THEY were born by waters half a world apart. But a war and a way of life brought them together in this Alabama town. Hai Longtruong was raised on the coast of Ha Tien Province in what was then South Vietnam. Skipper Wright was raised near this fishing village on the stormy Gulf of Mexico.
Mr. Hai, who learned to shrimp from his father, now works on his cousin's shrimp trawler here in the Gulf. Mr. Wright, like his father before him, shrimps in Bayou La Batre Bay.
Hardworking and family oriented, the two men have more in common than one would think. But competition for a livelihood has raised a seemingly insurmountable wall between their communities.
In the decade since Vietnamese fishermen first cast their nets in United States waters, the refugees have found work in nearly every major fishing port from California to New England.
Living in close family groups, pooling skills and money, and eschewing debt, the newcomers have prospered in a fiercely competitive industry buffeted by imports, conservation regulations, and the wild unpredictability of nature. Seafood buyers now estimate that Vietnamese refugees own between a quarter and a half of the US shrimping fleet.
Buyers and processors have high praise for the Indochinese, who work tirelessly on the water and in tedious land jobs such as crab picking.
In Bayou La Batre, one of the top 20 ports in the nation in annual landings of shrimp, an influx of Indochinese refugees since 1981 has swelled the population from 2,000 to about 3,500 today, with more refugees still arriving. Close-knit for two centuries, the town has undergone startling changes.
Violence never flared here as in some fishing communities along the coast of Louisiana and Texas. But quiet harassment, dislike, and segregation continues between the two groups of fishermen. There are off-the-record reports of flattened tires and smashed windshields. A feeling of resentment hangs thick as a fog bank in the town.
``It was enough here for us, before they came,'' says Mr. Wright, who shrimps the heavily fished waters of the bay in his one-man Biloxi lugger. ``They keep to themselves, and we keep to ourselves,'' he says flatly.
Still, Bayou La Batre is considered a model in relations between refugee and American communities. Given the influx of refugees, ``I think the real story in Bayou La Batre is that there haven't been conflicts,'' says Steve Thomas, an anthropologist at the University of South Alabama in Mobile.
Instead, the two groups of fishermen lead separate but parallel lives.
HAI LONGTRUONG began fishing at age 13 with his father where the Mekong River meets the South China Sea. But after communist troops overran South Vietnam in the late 1970s, Hai, his cousin, and his sister fled to refugee camps in Thailand.
The fragmented family arrived in California seven years ago, then moved to join the Vietnamese fishing community in Bayou La Batre. Hai's cousin bought the shrimp trawler Star II.
For long periods Hai is separated from his wife, Mythanh Nguyen, and their 2-year-old daughter, Tina. On the dock beside piles of rope and netting, the two of them watch preparations for the fishermen's departure.
``It's a long time [that they will be gone],'' she says, watching Hai raise great blue-green nets and check winches.
``I hate it,'' she continues, ``but we live by fishing.''
Mrs. Mythanh picks crabs part-time for an American processor, using her small earnings to buy sweet and spicy Vietnamese seasonings, delicately patterned Chinese-made clothes, and Vietnamese paperback books from Vietnamese-owned shops in town.
``They keep together, they never separate,'' she comments about the members of her community.
``That's why they are strong. Everybody work for a living. That's what we try: to work hard for a living.''
When she came to Bayou La Batre as a 16-year-old refugee, ``I try to make friends, but I don't know the language so well,'' she recalls, as Tina rests her dark, shining head against her mother's shoulder. ``They don't like me, so it's easier to stay with Vietnamese.''
Now, some Americans are very kind, she says, while others frighten her. She murmurs something about a broken window, then hesitates and lowers her eyes.
``It's better not to talk about that,'' she remarks.
Instead, she concentrates on her family's plan to buy a mobile home, and she dreams of a day when her older brother, still in Vietnam, and her sister, away at college, can be reunited with the family.
``I wish to have all the family together and have a good place to live and everybody work.
``That's what I wish for,'' she says, waving as the Star II shoves off. WHILE Hai and Mythanh were growing up in Vietnam, Skipper Wright was learning about boats from his father, a shrimper and former Navy man.
Today Mr. Wright's brother-in-law, Chris Collier, works with Wright's father in a family-run marine survey company. Two years ago Wright mortgaged the acre of land his father gave him to finance his shrimp boat, the Honeydew.
Now Wright shrimps in the bay nine months out of the year, working the slow winter months out in the Gulf on the boats that serve the offshore oil rigs.
``It's kind of hard to change when people are grown up on the water all their life, and that's all they know,'' he says.
``They've got their equipment and money invested already. I've got obligations.'' He gestures toward 11-year-old Samantha, playing with nine-month-old Emmy.
His wife, Shan, works as a truck dispatcher, while the skipper's mother cares for Emmy. ``Eventually we want to build a house,'' she says. ``But sometimes it's hard to make ends meet.''
Like many here, the Wrights believe exaggerated stories about federal aid to the refugees, who in fact receive about $500 of assistance on arrival.
``They can buy their boats at a terribly low interest rate,'' comments Mrs. Wright. Mr. Wright feels that the Vietnamese fish in restricted waters and get preferential treatment from conservation officials.
But while Mr. Wright openly resents the newcomers, Mrs. Wright has a different attitude.
``You can't fault them because they're hardworking people,'' she says, getting up to prepare dinner. ``Some do fish inside closed waters. But some of the Americans fish in closed waters, too.''
Women, working in safe, steady jobs on shore, can see the human side of both groups, she remarks. ``The men are the ones who feel the crunch.''