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From Vietnam to New Orleans, he's no stranger to catastrophe

To shrimper Kha Van Nguyen, the sea has always been his life, his savior. But since the gulf oil spill, the future looks bleak.

August 16, 2010|By My-Thuan Tran, Los Angeles Times

Reporting from New Orleans — On the sea, it doesn't matter that Kha Van Nguyen knows few phrases of English. On his 92-foot boat he is Captain Nguyen, a man who understands the subtle clues of the wind and water.

He doesn't dwell on the backaches that remind him he's no longer a young man. He dreams of discovering a huge school of shrimp so he can shout to his deckhands, Chien thang! Victory!

But on shore, the 61-year-old Nguyen is restless, ill at ease. That's how he has felt since the Deepwater Horizon rig exploded in April and oil began gushing into the Gulf of Mexico, forcing him to dock his boat.

Like many Vietnamese who live along the Gulf Coast, Nguyen is no stranger to catastrophe. He survived the Vietnam War, fled his homeland and started life anew in New Orleans, only to see Hurricane Katrina in 2005 flood his house and destroy his boat.

With every turn, the ocean welcomed him back, allowed him to make his own rules and reinvent himself. But this time feels different.

The long-term effects of the oil spill remain unknown, even if the flow has been halted. And though some Vietnamese refugees transitioned to jobs on land, others always have made their living at sea, whether those waters lapped against the shores of Vietnam or Louisiana.

"For the majority of Vietnamese who chose this path in life, this is all we know how to do to survive," Nguyen said in Vietnamese. "Outside this, we don't have any other experience. The future looks very dark."


An estimated one-third to a half of the fishermen in the gulf are Vietnamese, living in clusters from Palacios, Texas, to Gulf Shores, Ala.

If Orange County's Little Saigon — with its restaurants, jewelry stores and doctor's offices — conjures up images of the cosmopolitan former capital of Vietnam, Nguyen's community in New Orleans is like Vung Tau, the rustic coastal village where he grew up.

Nguyen fondly calls this area lang, a word describing Vietnam's rural parishes. About 5,000 Vietnamese live in the 2-square-mile area surrounding the Mary Queen of Vietnam Catholic Church. On Saturdays, people hawk bitter melon, Thai basil and water spinach grown in their backyards at a neighborhood street market. Like villages in Vietnam, everyone seems to know everyone.

Nguyen learned to catch shrimp using bamboo traps in the murky waters along Vietnam's southern coast from his father, who learned from his father. As a teenager, Nguyen studied how the moon shaped the waves that shaped the path of the shrimp.

After the 1975 fall of Saigon, Nguyen escaped by sea, captaining a fishing boat carrying his pregnant wife, young daughter and dozens of family members. An American vessel rescued the boat and brought the passengers to Guam.

The family made its way to a refugee camp in Arkansas — where a second child was born — and then to Port Arthur on the Texas coast, where Nguyen, then 26, began working as a janitor and truck driver for a lumber company.

"I didn't feel it was my full potential," he said. "I wanted to do something where I could fly, jump, yell, stretch myself."

Nguyen found a gig as a deckhand for a shrimper, who was impressed with his knowledge of the sea. His wages were nearly 10 times what he made with the lumber company.

"I felt like I could choose my own future," he said. "It didn't matter that I didn't know much English or that I didn't go to school. The money would come. All I needed were my two hands."

Nguyen moved his family to New Orleans after visiting an uncle there. He liked the swampy climate that was a reminder of Vietnam's tropical heat and bought his first boat, a 30-footer, purchased with the help of donations from friends and family.

Nguyen loved watching the sun creep up on the face of the ocean. He found trawling shrimp in the gulf much easier than off Vung Tau, where fishermen relied on their memory of the position of three tall mountains instead of radar systems.


Word of the opportunities in the gulf spread among refugees, and, in time, thousands of Vietnamese fishermen and shrimpers — many who lived in the same fishing villages in Vietnam and whose fathers and grandfathers were also fishermen — moved to its bayous.

Nguyen spent most of this time at sea or with other Vietnamese fishermen. The life allowed him to raise nine children and help two of them buy houses, neat brick homes right next to his.

Nguyen relied on his eldest daughter to be the interpreter when he negotiated with shrimp vendors. Over the years, Anh, now 37, also helped her father with bookkeeping and picking up equipment.

"Growing up, I saw how hard this profession was for him," she said. "But he has a passion for it. He talks about it all the time. He understands the sea. He feels it."

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