Colonialism and wars, particularly the Vietnam War of the 1960s and 1970s, displaced many Vietnamese from their Asian homeland. The Vietnamese are among the most recent groups of immigrants to settle in Mississippi, which is home to many ethnic groups.
Several factors shaped the immigration patterns of the Vietnamese after the Vietnam War. A significant factor that influenced the migration to Mississippi is the state’s proximity to the port city of New Orleans, Louisiana, where many immigrants arrive. Moreover, the Vietnamese are among several immigrant groups that were attracted to the similarity of Mississippi’s subtropical climate to that of their native countries. Many Vietnamese immigrants were fishermen, and the Gulf Coast’s seafood industry became a reason for some of them to relocate permanently to Mississippi.
The Vietnam War
During the Vietnam War, North Vietnam and South Vietnam fought a brutal civil war. After World War II, the fear of the spread of Communism during the Cold War had brought western nations, including the United States, into the complicated war. With the Vietnam War’s growing unpopularity on the home front in the 1960s and the mounting casualties, the United States withdrew its combat troops from Vietnam in 1973, and the American presence was gone in 1975. Thus, after the Fall of Saigon in April 1975, many Vietnamese left their homeland. The spread of Communism in Vietnam and its subsequent negative impact on the Vietnamese social, economic, and political life led to their exodus. Former South Vietnamese soldiers and those supporting the U.S. effort in Vietnam were part of the first groups to leave Vietnam. The war refugees left behind their professional and economic livelihoods to establish a new life elsewhere. Upon their arrival in the United States, there was a federal effort to resettle Vietnamese in communities throughout the country. By the summer of 1975, a few months after the Fall of Saigon, more than 120,000 Vietnamese refugees had come into the country.
The Vietnamese population steadily grew after 1975, as immigrants increasingly entered the United States. As they settled into the country, a series of refugee acts by the government ensured that they became permanent U. S. residents. Between 1961 and 1996 more than 650,000 Vietnamese had become permanent residents.
According to the 1980 U. S. Census, the nation’s southern and western regions had the highest Vietnamese populations. In that year, California led the nation with more than 89,000 Vietnamese Americans. Between 1980 and 1990, the Vietnamese population in Mississippi more than doubled. The children born of Vietnamese Americans are considered second generation; their parents, first-generation. Thus, many of the early 21st century Vietnamese Americans living in Mississippi are first and second generation. By 2000, 5,387 Vietnamese Americans lived in Mississippi, which accounted for 0.18 percent of the state’s population. The Vietnamese population continued to grow and by 2010, the numbers had climbed to 7,025, or 0.2 percent of the state’s population.
People of Vietnamese heritage live throughout Mississippi, but most live in the metropolitan areas. The three coastal counties of Jackson, Harrison, and Hancock are home to the state’s largest Vietnamese population – Harrison County leads the way with more than half of the population. The metropolitan area of the capital city, Jackson, counts the second largest Vietnamese population; third, is the Hattiesburg area. The counties bordering the Mississippi River, particularly those in the northwest section of the state, have a measurable Vietnamese population.
Based on the 2000 census numbers, Vietnamese Americans were less likely to have a high school diploma or college degree compared with the country’s total Asian population, and the U.S. population as a whole. In 2000, just over 80 percent of the total U. S. population had a high school diploma compared to only 61 percent of the Vietnamese population; however, nearly 20 percent of the Vietnamese population had at least a bachelor’s degree compared with 24 percent of the total U.S. population.
Occupations of Vietnamese Americans evolved over the years. First engaged in farming, fishing, or forestry, by 2000 only 0.6 percent of the U.S. Vietnamese population worked in those occupational segments. Instead, nearly 29 percent of Vietnamese Americans were employed in factories and the transportation industry. The second largest Vietnamese employment group, at nearly 27 percent, was management and professional positions.
The seafood industry
Prior to immigrating to the United States, many Vietnamese refugees were part of Vietnam’s seafood industry. Upon leaving Vietnam in their boats, many faced repeated attacks by pirates in the Gulf of Thailand and were the victims of a multitude of crimes including murder, rape, and robbery. The survivors continued their long journey to the United States. Fortunately, many of the fishermen who fled Vietnam in their own boats were able to bring their extended families to the United States, while others without their own transportation were forced to come in smaller groups and leave their relatives behind.
In the 20th century, cities that dotted the coastline along the Gulf of Mexico, such as Biloxi, Mississippi, once known as the “Seafood Capital of the World,” dominated the southern seafood industry. Many of the coastal locations became home to skilled Vietnamese fishermen and their families. In addition to Mississippi, there was a rise in the Vietnamese population in Texas, Louisiana, Alabama, and Florida.
As Vietnamese fishermen struggled to find a place in southern fishing communities, many faced local animosity, and sometimes violence, as established fishermen feared infringement upon their businesses. To complicate matters, the unpopularity of the Vietnam War also created ill feelings toward the newly arrived Vietnamese in some locations across the United States. As the immigrants settled, they found that some communities proved more receptive than others. Biloxi was one such community, as labor was desperately needed in the oyster factories. Although not the ideal situation for the fishermen at the time, experienced Vietnamese fishermen and their relatives worked in the factories to gain entrance into the seafood industry.
In the late 1970s, first-generation Vietnamese Americans earned the lowest average wages of all Asians in the United States. Moreover, within the business world, Vietnamese with bachelor’s, graduate, or professional degrees earned less on average than all other ethnic groups. In 1990 and 2000 census counts, Vietnamese families were the fourth lowest wage earners of all Asians; however, Asians as a group earned much more than the national average. In 2000, Vietnamese families were closing the gap by earning around $3,000 less than the median income for the total U. S. population, whereas all Asians earned more than $9,000 over the national median income.
In recent years, Vietnamese on the Mississippi Gulf Coast have grappled with damage from Hurricane Katrina in 2005, along with other coastal residents. Katrina particularly devastated east Biloxi where many Vietnamese Americans had settled because of its proximity to docks and factories vital to the local seafood industry. The Hurricane Katrina storm surge swept homes and businesses off their foundations and displaced families, some permanently.
Boat People SOS and Asian Americans for Change both helped Vietnamese Americans recover in the wake of Hurricane Katrina. Boat People SOS was established in 1980 in California to help refugees, and Asian Americans for Change, a Mississippi-based group, was created in 2007 in response to Katrina. Both groups maintain on-going efforts to help Vietnamese Americans navigate language and cultural barriers in their new locations.
To add to their economic woes, just as the Mississippi Vietnamese fishing community was beginning to recover from Hurricane Katrina, an explosion in the Gulf of Mexico on April 20, 2010, aboard Deepwater Horizon, a drilling rig working on a well for the oil company BP, caused the largest accidental oil spill in history. The oil spill had an immediate adverse affect on the environment and economy of the Mississippi Gulf Coast where people depend heavily on the coastal waters for their livelihood. The oil spill’s long-term impact remains unknown. In response to the Deepwater Horizon accident, Boat People SOS and Asian Americans for Change again provided recovery assistance to Vietnamese Americans.
The Vietnamese religious background shapes the religious framework of Vietnamese Americans. Traditional Vietnamese religions include Buddhism, Confucianism, and Taoism. During French colonial rule in Vietnam during the 19th and 20th centuries, the French introduced the people to Christianity and converted some Vietnamese to Catholicism.
Vietnamese religious traditions are still strong in the United States and help promote the family unit, an important part of Vietnamese culture. First attending services at established local churches, Vietnamese Catholic churches and Buddhist temples were eventually built, among them the Vietnamese Martyrs Catholic Church in Biloxi, which formed in 2000. In addition, Vietnamese Americans attend local and older established churches within their communities.
Traditional Vietnamese celebrations are now a part of American culture. Two such celebrations are Tet and Trung Thu. Tet is more popularly known as the Vietnamese lunar New Year, and Trung Thu is the Mid-Autumn Moon Festival. In Mississippi, Vietnamese festivals have become part of coastal culture. Biloxi hosts a Mid-Autumn Moon Festival, usually celebrated in October, and held on the Biloxi Town Green.
Vietnamese Americans in the seafood industry participate in Biloxi’s Blessing of the Fleet, an event first celebrated in August 1929 at the beginning of shrimp season. Boat owners decorate their boats and line up to be blessed by local Catholic priests. This celebration represents a blending of the many immigrant cultures on the Mississippi Gulf Coast.
Traditional Vietnamese dishes are found on restaurant menus as the food cultures of Vietnam and the United States mesh. Popular Vietnamese dishes include spring rolls and pho. Vietnamese-owned restaurants and groceries operate in many Mississippi cities to meet the needs of the Vietnamese, and today many of the businesses attract customers beyond the traditional patrons.
Vietnamese Americans and their cultural heritage now represent a rich part of Mississippi history.
Jamie Bounds is an acquisitions librarian at the Millsaps-Wilson Library, Millsaps College.
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