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Documentary explores Vietnamese diaspora in France through food

“Food is so big in both Parisian culture as well as Vietnamese culture, and I think one of the easier ways of really connecting with a culture and having it accessible is through the cuisine,” the documentarian said.

Hieu Gray sits outside Do et Riz, a popular Vietnamese restaurant in Paris, conversing with the restaurant's owner about the popularity of Vietnamese dishes in France.

“The French love them in Paris,” the owner says in Vietnamese. “I mean people really love them! And when they find out about these Vietnamese dishes, you'll give them a desire to go to Vietnam.”

Do et Riz is one of five stops Gray makes on a journey to explore the Vietnamese diaspora in France through food, which is captured in a short documentary she wrote and directed called “Quan 13.” In the film, she highlights the stories of Vietnamese with ties to the food industry, including chefs and restaurant owners.

“Food is so big in both Parisian culture as well as Vietnamese culture, and I think one of the easier ways of really connecting with a culture and having it accessible is through the cuisine,” she said.

Gray said she hopes that through her documentary, viewers will realize that there's more to Paris than baguettes and croissants; that there's a bustling diverse ethnic community that includes Vietnamese people.

She shares in the film that while Vietnamese experiences differ, food has become a way for community members to find commonality with one another. In the 13th district, there is a divide between Vietnamese who arrived before the fall of Saigon and those who came as refugees, she noted. Yet regardless of their social class or what part of Vietnam they originated from, food serves as common ground for Vietnamese in the district, she said.

She also noticed that the Vietnamese have modified the names of their dishes so they’re better understood by their French-speaking customers. Bún bò xào is known as “bo bun” in Paris, she said, but is known by its Vietnamese name everywhere else, including the U.S. Gray noted that “bo,” which means “beef” in Vietnamese, is similar to the French word for beef, which is “boeuf.”

Gray, a former senior producer at CNN, said she was inspired to create the documentary because as a Vietnamese American, she wanted to tell her community's stories, which aren't well represented in media. While she worked at CNN, she helped launch and promote the travel and food TV series “Anthony Bourdain: Parts Unknown.”

In “Quan 13,” Gray begins her quest to answer a central question – what does it mean to be Vietnamese around the world? – in Paris' 13th district. The area is home to a large Asian population, including Vietnamese, Gisele Bousquet, a lecturer at San Jose State University whose work focuses on the Vietnamese diaspora in Europe and the U.S., said.

About 128,000 Vietnamese live in France, according to mid-2017 estimates from the Migration Policy Institute, and it was the first place Gray experienced the Vietnamese diaspora outside of the United States. She said she previously wasn't aware that a Vietnamese community existed in Paris' 13th district.

Hieu Gray in Paris in "Quan 13."
Hieu Gray in Paris in her short documentary "Quan 13."Quan 13

France was among countries Vietnamese refugees migrated to after the fall of Saigon in 1975. Paris’ 13th district specifically became an area where many resettled because it was the site of a large housing complex that housed refugees once they arrived, Bousquet said. The complex was originally built to address a housing shortage and attract French buyers in the mid-1960s. But buyers weren’t fond of the modern architecture and large towers, which resulted in a drop in real estate prices. The majority of refugees who resettled in the district were Chinese-Vietnamese, Chinese-Cambodian and Chinese-Laotian, Bousquet said. They established businesses in the area, which is called Chinatown, although they came from Southeast Asia, she added.

France is home to the oldest Vietnamese diasporic community, which is linked to France's colonization of Vietnam in the late 19th century, Bousquet noted. She said that Vietnamese began migrating to France in the early 1900s, making the community more established and assimilated compared to the U.S. However, unlike in the U.S. where the Vietnamese population can be found in clusters in places like San Jose in Northern California and Little Saigon in Southern California, Vietnamese are more spread out in France, Bousquet said.

While the community in the U.S. is not as established, with an influx of Vietnamese refugees migrating after the fall of Saigon in 1975, the country is home to the largest Vietnamese population outside of Vietnam at nearly 1.4 million.

Gray said she titled her documentary “Quan 13” because “quan” is a Vietnamese word that means “district,” and Paris' 13th district is where she begins her journey.

Her 15-minute film illustrates the answer to her question through people like a third-generation chef who owns a restaurant, a former college professor turned restaurant owner and a group of university exchange students. Also featured are a multicultural chef and a cooking instructor.

Gray said she sought interview subjects from a broad spectrum of ages, all of whom hold diverse views about their Vietnamese identity.

Hieu Gray during her journey a part of her short documentary "Quan 13."
Hieu Gray during her journey a part of her short documentary "Quan 13."Quan 13

The former professor, for example — an older man who used to teach philosophy in Vietnam and has owned a restaurant in Paris’ 15th district for more than three decades — appeared to still be coming to terms with having his life uprooted, Gray said in the documentary. She also observed how France is merely a place of residence for the professor and will never be his home. It’s a sentiment that the older generation of Vietnamese hold, Gray said.

Gray also discovered in filming “Quan 13” how Vietnamese in France have adapted their kitchens to their new homes. It’s something she saw with the former professor, who makes a classic Vietnamese noodle dish called bún thịt nướng. The dish is traditionally made with rice noodles, but he replaced it with Italian spaghetti because rice noodles previously weren’t found in mainstream French grocery stores.

For Gray, a refugee who was raised in a small Georgia town where she hardly encountered other Vietnamese, working on this project has served as an avenue for self-discovery.

“In a way, this makes me even more proud of my Vietnamese heritage and of how resilient we are and how we’re able to acclimate to different cultures,” she said. “It makes me feel even more Vietnamese, and it’s kind of ironic that I had to leave the states and go to Paris in order to feel that way.”