Ngo Van Nguyen fled the communists of North Vietnam as a child. In the 1970s, he braved his way to the United States as a refugee, bringing along his wife and two young children. He then faced down initial suspicions from many Cajuns in bayou country while trying to establish his shrimping business. And starting with one small boat, Nguyen built his business over the years into a 30-boat fleet, complete with his own ice house and shrimp shed.
Nguyen is nothing if not determined.
So when Hurricane Katrina struck Bayou Lafourche, a waterway in southeastern Louisiana 21/2 miles off the Gulf of Mexico, Nguyen did not back down. Although many of his relatives scattered as far as Houston to escape Katrina's wrath, Nguyen weathered the storm on the bayou, staying on the boat of his town's mayor so he could remain close to the docks, boats and warehouses along the water.
"I wanted to stay with my business," said Nguyen, 55, who learned the shrimping trade as a child. He hails from a long line of shrimpers, including his great-grandmother, who lived to at least 100.
That business has suffered severe damage -- and is possibly beyond repair. Nguyen's losses include his $1 million ice house, two tractor-trailer beds to haul shrimp and several heavy-duty scales that cost roughly $15,000 each. And his $10,000 conveyor belt was damaged by a large, green dumpster that was blown into it by the storm's winds.
"I put 40 years in this," Nguyen said. "It's too late for me to start again."
Nguyen is part of some 1,500 Vietnamese families settled along the Mississippi, Alabama and Louisiana coast, making a living as shrimpers -- or trawlers, as they are known here -- in the heart of Cajun country. Now Hurricane Katrina has all but destroyed their livelihood and put this community's future in peril.
But for Nguyen and his family, that future is not just about trying to repair the damage wrought by the hurricane. Even before the storm, foreign competition and high fuel prices had made shrimping an increasingly luckless business. In a sense, Katrina has accelerated a day of reckoning that had long been approaching: Will this community of trawlers remain loyal to the hard-earned family business or will they, especially the younger Vietnamese Americans, leave shrimping behind in favor of a new way of life?
"I don't want to see it go, but it's becoming so hard," Nguyen said, holding up his heavily callused hands.
Timmy Tran, 37, Nguyen's brother-in-law, embodies this dilemma. His 100-foot-long shrimping boat lies crippled and beached on its side off Bayou Lafourche, tossed there by the storm's deadly winds.
Tran, a high school dropout, does not know how he will survive without his boat. His monthly expenses include a $1,500 mortgage payment, $700 for his wife's 2005 GMC Yukon sport-utility vehicle and the costs of raising his three young children -- not to mention the loan and insurance fees still due on the boat.
"That's all I got right now," said Tran, pointing at his green and white shrimping boat, named T-Brothers after Tran and his two siblings, one of whom is also a shrimper. He purchased it nine years ago for $250,000.
Tran rode out the storm in Houston with his immediate family, returning later to survey the damage. He isn't sure he wants to continue in the shrimping business.
"You work all day and all night," he said. "You don't sleep out there. At first I liked it, but now I don't like it."
Like it or not, it is hard to imagine life here any other way. In the towns around Bayou Lafourche, everything revolves around the water. There are stores that repair nets and sell bait and other equipment. There are charter fishing boat companies for leisure anglers. There is a small restaurant that caters to wealthy outsiders with summer homes built on wooden stilts over the bayou.
And, of course, there is shrimping.
Boat crews go out for at least two to six weeks at a time, trading their family life for the constant smell of diesel and salty spray from the gulf waters. The groups of four to five men work all night -- shrimping is best in the moonlight -- tossing out nets and hauling them in. Each boat boasts two huge metal poles, called outriggers, used to cast the nets.
The season runs from May, when trawling boats line up at the mouth of the bayou to get to the gulf, until October or December, depending on the size of the boat and where it is trawling.
From 1996 until 2001, business was good. Fuel was cheap and shrimp prices hovered around $5 a pound. But in recent years, cheap farm-raised shrimp from Asia -- including from Vietnam -- has undercut Louisiana shrimpers, locals say. Shrimp now goes for $3.25 a pound. And due to the rising cost of fuel, it can take as much as $65,000 to fill the massive tanks of a 100-foot boat.
"It's the same thing as going to a casino," Nguyen said. "Sometimes you lose. Anybody in the shrimping business is taking a gamble."
Last year, Nguyen's shrimping business barely broke even.
"It's a dying business for the Vietnamese," said Nguyen's son Vuong. "It's the field that got us to where we are, but it's time to get out. You can see the signs every year we're not making a profit."
Ngo Van Nguyen looked at the last catch one of his boats had in its belly before the hurricane struck and ponders what he might do next. "I wait and see what will happen," he said. "I will look and see for a job. I don't know what I will do exactly."
He stared down at his shoes. "Maybe I will clean up for someone else," he said.
Buying Bigger Boats
Nguyen, his wife, Lap, and their two young children left Vietnam in 1975, making their way to a refugee camp in Guam and eventually to the community of Port St. Joe, about an hour east of Panama City, Fla.
"Luckily it was near the coast and they could fish and shrimp," Vuong Nguyen said. "Five families lived in one three-bedroom trailer, and they used one car to drive 20 some people to work." His mother worked at the docks, sorting fish out of the shrimp nets; his father repaired nets.
In the late 1970s, they moved to Panama City to try their hand at the shrimp business. They saved and borrowed enough money to buy their first small boat for $5,000.
Vuong marvels at how his parents made it. "They saved and saved and saved," he said.
Vietnamese dockworkers told Ngo Van Nguyen there were shrimp in Biloxi, Miss., so he went there briefly, eventually moving his family to Bayou Lafourche, where one of his brothers had set up shop.
"I started at the bottom," Nguyen said. "I sold my first boat and used the money from that to buy a little bigger boat and then I bought a little bigger boat. I went step by step by step," he said.
Nguyen gets agitated recalling how some Cajuns regarded him skeptically when he reached Bayou Lafourche. "People would think the government gave us money," Nguyen said. "I would just say, 'No sir. I work for this.' "
Tensions between Cajuns and Vietnamese ran high in the past. Local police recall incidents during the 1990s of Cajuns and Vietnamese shooting at each other to get better shrimp spots off the coast, though no one was seriously hurt. But relations have improved dramatically, mainly because there aren't too many shrimpers left.
"They're very respectful of me and of my wife," said Todd LaBiche, a Cajun shrimper who does business with Nguyen's family. "They made everybody be polite and they really opened their arms to do business with us."
LaBiche evacuated his family from the bayou, but as soon as he returned Friday he raced to check on the Nguyen family's safety.
"You're alive," Nguyen said when he saw the bald-headed, tattooed LaBiche.
"Hey, brother," LaBiche, 43, said. "Good to see you. How's your family and how's your boat?"
Nguyen shook his head. "Everything's gone."
LaBiche, hugging him, said: "I'm so sorry. You know I'll be with you all and help you out anyway I can." LaBiche's houseboat and three shrimping boats capsized in the storm.
"It's over for this year," Nguyen said of the shrimping season.
LaBiche nodded. "We gotta stick together," he said.
Even before Katrina, the Nguyen family had begun accepting the bleak future of the shrimping business. Two years ago, they opened a 49-room Days Inn in the town of Galliano, some 20 miles from the port where the Nguyens operate their shrimping business. The inn mainly houses workers from offshore oil rigs. And last month, the family opened a 64-room Best Western, whose only guests now are electricity workers coming to restore power to the bayou.
Nguyen and his brothers manage the hotel's books, while his son Vuong runs its day-to-day operations. Vuong, who worked on his father's shrimp boats as a deckhand for a few years after completing high school, said he has little interest in the shrimp business.
"It's not my thing," said Vuong, 29. "The three years I did it I didn't like it. I barely eat shrimp."
And he found shrimping hurt his dating life. "It's kind of hard to meet anybody in a shrimp shed," he said, laughing, although he did meet his fiancee after doing business with her father, a local shrimper. The couple has postponed a New Year's Eve wedding because they're helping their families get back on their feet after the hurricane.
Out of loyalty, many in the Nguyen family feel pressure to follow Ngo, the eldest, into the shrimping business. But the younger generation, those who are teenagers, know little of that work. And those in their 20s and 30s, who were born in the United States and spent summers and weekends working in the shrimping business, find themselves at a crossroads.
Nguyen's two sons, Vuong and Vu, have already chosen a different path. Vu, 35, has five children and mainly works as an electrician on the bayou. Meanwhile, Vuong has devoted himself to the hotels. He takes great pride in designing the hotel rooms, with their marble bathroom countertops, curved shower rods and fancy showerheads that go in six directions.
The hotels have become critical for the Nguyens in the aftermath of the hurricane. Ngo Van Nguyen has taken in sisters, brothers, cousins and their children who had scattered to escape Katrina's wrath. Some lost their houseboats and shrimping boats, and all are staying at the Days Inn. Both hotels suffered some flooding and roof damage, but at least at the Days Inn no windows were broken.
Nguyen's wife said five families emptied their cabinets, refrigerators and freezers, bringing chicken, beef, noodles, lettuce, celery, guava and about 800 pounds of rice to the hotel. They set up a makeshift kitchen in the hotel conference room using Bunsen burner stoves.
"Anytime there's a crisis we try to bond together," said Vuong. "Your family will be there for you. No one will take care of you except for your family."
Even so, Nguyen and his relatives have offered help to many beyond their own family, opening the hotel to the community and serving 400 plates of boiled shrimp to passersby from the bayou area. When they ran out of plates, they used paper bags.
The Nguyens said they are unsure when their shrimping boats -- mostly missing or scattered along the coastline -- will be ready for work again. Yet, in spite of his losses, Nguyen is grateful that his family members survived the storm and that none are missing. And only a few shingles are missing from his two-year-old brick house in Cut Off, a small town near the port.
"Every day we try to smile," Nguyen said. "Everything's over and God saved my life. We can do something. God gave to us and God taketh from us."