Vietnamese American

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Vietnamese American
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Total population
1,737,433 including those with partial ancestry
0.6% of the US population (2010)[1]
Regions with significant populations
Vietnamese, American English
43% Buddhism, 30% Roman Catholicism
20% unaffiliated, 6% Protestantism (2012)[2][3]
Related ethnic groups
Vietnamese people, Overseas Vietnamese, Vietnamese Canadians, Southeast Asian Americans, Asian Americans

Vietnamese Americans (Vietnamese: Người Mỹ gốc Việt) are Americans of Vietnamese descent.[4] They make up about half of all overseas Vietnamese (Người Việt Hải Ngoại) and are the fourth-largest Asian American group.

Mass Vietnamese immigration to the United States started after 1975, after the end of the Vietnam War. Early immigrants were refugee boat people fleeing persecution or poverty. Forced to flee from their homeland and often thrust into poor urban neighborhoods, these newcomers have nevertheless managed to establish strong communities in a short amount of time. More than fifty percent of Vietnamese Americans reside in the states of California and Texas.[5]


As a relatively recent immigrant group, most Vietnamese Americans are either first- or second-generation Americans. They have the lowest distribution of people with more than one race among the major Asian American groups. As many as one million people who are five years and older speak Vietnamese at home—making it the seventh-most spoken language in the United States. As refugees, Vietnamese Americans have some of the highest rates of naturalization.[6] In the 2006 American Community Survey, 72% of foreign-born Vietnamese are naturalized US citizens; this combined with the 36% who are born in the United States makes 82% of them United States citizen in total. Of those born outside the United States, 46.5% entered before 1990, 38.8% between 1990 and 2000, and 14.6% entered after 2000.[7]

According to the 2010 Census, there are 1,548,449 people who identify themselves as Vietnamese alone or 1,737,433 in combination with other ethnicities, ranking fourth among the Asian American groups. Of those, 581,946 (38%) live in California (1.6% Vietnamese) and 210,913 (14%) in Texas (0.8% Vietnamese). The largest number of Vietnamese outside of Vietnam is found in Orange County, California—totalling 183,766, or 6.1% of the county's population. Vietnamese American businesses are ubiquitous in Little Saigon, located in the communities of Westminster and Garden Grove, where they constitute 40.2 and 27.7 percent of the population, respectively. The metropolitan areas in order from largest Vietnamese population to smallest are Los Angeles, San Jose, Houston, Dallas-Fort Worth, and San Francisco.[8] Recently, the Vietnamese immigration pattern has shifted to other states like Ohio (Cleveland), Oklahoma (Oklahoma City and Tulsa in particular) and Oregon (Portland in particular).

Spread of the Vietnamese language in the United States

Vietnamese Americans are much more likely to be Christians than Vietnamese who are residing in Vietnam. While Christians (mainly Roman Catholics) make up about 6% of Vietnam's total population, they compose as much as 23% of the total Vietnamese American population.[9]

Historical population
Year Pop. ±%
1980 261,729 —    
1990 614,517 +134.8%
2000 1,122,528 +82.7%
2010 1,548,449 +37.9%


Vietnamese refugees at Fort Chaffee, Arkansas, 1975
Crewmen of the amphibious cargo ship USS Durham (LKA-114) take Vietnamese refugees aboard a small craft, 1975

The history of Vietnamese Americans is a fairly recent one. Prior to 1975, most Vietnamese residing in the United States were wives and children of American servicemen in Vietnam or academia. Records[11][12] show a that a very sparse group arrived to work in various menial jobs during the late 19th and early 20th centuries, including future Vietnamese politician Ho Chi Minh. However, their numbers were insignificant. According to the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization services, only 650 Vietnamese arrived from 1950 to 1974 (as immigrants, excluding those who came as students, diplomats or military trainees.) The Fall of Saigon on April 30, 1975—which ended the Vietnam War—prompted the first large-scale wave of immigration from Vietnam. Many people who had close ties with the Americans or with the then Republic of Vietnam government feared the promised communist reprisals. During the spring of 1975, 125,000 of them left South Vietnam. Generally highly skilled and educated, they were airlifted by the U.S. government to bases in the Philippines and Guam, and were subsequently transferred to refugee centers in the United States.

South Vietnamese refugees initially faced resentment by Americans following the turmoil and upheaval of the Vietnam War. A poll taken in 1975 showed only 36 percent of Americans were in favor of Vietnamese immigration. However, President Gerald Ford and other officials strongly supported Vietnamese immigration and passed the Indochina Migration and Refugee Assistance Act in 1975, which allowed Vietnamese refugees to enter the United States under a special status. To prevent the refugees from forming ethnic enclaves and to minimize their impact on local communities, they were scattered all over the country. Within a few years, however, many had resettled in California and Texas.

A second wave of Vietnamese refugees began in 1978 and lasted until the mid-1980s. South Vietnamese —especially former military officers and government employees—were sent to Communist "reeducation camps," and about two million people fled Vietnam in small, unsafe, crowded fishing boats. These "boat people" were generally lower on the socioeconomic ladder than those in the first wave. Vietnamese escaping by boat usually ended up in asylum camps in Thailand, Malaysia, Singapore, Indonesia, Hong Kong, or the Philippines, from which they were allowed to enter countries that agreed to accept them.

Congress passed the Refugee Act of 1980, reducing restrictions on entry, while the communist Vietnamese government established the Orderly Departure Program (ODP) under the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees in response to world outcry, allowing people to leave legally for family reunions and for humanitarian reasons. Additional American laws allowed the children of American servicemen and former political prisoners and their families to enter the United States. A peak in Vietnamese immigration was in 1992, when many individuals in communist reeducation camps were released or sponsored by their families to come to the United States. Between 1981 and 2000, the United States accepted 531,310 Vietnamese political refugees and asylum seekers.

Political activism[edit]

Vietnamese Americans parading with the South Vietnamese flag during Tet

According to a study by the Manhattan Institute in 2008, Vietnamese Americans are among the most assimilated immigrant groups in the United States.[13] While their rates of cultural and economic assimilation were unexceptional compared to other groups (perhaps due to language differences between English and Vietnamese), their rates of civic assimilation were the highest among all the large immigrant groups.[13] Vietnamese Americans, being political refugees, view their stay in the United States as permanent and became involved in the political process in higher rates than other groups.

As refugees from a Communist country, many Vietnamese Americans are strongly opposed to communism. In a poll conducted for the Orange County Register in 2000, 71% of respondents ranked fighting communism as "top priority" or "very important".[14] Vietnamese Americans regularly stage protests against the Vietnamese government, its human rights policy and those whom they perceive to be sympathetic to it.[15] For example, in 1999, protests against a video store owner in Westminster, California, who displayed the current Vietnamese flag and a photograph of Ho Chi Minh peaked when 15,000 people held a vigil in front of the store in one night,[16] causing debates regarding free speech. Membership in the Democratic Party was once considered anathema among Vietnamese Americans because it was seen as less anti-communist than the Republican Party. However, their support for the Republican Party has somewhat eroded in recent years, as the Democratic Party has become seen in a more favorable light by the second generation as well as by newer, poorer refugees.[17] However, the Republican Party still has overwhelming support; in Orange County, Vietnamese Americans registered Republicans outnumber registered Democrats at 55% and 22%, respectively,[18] while the National Asian American Survey in 2008 showed that 22% identify with the Democratic Party while 29% identify with the Republican Party.[19] Exit polls during the 2004 presidential election show that 72% of Vietnamese American voters in the 8 eastern states polled voted for Republican incumbent George W. Bush compared to only 28% who voted for the Democratic challenger John Kerry.[20] In a poll conducted prior to the 2008 presidential election, two-thirds of Vietnamese Americans who made up their mind stated they would vote for the Republican candidate John McCain, in stark contrast to the other Asian American groups surveyed.[19] The Republican Party's particularly strong voice of anti-communism tends to make it more attractive to older Vietnamese Americans and first generation Vietnamese Americans, especially with their arrival to the US during the Reagan Administration. Although most Vietnamese are registered Republican, most young Vietnamese lean toward the Democratic Party. An AALDEF poll found that Vietnamese Americans from the ages of 18 through 29 favored Democrat Barack Obama by 60% during the 2008 Presidential Election.[21]

Recently, Vietnamese Americans have exercised considerable political power in Orange County, Silicon Valley, and other areas. Many have won public offices at the local and statewide levels in California and Texas. One Vietnamese American, Janet Nguyen, serves on the Orange County Board of Supervisors, one has served as mayor of Rosemead, California and several serve or have served in the city councils of Westminster, Garden Grove, San Jose,[22] and places as varied as Clarkston, Georgia. In 2008, Westminster became the first city to have a majority Vietnamese American city council.[23] In 2004, Van Tran, a Republican candidate and Hubert Vo, a Democratic candidate, were elected to the state legislatures of California and Texas, respectively. Viet Dinh was the Assistant Attorney General of the United States from 2001 to 2003 who was the chief architect of the USA PATRIOT Act. In 2006, as many as 15 Vietnamese Americans were running for elective office in California alone,[24] a sign of the growing maturity of the community. For federal elective office, at least four candidates have run for a seat in the United States House of Representatives as their party's official candidate.[25] Some Vietnamese Americans have recently lobbied many city and state governments to make the former South Vietnamese flag instead of the current flag of Vietnam the symbol of Vietnamese in the United States, a move which raised objections from the Vietnamese government. Their efforts resulted in the California and Ohio state governments enacting legislations to adopt that flag in August 2006. From June 2002 onward, in the USA, 13 States, 7 Counties and 85 Cities have adopted Resolutions recognizing the yellow flag as the Vietnamese Heritage and Freedom Flag.[26][27][28]

During the months following Hurricane Katrina, the Vietnamese American community in New Orleans, among the first to return to the city, rallied against a landfill used to dump debris near their community.[29] After months of legal wrangling, the landfill was closed, which the activists consider a victory, and the Vietnamese-American community in New Orleans became a political force.[30][31] In 2008, Anh "Joseph" Cao, a Katrina activist, won Louisiana's 2nd congressional district seat in the House of Representatives as a Republican, becoming the first Vietnamese American elected to Congress.[32]


Vietnamese Americans' income and social class levels are quite diverse. In contrast to Vietnamese refugees who settled in France, but similarly to their counterparts who arrived in Canada and Australia, refugee arrivals in the United States were often of lower socioeconomic standing in their home country and had a more difficult experience in integration due to greater linguistic and cultural barriers.

Many Vietnamese Americans are middle class professionals who fled from the increasing power of the Communist Party after the Vietnam War, while others work primarily in blue-collar jobs. In San Jose, California, for example, this diversity in income levels can be seen in the different Vietnamese American neighborhoods scattered across Santa Clara County. In the Downtown San Jose area, many Vietnamese are working-class and are employed in many blue-collar positions such as restaurant cooks, repairmen, and movers, while the Evergreen and Berryessa sections of the city are middle- to upper–middle-class neighborhoods with large Vietnamese American populations—many of whom work in Silicon Valley's computer, networking, and aerospace industries. In Little Saigon of Orange County, there are significant socioeconomic disparities between the established and successful Vietnamese Americans who arrived in the first wave and the later arrivals of low-income refugees.

Vietnamese Americans have come to America primarily as refugees, with little or no money. While (on a collective basis) not as academically or financially accomplished as their East Asian counterparts, (who generally have been in the US longer, and did not come as war or political refugees but for economic reasons), census shows that Vietnamese Americans are an upwardly mobile group. Although clear challenges remain for the community, their economic status improved dramatically between 1989 and 1999. In 1989, 34 percent of Vietnamese Americans lived under the poverty line, but this number was reduced to 16 percent in 1999, compared with just over 12 percent of the U.S. population overall.

Phước Lộc Thọ, the first Vietnamese-American shopping center in Little Saigon, California

Many Vietnamese Americans have established businesses in Little Saigons and Chinatowns throughout North America. Indeed, some Vietnamese immigrants have been highly instrumental in initiating the development and redevelopment of once declining older Chinatowns, as they tend to find themselves attracted to such areas. Like many other immigrant groups, the majority of Vietnamese Americans are small business owners. Throughout the United States, many Vietnamese—especially first or second-generation immigrants—open supermarkets, restaurants, bakeries specializing in bánh mì, beauty salons and barber shops, and auto repair businesses. Restaurants owned by Vietnamese Americans tend to serve ethnic Vietnamese cuisine, Vietnamized Chinese cuisine, or both, popularizing phở and chả giò in the United States.

The younger generations of the Vietnamese-American population are well educated and often find themselves providing professional services. As the older generations tend to find difficulty in interacting with the non-Vietnamese professional class, there are many Vietnamese-Americans that provide specialized professional services to fellow Vietnamese immigrants. Of these, a small number are owned by Vietnamese Americans of Hoa ethnicity. In the Gulf Coast region—such as Louisiana, Texas, Mississippi, and Alabama—some Vietnamese Americans are involved with the fish and shrimp industries. In California's Silicon Valley, many work in the valley's computer and networking businesses and industries, although many were laid off in the aftermath of the closure of many high-technology companies.

Vietnamese Community at Portland Rose Festival parade

Many Vietnamese parents pressure their children to excel in school and to enter professional fields such as science, medicine, or engineering because the parents feel insecurity stemming from their chaotic past and view education as the only ticket to a better life. Vietnam's traditionally Confucianist society values education and learning, contributing to success among Vietnamese Americans. Many have worked their way up from menial labor to have their second-generation children attend universities and become successful.

Recent immigrants who do not speak English well tend to work in menial labor jobs like assembly, restaurant/shop workers, nail and hair salons. As much as 80% of nail technicians in California and 43% nationwide are Vietnamese Americans.[33] The work involved in nail salons takes skilled manual labor, but requires only limited English speaking ability. Some Vietnamese Americans see working in nail salons as a fast way to build wealth and many will send earnings back to Vietnam to help family members abroad. This concept and economic niche has proven so successful that visiting overseas Vietnamese entrepreneurs from Britain and Canada have also adopted the Vietnamese American model and opened several nail salons in the United Kingdom, where few previously existed.

In the waters of the Gulf of Mexico, Vietnamese Americans have accounted for between 45-85% of the shrimping business in the region. However, the dumping of imported shrimp, ironically from Vietnam, has affected their source of livelihood.[34]


The majority of Vietnamese Americans are Buddhist, but more accurately practice a fusion of Buddhism, Taoism, Confucianism and native animist practices, including ancestor veneration that have been influenced by Chinese folk religion.[35] Approximately 29 to 40% of Vietnamese Americans are Roman Catholic; a legacy of the fear of communism in Vietnamese Catholics from Operation Passage to Freedom.[36] There is also smaller but increasing percentage of those who are Protestants .[35] Like other ethnic groups, there is also a small number of Vietnamese Americans who are atheists.

There are approximately 150 to 165 Vietnamese Buddhist temples in the United States, with most adopting a mix of Pure Land (Tịnh Độ Tông) and Zen (Thiền) doctrines and practices.[37][38] Most temples are small, consisting of a converted house with one or two resident monks or nuns.[37] Two of the most prominent figures in Vietnamese American Buddhism are Thich Thien-An and Thich Nhat Hanh.[38]

Societal perception and portrayal[edit]

As with other ethnic minority groups in United States, Vietnamese Americans have come into conflict with the larger U.S. population, particularly in how they are perceived and portrayed. There have been degrees of hostility directed toward Vietnamese Americans. For example, on the U.S. Gulf Coast, the white fishermen complained of unfair competition from their Vietnamese American counterparts resulting in hostility. In the 1980s, the Ku Klux Klan attempted to intimidate Vietnamese American shrimpers.[39] Vietnamese American fishermen banded together to form the first Vietnamese Fishermen Association of America to represent their interests.

Some studies,[40] show that there is a real world basis to the "valedictorian-delinquent" perception of Vietnamese American youth. Based on field work in a Vietnamese American community, social scientists[who?] argue that Vietnamese American communities often have dense, well-organized sets of social ties that provide encouragement to and social control of children. At the same time, these communities are often located in economically disadvantaged neighborhoods at the margins of American society. Vietnamese children who maintain close connections to their own communities are often driven to succeed, while those who are outsiders to their own society often assimilate into some of the most alienated youth cultures of American society and fall into delinquency.[41] Recent studies have indicated that juvenile delinquency among Vietnamese Americans may have increased in the 21st century, as ethnic community ties have weakened.[42]

Ethnic subgroups[edit]

While the census data only count those who report themselves to be ethnically Vietnamese, the way some other ethnic groups from Vietnam view themselves may affect census reporting.


A fraction of Vietnamese Americans consists of Hoa people who immigrated to Vietnam during the last few centuries. In 2013, the Hoa made up about 11,5 % of the Vietnamese American population.[43] As a result, some Vietnamese Americans also speak fluent Cantonese (although with Vietnamese influence, as the dialect spoken differs slightly from Cantonese spoken by immigrants hailing from Guangdong, China and in Hong Kong). Vietnamese Americans of Hoa ethnicity generally code-switch between Cantonese and Vietnamese when conversing with Hoa immigrants from Vietnam, and are mostly able to speak to ethnic Vietnamese. Teochew, a comparatively obscure language, essentially unknown in the United States before many speakers arrived in 1980s, is also commonly spoken by another group of Hoa immigrants, but is not used in general discourse. A small number of Vietnamese Americans may also speak Mandarin as a third or fourth language, in some aspects of business and interaction.

The population distribution of Hoa people in the United States varies. For instance, many Hoa immigrants tend to reside in communities where there is a concentration of ethnic Vietnamese (such as in "Little Saigon" in Orange County, California or San Jose), while others have chosen to intermingle and concentrate with Chinese diasporas (namely with emigres from Mainland China and Hong Kong) as can be seen in San Francisco and Los Angeles in California and in New York City.

Eurasians and Amerasians[edit]

Some Vietnamese Americans are racially Eurasians—persons of European and Asian descent. These Eurasians are descendants of ethnic Vietnamese and French settlers and soldiers and sometimes Hoa during the French colonial period (1883–1945) or during the First Indochina War (1946–1954).

Amerasians are descendants of an ethnic Vietnamese parent or a Hoa parent and an American parent, most frequently of White, Black or Hispanic background. The first substantial generation of Amerasian Vietnamese Americans were born to American personnel (primarily military men) during the Vietnam War (1961–1975). Many such children were disclaimed by their American parent and, in Vietnam, these fatherless children of foreign men were called con lai, meaning "mixed race", or the pejorative bụi đời, meaning "the dust of life."[6] Many of these initial generation of Amerasians, as well as their mothers, experienced significant social and institutional discrimination both in Vietnam—where they were subject to denial of basic civil rights like an education, the discrimination worsening following the American withdrawal in 1973—as well as by the United States government, which officially discouraged American military personnel from marrying Vietnamese nationals, and frequently refused claims to US citizenship lodged by Amerasians born in Vietnam whose mothers were not married to their American fathers.[44][45][46] Such discrimination was typically even greater for children of Black or Hispanic servicemen than for children of White fathers.[47]

Subsequent generations of Amerasians (particularly children born in the United States), as well those Vietnamese-born Amerasians whose American paternity was documented by their parents' marriage prior to birth or by subsequent legitimization, have generally faced a much different, arguably more favorable, outlook.[48]

The American Homecoming Act, passed in 1988, helped over 25,000 Amerasians remaining in Southeast Asia to emigrate to the United States. Nonetheless, although granted permanent resident status, many have yet been unable to obtain citizenship; and many have expressed feeling a lack of belonging or acceptance in the U.S., because of differences in culture, language, and citizenship status.[49][50] The Amerasian Naturalization Act of 2005 would have granted automatic citizenship to many of these Amerasians, but the bill died in committee without being passed.

Ethnic Khmer and Cham[edit]

Some ethnic Khmer and Cham refugees who were born in Vietnam can also be included in the category of Vietnamese Americans.

Notable Vietnamese Americans[edit]

See also[edit]

Further reading[edit]

  • Chan, Sucheng, ed. . The Vietnamese American 1.5 Generation: Stories of War, Revolution, Flight, and New Beginnings (2006) 323pp
  • Tran, Tuyen Ngoc, “Behind the Smoke and Mirrors: The Vietnamese in California, 1975–1994” (PhD dissertation, University of California, Berkeley, 2007). Dissertation Abstracts International, 2008, Vol. 69 Issue 3, p1130-1130,
  • Zhou, Min and Carl L. Bankston, Growing Up American: How Vietnamese Children Adapt to Life in the United States (1998) New York: Russell Sage Foundation


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  22. ^ San Jose Councilwoman Madison Nguyen
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  25. ^ Tuan Nguyen[1], North Carolina in 2002, Tan Nguyen[2], California in 2006, Joseph Cao in 2008, and Van Tran in 2010, all Republicans
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  27. ^ Quoc Ky Vietnam: A Map and List of state and city legislation recognizing the Freedom and Heritage Flag{accessdate=2013-8-7}
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  29. ^ Leslie Eaton (2006-05-06). "A New Landfill in New Orleans Sets Off a Battle". The New York Times. Retrieved 2008-09-02. 
  30. ^ Michael Kunzelman (2007-10-31). "After Katrina, Vietnamese become political force in New Orleans". Associated Press. Retrieved 2008-11-06. [dead link]
  31. ^ S. Leo Chiang (2008-08-28). "New Orleans: A Village Called Versailles: After tragedy, a community finds its political voice". Public Broadcasting Service. Retrieved 2008-09-02. 
  32. ^ "Indicted Louisiana Rep. William J. Jefferson loses reelection bid". Los Angeles Times. Associated Press. 2008-12-07. Retrieved 2008-12-07. 
  33. ^ My-Thuan Tran (2008-05-05). "Vietnamese nail down the U.S. manicure business". Los Angeles Times. Retrieved 2009-10-27. 
  34. ^ [3][dead link]
  35. ^ a b Lee, Jonathan H. X.; Kathleen M. Nadeau (2011). Encyclopedia of Asian American folklore and folklife. ABC-CLIO. pp. 1204–1206. ISBN 978-0-313-35066-5. 
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  39. ^ [4][dead link]
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  42. ^ Min Zhou and Carl L. Bankston III. "Delinquency and Acculturation in the Twenty-First Century: A Decade’s Change in a Vietnamese American Community". Pp. 117-139 in Immigration and Crime: Race, Ethnicity and Violence, edited by Ramiro Martinez, Jr. and Abel Valenzuela, Jr. New York: NYU Press, 2006.
  43. ^ Trieu, M.M. (2013). Chinese-Vietnamese Americans. X. Zhao, & E.J. Park (Eds.), Asian Americans: An Encyclopedia of Social, Cultural, Economic, and Political History (pp. 305-310). Santa Barbara, USA: Greenwood.
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External links[edit]