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Vietnamese Farmers’ Market Community Gardening Project
In July 2005, the Southern Foodways Alliance presented the Ly Family with the Guardian of the Tradition award for their vision in spearheading the spectacular Vietnamese farmers’ market that opens at 5 a.m. every Saturday morning in New Orleans East and wraps up around the time that most New Orleanians are getting out of bed. The market takes place in a parking lot of a shopping strip, right outside Ly’s Supermarket. Before Hurricane Katrina, it spilled into another lot behind the supermarket. There, mostly Vietnamese elders sell the vegetables, fruits, herbs, and roots that they grow in their home gardens, many of which thrive along the bayous in this neighborhood.
According to a study of the Vietnamese farmers’ market (called cho chom hom in Vietnamese, referring to the crouched stance of its vendors), conducted by the Safe Neighborhood Action Plan New Orleans Inc., no one knows the market’s exact inception. Around 1979, Vietnamese immigrants who settled in the area after the Fall of Saigon began selling homegrown produce from the backs of trucks and carts. In 1991, the Lys and a couple of others pooled resources to purchase the building that now houses their supermarket, providing the market with a stable location. At the time of the study, around 2000, the average age of a market vendor/worker was fifty-nine years old.
While the Lys graciously provided SFA with information about the Vietnamese section of New Orleans East—sometimes called Versailles—it was a newcomer, Peter Nguyen, who ultimately agreed to sit down for an oral history interview. Born in Vietnam and raised in Illinois, Peter moved to New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina to work on a community garden project and otherwise help the area recover. Having grown up in an Americanized neighborhood himself, he is passionate about preserving the dying customs of his ancestral people.