By Lucia Flores-Wiseman
NORTHWEST ASIAN WEEKLY
Forty-eight years after the Fall of Sài Gòn, Vietnamese families still remember the emotional evacuation of their home country and journey to foreign lands.
More than 1.4 million Vietnamese immigrants currently live in the United States, and many arrived during the three large migration waves after the Fall of Sài Gòn, according to Migration Policy.
Eight years after the start of the war in Vietnam, the United States pulled troops out of South Việt Nam, leaving little support to fight back against North Việt Nam. The North Vietnamese communist government took over, marking the war’s end on April 30, 1975.
Three Vietnamese Americans—An Ngo-Lang, Daniel Nguyen, and Quynh Pham—settled in Seattle after the Fall of Sài Gòn and brought with them their families’ stories.
A toddler evading rockets in her silk pajamas
An Ngo-Lang was 4 years old during the Fall of Sài Gòn, but she remembers the day before. She recalls the sound of rockets firing above her house, the panicked streets, and men with large firearms. She lived near the airport in Sài Gòn, a consistent target to prevent planes from flying in and out. She remembers that night with her family sleeping on the bedroom floor.
“My mom said if a rocket ends up in our house, and if we all sleep together, we’ll all die together,” said Ngo-Lang.
At such a young age, Ngo-Lang didn’t fully understand this comment, but now she feels the bittersweet pain of this moment.
“If you can imagine, the streets were just full of people running around because the Communists were right outside of Sài Gòn.”
Because her mother was French Vietnamese and her father was an English translator at the Defense Attaché Office, American personnel said they could evacuate their family.
Ngo-Lang’s parents rushed back home to grab necessary belongings, and she left her childhood home with no time to change out of her silk pajamas and her mom in uncomfortable high heels.
Ngo-Lang’s father drove 10 family members to a convoy of buses, ready to all leave together.
“The marine looked at my mom’s passport, then looked at all of our relatives, and he said, ‘No, not your whole extended family, just you and your children and your husband,’” Ngo-Lang said.
Ngo-Lang, her brother, and her parents had to say their final goodbye to the rest of their family before taking off in a helicopter and transferring overnight to a large merchant marine ship.
Ngo-Lang remembers the days passed on the ship without food or water.
On the brink of starvation, Ngo-Lang’s mother convinced a marine to give her his ration of food for the day: a couple of slices of cheese, crackers, sugar water, and aspirin.
Ngo-Lang and her family eventually arrived at Fort Chaffee Refugee camp in Arkansas and later moved to Wichita, Kansas, where they were sponsored by her aunt and uncle, who lived in the United States. She struggled to assimilate into a new culture, she said, but eventually settled just outside Seattle in 2001, where she started raising her four children.
Today, An Ngo-Lang lives in Australia and is hoping to publishing a memoir about the impact of the Việt Nam War on her life and those around her.
“It’s a story about the intrinsic hope in us to continue to survive, and just that, that yearning of a person who loses everything, and what do they want?” said Ngo-Lang. “They just want peace, they just want a place to live.”
Leaving Vietnam by boat
In 1979, four years after the Việt Nam War, Daniel Nguyen’s parents decided that a voyage across the Pacific Ocean was worth the risk to provide a promising future for their kids. Known as ‘boat people,’ leaving the country in a small fishing boat, they were part of the second wave of Vietnamese immigration in the later 1970s.
“My mom tells me these incredible stories of how she used to pray for rain,” Nguyen, the youngest son of the family, said. “When it would finally rain, she would take her T-shirt, hold it up, collect rainwater, and wring it out so she would have something to drink.”
After two weeks of surviving at sea, they were taken to a refugee camp in the Philippines.
Of the millions of Vietnamese refugees, the Nguyens were chosen to live with a sponsor family in Bellevue.
“Growing up, my mom and dad were like, just forget about being Vietnamese,” Nguyen said. “You need to survive in America. And we’re not going to talk about it a lot.” When Nguyen started college at the University of Washington, his curiosity about his cultural background and identity led him to travel to Việt Nam. He was the first in his family to return since they had left on the fishing boats.
Nguyen is now a board member of PeaceTrees Vietnam, an organization that helps remove explosives from the war in Việt Nam.
“April 30 is just a date for the Vietnamese people,” said Nguyen. “But there are so many other dates that have happened across so many other countries, it’s our job as the next generation of leaders and influencers to not repeat this history, and to not fall into the trap of, of trying to expand like, our western dominance on the world.”
As the 48th anniversary of the Fall of Saigon approaches, Nguyen said he wants to remind the world that America is special because it was built by immigrants.
“We take the cream of the crop of all these countries and all these hustlers who want to get to this country,” he said. “And I want people to appreciate and respect our refugees and understand deeply the impact we Americans have on the world.”
Rediscovering a complicated journey
In 1990, 15 years after the Fall of Sài Gòn, Quynh Pham was just 2 years old when she fled Việt Nam. Pham’s parents don’t speak about their past.
“They didn’t really talk about their experience from the war,” Pham said. “It was more of their experience in poverty at that time. Like everyone was dealing with really bad conditions, and their childhood growing up was really tough, but they never connected directly with the war.”
Pham and her family fled Việt Nam by plane, arriving at a refugee camp in the Philippines.
Pham is discovering stories about her family’s journey.
“I find bits and pieces of these stories as I meet other community members, because I actually don’t learn this from my parents,” she said.
In 1988, Pham’s family immigrated to the United States through the Amerasian Homecoming Act. The program allowed Vietnamese Americans, like Pham’s mother and their immediate family to move to the U.S. The Amerasian Homecoming Act resulted in the third large wave of Vietnamese immigration to the U.S. Pham and her family arrived in Kent, living with a sponsor family.
Pham was automatically enrolled in English classes and learned to navigate a new lifestyle in a new home. While initially tricky, speaking English became easier as she grew older.
“I have vague memories because I was still so young,” Pham said. “It’s more like feelings nowadays, not even memories anymore. But we’ve always been so grateful.”
Pham is now the Executive Director of Friends of Little Saigon, a 12-year-old organization supporting Vietnamese Americans living in the International District.
Pham acknowledges that it is complicated to have conversations about the war within the Vietnamese community.
“The political impacts of it are still felt today within the Vietnamese community,” Pham said. “There’s a huge political separation and diversion within our own community that we cannot get over.”
Gregory D Simpson says
It was so interesting reading the stories.I can’t imagine the terror these people went through escaping Communist Vietnam and the long journey to the United States. Thank you for your incredible bravery and sacrifice.