From refugees to restauranteurs: Vietnam War-era immigrants make Memphis home

More than 3,000 Vietnamese immigrants call Memphis home. Their contributions to the city wouldn't have been possible without local support from nonprofits and the Catholic community.
The dark image is a familiar one in history.

On April 30, 1975, hundreds of people tried to board helicopters and evacuate Saigon at the American Embassy. People were fleeing Saigon, now known as Ho Chi Minh City, as the city and all of South Vietnam fell to Communist North Vietnamese forces.

But where did they all go after the end of the Vietnam War? For some people, the journey from Vietnam led to the Bluff City. Newspaper articles during the weeks after the fall of Saigon report how the city of Memphis was preparing for an influx of Vietnamese refugees.

More than 3,100 Vietnamese immigrants live in Shelby County according to the most recent U.S. Census figures. In 2014, 1.3 million Vietnamese immigrants resided in the United States.

Joe Bach, whose in-laws own Vietnamese restaurant Lotus on Summer Avenue, first came to Memphis in July of 1975. “I had a sponsor in Memphis. He said good things about Memphis, that it was a beautiful city with friendly people. So that is why I stayed,” he said.  “I was really anxious when I first came, but I was welcomed by everyone.”
An exterior mural at Lotus Vietnamese Restaurant (Tamara Williamson)
The Vietnamese flight was a humanitarian effort supported by local nonprofits and federal policy.

A month after the fall of Saigon, Congress enacted the Indochina Migration and Refugee Assistance Act of 1975 in order to help Vietnamese refugees who were fleeing their country during this time. The resettlement process was known by the U.S. Military as “Operation New Life.”

Vietnamese refugees were housed at centers at Camp Pendleton in California; Eglin Air Force Base in Florida; Indiana town Gap in Pennsylvania and Fort Chafee in Arkansas.

Some refugees who arrived at Fort Chaffee decided to settle in Memphis. After resettlement, the process of learning a new language and adapting to life in a new country proved difficult. Many Vietnamese refugees settled in Midtown near the Catholic Charities of West Tennessee building. Bishop Carroll Dozier of the West Tennessee Catholic Diocese of Tennessee was heavily involved in Memphis’ efforts to resettle the refugees.

A shopper at Viet Hoa Food Market at 40 Cleveland Street.
Many cities anticipated the arrival of Vietnamese refugees including Memphis where a motley group of organizations was involved in the effort. According to a 1975 article, “Groups Plan to Sponsor Refugees,” written by Jerome Wright in the Commercial Appeal, organizations that were involved in the local resettlement effort include the Jewish Welfare Fund, Catholic Charities, Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service, the City of Memphis, Tennessee Department of Human Services and Memphis City Schools.

The same article also notes MIFA’s involvement in refugee resettlement. Rev. Gid Smith, then-executive director of the MIFA, pledged $6,000 for the newly formed Memphis Refugee Resettlement Committee which coordinated the resettlement effort at the time.

A second wave of refugees fled from Vietnam and Cambodia beginning in 1979. The tide of immigration flowed into Memphis well into the 1980s and 1990s.

Sacred Heart Church at 1324 Jefferson Ave. holds services in Vietnamese.Father Simon Thoi Hoang, a priest at Sacred Heart Catholic Church, was one of the second wave of immigrants. He escaped from Vietnam on a boat in 1991.

In Vietnam, he was forbidden to study and practice Catholicism. He currently serves the Vietnamese enclave that settled near the West Tennessee Catholic Charities in Midtown.

“Religious persecution was very high (in Vietnam), so we weren’t able to officially be in seminary, we had to be underground,” he said.

Hoang came to Hong Kong on a small boat with 81 other people, a sack of rice and very little water. The journey lasted four days and nights.

“After we arrived in Hong Kong, a big storm came in,” he said. His journey from Vietnam took him to Beaumont, Texas, Iowa, Chicago and finally to Memphis in 2007.

Sacred Heart has services in English, Spanish, and Vietnamese. Around 150 Vietnamese families regularly attend services at the Midtown church. Some do not live in the neighborhood anymore, but they come to Sacred Heart to retain a sense of culture.

Sacred Heart serves an area near the intersection of Cleveland and Jefferson streets that is densely populated by Vietnamese immigrants. The area is one of the largest non-Hispanic immigrant enclaves in the Memphis area.

At the Memphis office of Facing History and Ourselves is a mural of Bishop Dozier
Near the church is the Viet Hoa Market which was founded by Vietnamese immigrants. Saigon Le was a Vietnamese restaurant around the corner from Scared Heart and was a neighborhood staple until a fire destroyed the property last year. Pho Binh, which serves Vietnamese cuisine and is a Memphis institution, is just a stone’s throw away from the Cleveland/Jefferson area.
Like Hoang, the family who founded Pho Binh left Vietnam via boat and arrived in Memphis in 1992.

Bishop Dozier, who was at the forefront of efforts to welcome and resettle Vietnamese refugees back in 1975, was recently honored by Facing History and Ourselves in a Downtown mural dedicated to “upstanders,” or people who go above and beyond to make Memphis a more just city.  

On the Facing History and Ourselves website, a small biography of him states, “He was not only a voice for inclusion, but also created civic structures to support the advancement of life quality for everyone. It is through the example of Bishop Dozier and other individuals and organizations that Memphis continues to be an increasingly diverse city, welcoming people from across the globe and creating a more inclusive community.”

For many people, New York City and the Statue of Liberty are the prototype of a city and a symbol that welcomed immigrants fleeing brutality or trying to start a new life. Memphis has no Statue of Liberty in that sense. But over a period of several decades, Vietnamese immigrants found a place here.
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Read more articles by Tamara Williamson.

Tamara is a native Memphian and has a B.A. and M.A. from UT Knoxville. She has previously written guest posts for I Love Memphis blog.