There is a special place in New Orleans that is near and dear to me. For most, it is known as the Versailles area of New Orleans East. For the Vietnamese people living there, it was commonly and affectionately referred to as “Viet Say” (I suspect this resulted from the beauty of loss in translation). Born and raised in the area, I experienced the resilience and determination of Vietnamese refugees, who harmoniously balanced between calling America their new home and maintaining their cherished cultural identity.
Along with a wave of Vietnamese immigrants, my parents settled in New Orleans in 1975. Their decision was based on many factors: the climate (as it reminded of their homeland); the affordable housing of the region; and the assistance of the Catholic charities (who introduced them to the area). It did not take them long to develop roots in the region, eventually creating a microcosm of their beloved country.
One of my most vivid memories growing up was going to Cho Chom Hom (translated literally, “Squatting Market”) with my parents on Saturdays. Located on Alcee Fortier Boulevard at the heart of Viet Say, Cho Chom Hom was a Vietnamese Farmers Market of sort, where one could experience the vibrant arrays of activities: elderly women squatting and selling their produce along side with shrimpers and fishermen and their crustaceans and fish; occasionally, vendors displaying unique gifts and novelties; oftentimes, the noise of the livestock adding to the bustling conversations of the marketplace.
Lining the Boulevard were myriads of Vietnamese businesses…grocery stores, restaurants, pharmacies, medical practices, beauty parlors, bars, and shops. One of my favorite stopping places had to be Dong Phuong Bakery, where (I am sure) I developed an addiction for the countless savory Vietnamese deserts.
On the way home from Cho Chom Hom, I often caught a glimpse of the men and women in straw hats disappearing to the other sides of the green levies that protected the area (later I had learned that beyond these levies were the dedicated cultivation of large crops of plants that supplied the market—my favorite being the rau day). On that same road home on Dwyer Blvd., I often took notice of the varied activities around Mary Queen of Vietnam Church, a favorite gathering place for the Vietnamese of Viet Say on the weekends.
Having left New Orleans in 1996, I had the opportunities to return to Viet Say from time to time and appreciate the not-so-subtle change in the community. Some changes enrich the community, like the establishment of Van Hanh Temple for Vietnamese Buddhist. Some are bittersweet, like the closing of my elementary school Etienne de Bore and St. Bridget Church (both post-Katrina consequences). Regardless of the changes, Viet Say will always hold a special place in my heart. It was this same community that nurtured my first language of Vietnamese by providing a platform of tight-knitted society that encouraged the preservation of our language. It was also in this community where I experienced the beauty of my culture though annual festivities such as Tet and Trung Thu.
Having been born in the U.S., I never really know my country Vietnam. But Viet Say and its attempt to preserve our Vietnamese culture had afforded me the opportunities to embrace my heritage and in doing so help mold the person I am today—a proud Vietnamese American.
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