Photos by Dillon Stewart
The ethnic Vietnamese community is surprisingly small and relatively new, but has become one of the most vibrant, self-sufficient and distinguished groups in our city.
Immigrants from Vietnam first came to Memphis as refugees in 1975, following the fall of Saigon to the Northern Vietnamese army. The city again saw another significant wave of refugee immigration during the early 1980s, a product of several regional wars and natural disasters in Vietnam.
According to 2010 census data, the Vietnamese ethnic community makes up approximately .5% of the total metropolitan population. Many of that small percentage have settled in the geographic center of the city. Misnomered ‘Little Hanoi,’ Cleveland Street and the surrounding midtown area have gradually become a cultural center for many Vietnamese immigrants and their descendants.
Nestled within Little Hanoi is a wealth of markets and restaurants, representing the culinary traditions of Vietnam. From the fresh produce of Viet Hao Market to the finely crafted flavors of Pho Binh, Memphians of all backgrounds come to enjoy the food culture of Little Hanoi.
However, these culinary traditions are not limited to midtown. They punctuate our city’s most notable areas. Students of the University of Memphis face only a short trip to dine at Pho Saigon, and Lotus in east Memphis boasts to be the oldest Vietnamese restaurant in the region.
The traditions housed in Little Hanoi not only nourish hungry stomachs, but hungry souls as well.
The first Vietnamese Buddhist temple in Memphis was established in 1985. Chua Chanh Tam is located on Jefferson Avenue just off of Cleveland. The temple was converted from an old apartment building, and remained the only source of Vietnamese Buddhist expression for almost two decades. That changed with the founding of the Quan Am Monastery in south Memphis by the Venerable Thich Nguyen Tanh in 2002.
Entering the white-walled monastery, one is immediately struck by the juxtaposition. To the left stands a 15-foot statue of Gautama Buddha, an homage to thousands of years of Mahayana history. To the right, a basketball goal accents a cement courtyard, symbolizing a greater goal of outreach into new Memphis locales.
“We try to reach the city with our presence,” explains Thich Nguyen Tanh. “We offer services in English and community meals. All are welcome.”
Green terraced tunnels line the southern grounds, producing a crop to feed venerable monks, nuns, and any other hungry Memphians. Though most inhabitants of the monastery speak broken English, Thich Nguyen Tanh hosts a weekly chanting session, Dharma discussion and group meditation for English speakers. This mode of outreach services a new generation of Vietnamese-Americans.
Through food and religious outreach, the small Memphis Vietnamese community has maintained and expanded autonomy since its arrival in 1975. It remains one of the most distinct cultural groups in the city. Though it lacks the pomp of Harbor Town or the performance background of Soulsville, Little Hanoi has demonstrated throughout its short history an emulation of Memphis ideals.