At the end of the land in southern Louisiana, water sloshes at the sides of the road, creeping into parking lots and backyards and beneath houses on stilts. Wetlands and fishing docks splay out into the Gulf of Mexico, narrowing the divide between solid ground and the open sea. “Rural” here increasingly means surrounded not by open land, but by water.
On one dock, Sandy Nguyen, an activist and a fisherman’s wife, stands among a small crowd, part of the community of Vietnamese shrimpers who reside in Plaquemines Parish, a county of about 23,000. It makes up the southernmost part of New Orleans, and appears on a map as a sprinkling of tiny islands reaching out into the Gulf. Sandy paces the dock, alternating between jovial greetings and pointing out places where the land she remembers from her childhood has disappeared. “It was hard land, under your feet,” she says, where kids played football and people built houses.
Folks here are used to change, though, and the local Vietnamese population is fluent in it. A delta is, by definition, an evolving landscape with complex tributaries, and the Vietnamese have been navigating sea-level rise and environmental disasters for decades. Duong “Sugar” Tran, the dock’s owner, nods hello before hurriedly continuing preparations for the Blessing of the Fleet, a ceremony performed every May at the beginning of brown shrimp season. The ritual begins quietly as Sugar and his wife, Chan, anoint the altar table with a collection of objects, ranging from symbols of prosperity—a bowl of eggs, a tower of fruit, folded paper boats—to items that reflect the fishermen’s daily lives—baguettes from a Vietnamese bakery, bottles of Bud Light, and some Pall Mall cigarettes. The stakes are high, and Chan makes repeated adjustments to the table’s careful symmetry.
Like many shrimpers in New Orleans, Chan and Sugar immigrated from Vietnam and are part of a community of about 14,000—one of the largest groups outside their native country. After the fall of Saigon, in 1975, the U.S. government helped many Vietnamese relocate to the United States, where Catholic clergy in New Orleans helped families settle in Louisiana. In the delta, they found a familiar near-tropical climate and a place where they could continue many of the traditions they had practiced back home.
The Vietnamese have become synonymous with shrimping in the Gulf, and have intertwined their former way of life with the land around them. “We grow mint in any available patch,” Sandy says proudly as we taste from platters of herbs grown by Chan and her friends—purple shiso, pungent “fish mint,” and sour lemon verbena. Between home gardens and shared farms, they community grows at least 32 varieties of edible plants, some carried all the way from Vietnam.
The Blessing of the Fleet is a Louisiana tradition that continues in various forms in Plaquemines Parish, despite a shrinking shrimping industry and the eroding coastline. Sugar and Chan’s iteration incorporates Buddhist rituals, as well as Cajun-inflected Vietnamese foods: sticky rice, whole roasted pigs, and an abundance of shrimp and crayfish.
Chan makes her way to one of the skimmers, taking a moment to light heavy red candles and say a silent blessing. Sugar lights a fire in a teetering steel drum, burning pieces of Buddhist joss paper, meant to bring luck. They walk out on the dock together to give their offerings over to the waters of the Gulf—Chan tosses the eggs in as Sugar empties each bottle of Bud Light. “The blessing is to bring luck for everyone,” Sugar tells me, “for all the boats,” gesturing at guests arriving for the feast. A pair of dockhands set a fleet of paper boats out onto the water, which bob softly away.
The urgency of the blessing of the fleet is punctuated by the shrimpers’ uniquely precarious situation: Plaquemines Parish is home to some of Earth’s fastest-eroding land. The oft-cited statistic is that Louisiana loses a football field’s worth of land every 90 minutes—more than 20 acres a day. It’s a situation partially driven by centuries of erosion due to human interference, which is now being exacerbated by climate change.
A delta should look like a bird’s foot, with swampy frays that stretch for miles, and marshlands that blur the line between land and sea. It exists in an effortless balance: As land erodes into brackish water, sediment-rich tributaries leave deposits that help to form new land. But people need reliable, solid ground to build on, and almost since their arrival in the 18th century, settlers in New Orleans have tried to contain the river, building levees to control flooding and prevent new tributaries from forming. Paradoxically, more than 200 years later, this has left the existing land entirely vulnerable to the sweep of the ocean. The loss of marshlands also threatens the lives of the fish and shrimp that use them as breeding and nursing grounds, and the livelihood of the shrimpers.
Maps depicting changes to the delta are stark—the land has shrunk by at least 25 percent since 1932, and sea-level rise pushes future projections of the area perilously close to nonexistence. As the waterline advances inland, the Vietnamese have moved houses, schools, and entire apartment buildings up onto stilts in an attempt to escape the rising water.
In light of the changes, however, the Vietnamese have remained a paragon of resilience. In 2005, after Hurricane Katrina, they were the first people back in the neighborhood of New Orleans East, where most of the city's Vietnamese live, without awaiting government assistance. According to Eric Tang, a writer and author of The Gulf Unites Us, the community boldly and radically reclaimed their neighborhood, demanding accountability from officials, and rebuilding their community and their network of edible gardens with impressive agility. Some moved into neighborhoods abandoned by wealthy, mostly white residents—one such block is now home to a sprawling garden of mangoes, mint, taro, squash, and bananas. In 2010, they weathered the devastating BP oil spill, again pivoting their businesses and communities.
Among the challenges they currently face are the various restoration projects intended to fix the errors of the past—man-made diversions intended to rebuild marshland and mimic the delta’s natural flow. While the long-term gains of these efforts are evident (recent small-scale diversions have successfully created some of the newest land on Earth), there is a fierce battle raging over how it will affect the shrimpers. An influx of fresh water from the river will alter shrimp habitats in the short term, inevitably changing where shrimpers can find and catch them. As pressing as the environmental concerns are, fishermen have to consider their bottom line—they don’t have the luxury of waiting a decade for the ecosystem to right itself. Many cite injustices going back 100 years, when other government projects harmed their industry, and the interest of the city of New Orleans took precedence over their livelihoods.
At this point, environmental restoration is a necessary step to ensure the future of fishing and shrimping in the delta, as well as the future of eating in New Orleans. “If we don’t do something to build a more sustainable coast, then it’s not about people in South Louisiana adapting, it’s about them moving, and the whole place transforming into something that doesn’t support the culture,” explains Natalie Peyronnin Snider, the senior director of coastal resilience at the Environmental Defense Fund, and a Louisiana native. “Food is an integral part of our culture in southern Louisiana, and that comes from a very productive delta. Although change is going to happen, we can be in charge of change happening for the better.”
In a fema-funded flood home perched on stilts, Sandy and some friends ready a post-blessing feast. Sandy prepares what she calls “Vietnamese sushi,” a ceviche-style dish made by curing local shrimp in lime juice and tossing it with Vietnamese roasted rice powder and herbs. She wraps a bite in mint leaves and dips it into a mixture of soy sauce and wasabi. Downstairs, her friend Ket Khath and some neighborhood friends are busy grilling meaty Gulf oysters and foil-wrapped shrimp beneath the raised house. Local seafood, including otherwise underutilized bycatch, has been knitted into the fabric of Vietnamese cuisine here, and ingredients from Asian groceries coexist well with Louisiana hot sauce and steamy Gulf oysters.
The next day, the group gathers at Hoàng Gia, a karaoke joint where local shrimpers often congregate to sing a few bars, talk business, and eat. Hoàng Gia’s chef, Bac Sau, a 72-year-old Vietnamese refugee, specializes in steaming hot pots, served with Indian taro and pompano fish, and platters of “rock ’n’ roll” beef, her most regionally adapted dish. It utilizes an unbelievable amount of black pepper, a nod to Louisianans’ heavy use of seasoning in cooking. But the group favorite is a heaping platter of whole twice-fried Gulf shrimp, dotted with sliced chiles and accompanied by a sharp, salty Vietnamese lime sauce. Talk turns once again to the disappearing land.
While the delta continues to encroach upon them, the community members insist again and again they will do whatever they need to do to survive—invest in bigger boats or more innovative equipment to weather the changes, and adapt their traditional dishes to whatever ingredients they can still gather. “Compared to what we went through in Vietnam, the war and strife,” Chan says, “we just keep going.”