Vietnamese refugees remember the fall of Saigon
A group of South Vietnamese refugees, one a former army officer, one an air force mechanic, one a war widow and one a law student ‘— all dedicated to resisting communism ‘— gathered at a fish market in west Greensboro and remembered the day 30 years ago, on April 29, 1975, when Saigon fell to the North Vietnamese Army.
Tran Bui was a 38-year old officer in the South Vietnamese Army, which tried in vain to hold out against communist North Vietnam’s invasion after the United States drastically reduced its military presence there. Tho Do was a 20-year old air force mechanic who had been deployed to combat zones to repair jet fighters for the South Vietnamese military. Diep Lu was a 23-year old widow whose husband was captured three years earlier in the battle of Binh Long and never heard from again. Her younger sister, Huu Lu, was a first-year university student and dedicated anticommunist studying law in Saigon.
On April 29, 1975, the government of South Vietnam collapsed as North Vietnamese Army tanks overran Saigon and the US military commenced a hasty and chaotic evacuation. Thirty years later, the four resettled Greensboro residents reminisced at Dong Huong Oriental & African Fish Market on Spring Garden Street about that day when their lives were irrevocably changed. Their memories are laced with pain and pride, with feelings of betrayal at the United States’ abandonment of their country, mixed with gratitude that the same country intervened against the communists and later gave them the opportunity to begin a new life here.
‘“I cry in my heart because thirty years ago I lost my nation,’” said the former army officer Bui, a youngish looking 68 year old wearing a modest blue windbreaker and buying fish with his wife. ‘“My nation was a democracy. The Vietnamese people, they want to stay where they’re born. If they leave they hurt. They feel like their heads are cut off.’”
As an officer of the defeated South Vietnamese Army, Bui was placed in some of the severest prison camps set up by the communists to recondition the citizens of the newly reunified country. For five and a half years, Bui was forced to perform agricultural labor in isolated camps in the jungle, said market owner Do, who translated for him. The food produced by the prison laborers was sold to make a profit for the communist government and prisoners like Bui relied on their wives to bring them food. Resettled in Greensboro after President Reagan negotiated the release of South Vietnam military veterans, he went to work in a newspaper printing plant.
‘“A lot of people died because of overcrowding,’” said Do, who is now 50. ‘“It was the worst conditions in the world. He was lucky he survived.’”
Do also served time harvesting rice in a communist prison camp: six years, three months and 17 days, to be exact. He fled Vietnam in 1987 and spent about a year in Thai and Filipino refugee camps before a US ambassador agreed to help him relocate to the United States. He had no family in the United States, so he readily agreed to move to Greensboro.
‘“I am free case,’” he said. ‘“Wherever government say, I go. I don’t care. If you’re willing to work, it could be snow, sleet, whatever. It’s like being in the military.’”
Huu Lu, like her future husband Tho Do, arrived in Greensboro in 1988. They were both childless refugees in their early thirties, and both were willing to work hard to make a new life.
Lu caught Do’s eye, but the young woman was initially wary of her suitor.
‘“When I came to her house she didn’t want to talk to me at first,’” Do said, laughing. ‘“But then her brother tell her I am a good person. She thinks I am like the alligator: you only see a small part of him but you worry about the rest of him under water.’”
Now a vibrant-looking 50 year old with grey-tinged black hair, Lu is the wife of a fishmonger, a shop wife who greets customers from Greensboro’s African and Southeast Asian immigrant communities with a wide smile. But thirty years ago she was a member of her country’s elite class training to hold an important role in society as a lawyer.
After the fall of Saigon, Lu joined an underground anti-communist group even though such people could expect to be persecuted, imprisoned, or sometimes killed. She was caught in January 1976 and detained until September 1984. She doesn’t know who turned her in; the country was a dictatorship full of secret police and it could have been any of her acquaintances.
‘“We were members of anticommunist group, yes,’” she said, nodding her head with pride. ‘“After nineteen seventy-five, you don’t know who’s an enemy or friend. They are undercover.’”
When she came to Greensboro, she worked anywhere she could, often logging 65 hours a week. She’s waited tables at Chinese restaurants, worked at the K-Mart distribution center and worked for Lee Co. Now both she and her sister work in the fish market.
Tho Do and Huu Lu’s admiration for the United States is tempered by a measure of bitterness about how the Vietnam war ended.
Do said the United States lost credibility with many people in Southeast Asia when its military pulled out of Vietnam. He said he believes it was wrong for the US government to secretly negotiate with the North Vietnamese. It was wrong for the US ambassador to pressure South Vietnam’s president Nguyen Van Thieu to accept the terms of the settlement after he had been excluded from negotiations. It was wrong 20 years later for President Clinton to lift the embargo against Vietnam, he said.
Asked if he believes the United States betrayed the Vietnamese people, he said emphatically: ‘“Of course!’”
That doesn’t mean Do takes for granted the sacrifice made by US soldiers to fight communism in Vietnam, or the fact that the United States welcomed refugees like him after the war.
‘“I appreciate from the bottom of my heart what America has done for my people,’” he said.
His wife put it another way: ‘“Americans have very good heart.’” She tells the couple’s two daughters: ‘“Keep in your heart the American people who lost their lives in Vietnam.’”
Both of them now 50, Do and Lu don’t give much thought to what level of success they attain for themselves. Their daughters ‘— an 11 year old who attends Jackson Middle School and an 8-year old who attends Peck Elementary ‘— are their future. The two girls can often be found sitting on stools in the narrow aisles of the market in the afternoon working on their homework.
The 8-year old girl wants to be an archeologist. Her older sister hasn’t made up her mind yet.
‘“She wants to be a politician, teacher, doctor, whatever,’” Lu said. ‘“She wants to help the poor people and the disabled people.’”
The couple’s long journey over the past 30 years might have something to do with that.
‘“I try to explain to them the ideology of freedom,’” Do said. ‘“Sometimes I might lose. That’s okay. But my nation, that’s what comes first.’”
To comment on this story, e-mail Jordan Green at firstname.lastname@example.org.