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[History] Người Mỹ gốc Việt - Immigration

I believe that a large part of language learning is learning about cultures, so here is the first of (hopefully many) on pieces of Vietnamese culture. This particular post will focus on the Vietnamese immigration patterns to the U.S. If I miss anything important or you have questions that aren't answered, feel free to respond.


There are about 1,737,433 Vietnamese Americans (Người Mỹ gốc Việt) in the U.S. per the 2010 census. The are distributed about so (the chart is based on 2000 census data so it may be a bit off):

Some are grouped into enclaves, such as in "Little Saigon's" across the U.S., though there are also many spread throughout the rest of the country.


Vietnamese Americans are a relatively new group; the bulk of immigration occurred following the Vietnam War. Interestingly, this has made Vietnamese a frequently spoken language in the U.S., given the number of 1st and 2nd generation immigrants. As with other groups, immigration from Vietnam came in waves.

The first wave occurred in 1975 was small, comprised mostly of a select group at the close of U.S. operations in Vietnam. These were mostly the upper class who had much to lose, either due to political connections to the South Vietnamese government or U.S. forces. A large part of this group was actually transported to the U.S. by U.S. forces (on planes or Navy ships).

The next wave started around 1978. This was a larger, chaotic, and catastrophic immigration wave prompted by internal strife and famine following the war, along with two other war fronts (Cambodia and China). People in this group were nicknamed "boat people" as many of them fled by boat. In an unfortunate common pattern, these people faced a daunting journey that many did not survive. They were preyed upon by pirates, killed by the conditions at sea, and often unwelcome wherever they arrived. The conditions had at least one positive result for these immigrants, as the U.S. created the United States Refugee Act of 1980 in order to ease immigration requirements. Piracy diminished though did not end around 1982 when an international anti-piracy campaign began. This wave peaked in 1979, and ended around 1995, probably due to improving economic conditions and Vietnam's repairing relations with other countries.

The third wave was nested in the second, being a sudden increase in immigration around 1987. The next peak was in 1992. The reasons for this wave are a bit unclear; some claim it to be escape from the political environment, though several countries rejected this argument when classifying the immigrants. Most came claiming political refugee status, so it may be safe to say the claim relating to political environment has some merit.

Immigration continues. In fact, Asian is the largest source of immigrants to the U.S. today, with Vietnam being one of the top 6 Asian countries by total immigrant population. As an anecdotal statement, I think that the more recent wave is also more demographically diverse; while previous waves were dominated by South Vietnamese, Catholics, and other groups at odds with the government, today's wave seems to have a wider mix include educated North Vietnamese people.


Vietnamese are among the most likely group to assimilate in the U.S. However, language is one area where there is less assimilation. As a result, the frequency of use of Vietnamese is growing in the U.S. It is now the 3rd most spoken language (after English and Spanish) in at least 4 states. Looking more broadly at "areas of language need" - a value based on number of people who "Speak English less than "very well"" and who likely need translation or other interactional assistance - Vietnamese is the most significant language in 9 states. This presents a challenge, but also an opportunity for those of us learning Vietnamese (and our counterparts who are learning English).


Migration Policy Institute - Vietnamese Immigrants in the United States
PEW Social Trends - Rise of the Asian Americans PEW Social Trends - Vietnamese Americans
Manhattan Institute - Measuring Immigrant Assimilation in the United States
AAPI Voices - Slate, you're doing it wrong
Straddling Two Social Worlds: The Experience of Vietnamese Refugee Children in the United States (PDF)
(Short Version) Straddling Two Social Worlds: The Experience of Vietnamese Refugee Children in the United States (PDF)

April 29, 2016



My dad left America during the first wave, my mom left between the second and third wave. It's nice to know the circumstances and situation when they had to leave since now I have a clearer understanding of the situation during that time after the Vietnam War


Wow! This was really interesting and helpful. I had no idea that Vietnamese was the third most spoken language in the U.S. Thanks!


"It is now the 3rd most spoken language (after English and Spanish) in at least 4 states."


Right. Thanks , that makes sense


Yes. However, it isn't as far off as you might imagine; Vietnamese ranks 6 in most frequently spoken languages in the U.S. (as of 2011). With one exception, the others aren't surprising - English, Spanish, Chinese, and French (and the one that threw me off, Tagalog).

[deactivated user]

    Why did it throw you off? Filipinos are the 2nd largest group of Asians in the US after Chinese (and the largest Asian population in 11 states, including California). There's 3.4 million of us! Even considering some Filipinos in the US speak another Philippine language, there are still over 1 million Tagalog speakers in the US.


    I know little about Filipino immigration; I would have assumed another romance language to be in that list if I were pressed to guess before this.

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