During the mid-70s, Vietnamese refugees fleeing the communist regime in Vietnam were relocated to the Texas coast, including Aransas County. Climate and topography similar to Vietnam facilitated the adaptation of the new settlers, mostly Catholics. They had previously been professionals, government employees, agriculture workers, and craftsmen who became shrimpers and fishermen. They demonstrated their strong entrepreneurial spirit by building boats, opening bait stands, and a grocery store which still caters to the public.

Because the newcomers could not find some of the familiar ingredients of their cuisine, they began growing gardens with herbs and spices. A variety of mints, fish mint, perilla leaf plants and red chili peppers were commonly grown in addition to traditional herbs such as lemon grass.

They also began sharing their cuisine with locals. Restaurants and food stands began selling Vietnamese platters with foods, such as eggrolls as part of community celebrations such as Oysterfest and Seafair.

Years later their community of faith, St. Peter’s Catholic Church, began hosting the annual Vietnamese New Year celebration with samples of Vietnamese cuisine, while also celebrating the Vietnamese community’s cultural heritage through dance, music and traditional clothing.

One of the first entrepreneurs who opened a restaurant was the Nguyen family, which includes Dat Nguyen, the Texas A&M and Dallas Cowboys football star. Dat Nguyen’s family moved to the U. S. in 1975 after the fall of Saigon. After living in other parts of the U.S., the family relocated to Rockport in 1979. Dat’s father and brother had shrimp boats and a marine supply company. His mother would cook for the family and other shrimpers who would shop at the store, and that evolved into Hu Dat, a pun made from Dat’s name.

Although the local Vietnamese-American community numbers only about a thousand in Aransas County, they have several restaurants serving their cuisine, including Benchwarmers, Hu Dat and Ngo’s. Additionally, other restaurants such as GLOW serve Vietnamese inspired dishes. Just as the community adopted spices and cooking methods from other cultures such as the Hispanic, locals now seek out this form of ethnic cuisine. Many Vietnamese ingredients such as rice noodles or rice paper for spring and summer rolls are available at HEB. Vietnamese spring rolls have become as common as tamales and tacos for many celebrations in Rockport-Fulton.

Dr. Sam Vong,
The Smithsonian
Many are attracted to Vietnamese food, a mixture of French and Asian cooking, for its emphasis on healthy, fresh ingredients and stir-frying in small amounts of oil with vegetables being lightly cooked or served fresh. Vietnamese culinary customs such as drying shrimp or fish out in the open air on homemade wire frames can often be observed next to local bait stands. The Vietnamese-American emphasis on values such as family and education has also resonated with the local community. As the Gulf shrimping industry has declined, many have opened businesses such as nail salons, received higher education and pursued professional careers.

As part of our current encore presentation of the Foodways of Aransas County exhibit, learn more about Vietnamese immigration and how these communities have evolved on Saturday, August 25, at 2:30pm- 4:30pm at the Fulton Mansion Education Center. Dr. Sam Vong, currently the Curator of Asian Pacific American History at the Smithsonian, will share his research work on the migration of refugees from Vietnam, Cambodia, and Laos between the 1960s and 1990s and their subsequent dispersal and resettlement across the globe.

Dr Vong has been a professor at the University of Texas at Austin since 2015 and is a historian of twentieth-century United States, with specializations in refugee and migration studies, Asian American history, and the history of Southeast Asia. He received his B.A. from the University of California—Berkeley, his M.A. from California State University—Los Angeles, and his Ph.D. from Yale University.

In addition, there will be an opportunity to sample some Vietnamese food, a display of culinary ingredients, and local home-grown herbs for you to see.

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