, and it went well enough. 

One day, a Vietnamese young man came in to order some food.  Seeing that they were also Vietnamese, he asked if they could make Vietnamese food.  It led to a limited experience of making egg roles and pho on weekends.  The soup was sold very quickly because the family used the largest of household-size pots and did not yet have restaurant-sized pots.  They couldn’t find wrappers for the egg rolls–this bit remains a mystery to me–and the mother created them from scratch.  It was labor-intensive.  Even with greater production, the line was long and they ran out of pho and egg rolls each weekend.  The growing demand was enough that they opened the first Vietnamese restaurant in San Jose by the end of the 1970s.  They ran it for several years before moving on to other things, including higher education.  (One of the sisters went to UC Irvine for her MBA.)  The parents had been 1954 refugees from the north, and they aptly named the restaurant Thăng Long, the old name of Hanoi.  My relatives, who moved to San Jose in 1978, still remembered it.

I haven’t found photos of Vietnamese establishments in the 1970s or 1980s.  But this link shows a number of San Jose streets and public buildings in 1975 next to corresponding photos in 2006.  

Ask any Vietnamese refugees in the 1970s and 1980s and they should have similar stories about food and cooking to tell.  Of course, only a very small number of refugees worked in a Vietnamese restaurant.  But all the adults and many of the children would have remembered the deprivation of native dishes and ingredients, including the essential fish sauce.  In her memoir Stealing Buddha’s Dinner, the novelist Bich Minh Nguyen writes about arriving to Grand Rapids, Michigan where her father “made fast friends with the other Vietnamese refugees” and they “cobbled together seeds and ingredients, information on weather, and how to send letters to family in Vietnam” (emphasis mine).


Thanks to proximity to Canada, they were among the lucky ones for driving to Chinese groceries in Windsor to purchase “real jasmine rice, lemongrass, and the fleshy, familiar fruits that had no English translation.”  The memoirist does not mention fish sauce, but I’d guess that those stores might have sold bottles of fish sauce from Thailand already, or it did not take them too long to stock them for the Southeast Asian customers. 

The refugees at Grand Rapids were luckier than most people in communities with few Asian stores.  My uncle’s family was resettled in Winona, a small city in southeastern Minnesota.  From local grocery stores, they had access to American white rice and Chinese soy sauce, but that was about it.  It wasn’t until the late 1970s that they could get fish sauce during trips to the Twin Cities or Chicago.  As told above, the Vo family must have endured a year in North Dakota with only approximate ingredients to their native cuisine. 

It was for the same reasons that the refugees highly valued seeds of herbs common to Vietnamese cuisine.  From American grocery stores, they could buy green onions, cilantro, mint, and dill.  But they also desired to have perilla (tía tô), fish mint (dấp cá), Thai basil (húng quế), Vietnamese balm (kinh giới), and Vietnamese coriander (rau răm), among others.  As a result, many refugee households grew a small vegetable and herb garden in their backyards.  Fresh herbs and vegetables made good gifts among Vietnamese, and financial incentives led some small-time entrepreneurs to be suppliers of herbs to local Vietnamese grocers or restaurants. 

As the geographers Christopher Airriess and David Clawson have shown over a quarter-century ago, the refugees in Louisiana cultivated a small economy of market gardens that utilized land in both private backyards and public levees.  It was an essential portion of the larger ethnic economy in New Orleans East, which, somewhat worryingly for the community, looks to be on the decline.  My concern, however, is the past rather than the future.  When placed in the context of self-making, as Airriess and Clawson argue, the market gardens were an assertion of control for identity over a most challenging environment for the refugees.  

There is much to think about and to learn about food, cooking, and gardening among Vietnamese refugees, especially during the first four or five years of their lives in the U.S.  I neither specialize nor desire to go into these subjects, but I think it is a terrific angle to study and interpret the experience of the first waves of the refugees.  

A Vietnamese garden in Biloxi, Mississippi. House trailers were provided for residents who lost their homes to Hurricane Katrina. ~ pc Mississippi History Now  & Linda VanZandt, Center for Oral History and Cultural Heritage, the University of Southern Mississippi