Friday, April 30, 2010

Flashback Fridays: The Fall of Saigon

In today's New York Times, there's a pair of op-eds from two Vietnamese writers, one from the North and one from the South, describing their respective reactions thirty-five years ago today upon learning that Saigon had either "fallen" or "been liberated," depending on one's perspective.  They're very short, moving pieces and you should read them.

Inspired by these essays, I decided to unveil a project that I had hoped would be done in time for this infamous/auspicious anniversary.  As it turns out, I haven't gotten very far with the project, but I thought it fitting to release the first installment today. 

A few years ago, while snooping around my wife's family's house, I found a dusty old diary that turned out to be my mother-in-law's account of the family's flight from Vietnam in 1975.  My wife was two and a half years old at the time, and her little sister was an infant.  Her uncle and grandfather were also on this journey.  Unbeknown to my wife or her mom, I enlisted the help of Le Pham of Dragon Momma to translate.  I will let the results speak for themselves:


Guam, 1975

OMFG!!  I am so effing tired!  I was just on the longest, most horrendous flight of my life!  (Well, I've never actually been on a plane before LOL, but still...)  How hard would it have been to put a diaper changing table on a C-130???  WTF, PEOPLE???  And those seats are worse than the little stools at the sidewalk cafes in Saigon.  I don't see how those fat-ass Americans can even fit on them ;)  

Anyways, Toddlerette and Babygirl decided they would both fuss through the whole eight-hour flight, after they had been so good while we waited at the airbase for two days *sigh*.  Oh, and then Toddlerette decides to barf into the bag that contains all of our worldly possessions *double sigh*.  (Did I mention that I'm fleeing for my life from the only place I've ever lived and leaving behind everything and everyone I've ever known for a place where I don't speak the language and the people and culture are terrifying to me and we have no money and no idea what we will do when we get there and we have two babies and my father-in-law to take care of?)

And Dearest Hubby wasn't much help either.  He and his father and brother were talking boring politics and arguing during the whole flight:

"The Americans turned their backs on us!"
"We'll never see our homes again!"
"This will never stand...the resistance will rise up and defeat the communists!"
"What will happen when we get to America?"
"What about all our relatives who can't get out?"
"Only God can help us..."

HEY!  DO YOU THINK GOD COULD HOLD ONE OF THESE KIDS OR MAYBE CHANGE A DIAPER???  Seriously, y'all !  It was like me and the kiddos weren't even there.  At least Dearest Hubby has his relatives with him, unlike me who will probably never get to see my family again :(  The least he could do is change a freaking diaper for once.

So here we are at this God-forsaken processing station in Guam (???!!!).  All I  know is that there are a bazillion other refugees here fighting for water and C-rations that I am about to PUNCH IN THE THROAT if they don't shut up.  

Gotta go!  I just saw a shady spot on the tarmac where I might be able to curl up with the kids and get a little nap.  More later.


So far, the rest of the entries that have been translated are about zombies and how hard it is to find jeans that fit right.


But in real life, my in-laws don't talk about that trip.  I've heard Dad-in-law's stories about the lead-up to it, and I've heard countless different versions of the rags-to-comfortable-middle-class-prosperity story after they arrived in the States.  Dad-in-law says they came here on a plane; but my wife remembers a boat as well.  Maybe someday I might ferret out the details while I'm working on a home improvement project with Dad-in-law, even though I would then run the risk of setting off his standard hour-long diatribe that starts with the evils of communism and ends with the apotheosis of Ronald Reagan.  Of course, mentioning property taxes can set off the same screed.

The community my family lived in was certainly touched by the Vietnam War as well.  When my dad came back from the war, we lived on stateside army bases until 1974, when we were stationed in Germany. Some of the very few memories I have of Fort Ord, Fort Sill and Fort Leavenworth are of kids wearing bracelets with the names of POW/MIA soldiers, and yellow frowny-face buttons that said "POWs Never Have a Nice Day."  My dad had served two tours, and like my wife's parents, there were a lot of things that he didn't talk about.  By the time my wife's family arrived in the U.S., we were living in Germany where my dad and all his colleagues were studying Russian and all things Soviet as the Cold War ramped up.  I don't remember much talk about Vietnam by then.

Naturally, due to egocentrism,  I'm often struck by how my life would have been different had things worked out better for our side back in '75.  The major implications are that I wouldn't have met my wife, and the first mixed-race female twin consecutive presidents would never have been born.  (Of course, our meeting, like anyone's, could have been thwarted by the alteration of any number of serendipitous details like college class schedules or a delay in the eradication of my mullet; but it's more fun to imagine myself as a participant in world history.)  Other than that, my life would have been pretty much the same.

But my wife's life would have been completely different.  We were reminded of this when we traveled to Vietnam a few years ago and met up with some of my wife's relatives, and indeed whenever we met any women of her age there.  These women had led hard, sometimes tragic lives.

But who's to say what opportunities my wife would have had growing up in Vietnam if the forces of free-market democracy had prevailed?  I think it's a safe bet, though, that she would not have ended up as a doctor in Southern California with beautiful Wasian babies and the dashing piece of arm-candy she calls her husband.  That's why even though many Vietnamese-Americans recognize April 30th as "Deep Resentment Day," I can't bring myself to be completely resentful.

Cobra with Great-Grandfather

Butterbean with Great-Grandfather

   Grandma and Grandpa c.1972 (iPhone shot of a framed photo)


  1. Beautiful, funny, and thought-provoking tale.

    I'd like to think I had a little to do with the elimination of the mullet. But of course I like to take credit for everything!

  2. Is Wasian a real word or did you just make that up?

    -Martha Barnette

  3. Awesome! But now I know who to blame for the twin scourges of usage of "LOL" and "y'all." The freakin' Vietnamese immigrants are the ruin of everything holy!

  4. Great story that put a human face on the historical events for me. I remember the fall of Saigon. I was only little living in an expat community in Fiji, we used to listen to the reports on the BBC World Service on the old transistor radio.

  5. I was laughing one second and then completely sobered up the next. Incredible post. My dad was a green beret in the central highlands area, and he become very close with the montagnards he worked with. He has photo albums stuffed full of kids crawling all over him.

    The images of Saigon's fall burn him up still today. He's wondered allowed many times whatever happened to everyone. There was one mantognard he was very close to--a teenage boy named Pao who would run on ever mission with dad. After the fall dad was sure Pao was captured and killed.

    My dad never really stayed in contact with his SF Team until the last couple years. This past fall he actually went to the unit reunion. Pao as it turns out is alive and living in Phoenix.

    Again, great, great story. It's tragic what governments can do to one another, but it's inspiring how people's spirits can transcend that.

  6. Paul--Thanks for the comment, and thanks for helping me, through shame, to summon the courage to get rid of the mullet.

    Martha--How many times do I have to explain to you what a portmanteau word is?

    Veg--thanks! Fiji, eh? Not a bad place to be a little kid, I imagine.

    Lunchbox--Thanks a lot! Sounds like your dad's got some good stories. Mine started writing a memoir (for lack of a better term) about his time there, but kind of stalled out after 100 pages or so. I read the draft in a Saigon hotel room. I'm obviously biased, but it was really good, and I hope he picks it up again (hear me, dad?). Dad was there in 64 and again in 67. He spoke Vietnamese fluently and loved (or at least was fascinated by) the people and culture. He gave a toast in Vietnamese at our wedding (350 people, about 85% of them Vietnamese) that tore the place up. There were old Vietnamese guys crying in their beer. The boyfriends of my wife's younger sisters were like, "Great. What the hell is my dad gonna do at our wedding? Magic tricks?"

  7. I always wondered why you got the years wrong on our Austin Healy(57)and GTO (66). Your reference points are off by a year or two. I was in Viet Nam from 65 to 66 and again in 69 to 70. Maybe the vietnamese gio cao su (rubber hour) is rubbing off on you. It couldn't hurt.

    I heard two stories about the Trans' trip to America, one of which involved a boat. The stories are not contradictory, but the sequence is foggy. The first was told by dad-in-law with contributions by great-grandfather during one of your many engagement or wedding ceremonies. Some of it was in a language I had not spoken or heard spoken for several decades, while sitting at a crowded men's table. Dad-in-law was a staff officer in Saigon in 1975. When the NVA rolled in, his boss told the staff they were through and could go home, die or escape. The boss and dad-in-law along with others decided to get out. They went to the Saigon river port and commandeered a large boat of some kind and steamed out to sea. I lost the story at that point, picking up only upon arrival in Virginia,finding a job the day after arrival and a second job the following day.

    The second story was told by dad-in-law's brother and seemed not to involve dad-in-law. In that story, Thao's event-organizer relative (I think I called her Chi, but I don't remember her name). She was clearly in charge of running your wedding smoothly. She apparently ran things in Saigon too. She got everyone together and discussed the options. According to uncle, he did not know what to do and didn't know much until he found himself in America along with others of the family. He only followed the decisions made by (Chi?)the organizer, packed a bag and trailed after her. He said that it was all confused and that he has always been grateful for such a decisive woman.

    I would liked to have heard more about great-grandfather. When any of the men asked about my days as an adviser to Vietnamese infantry units,great-grandfather filled in about the history of the units I served with. When one man asked who commanded the 7th Regiment when I was there, I replied that it was Dai-ta (Colonel) Tu. Great-grandfather said, "Oh yes, Le Van Tu."

  8. Dad--

    The discrepancies with the dates are due to a little thing I like to call "artistic license," which means I don't have to do any research (like picking up a phone.) Also I was three when all this was happening. Or two or four or something. How old am I now?

    You and great-granddad should hang out sometime and talk about the old days. It would be interesting to hear his stories unfiltered.

  9. I hired a translator to help me with an old cook book once. My daughter has never forgiven me.

  10. I love this post. You don't realize how much female bloggers have influenced writing style until you read your MIL's escape account through a modern day blogger's style. F*(&ing hilarious.

    I hope DadDad comments more, taking beta Dad to task. Love it!

  11. melanirae--

    I hate to ask what language the cookbook was in originally.


    Thanks for loving this post! And *thanks* for encouraging The Great Santini to harass me in front of my imaginary friends.

  12. I'm in love with the way you juxtaposed the day-to-day details (just change a freakin diaper already) with the larger realities. Awesome post.

  13. Absolutely great story. I am fascinated how you capture the paradoxical nature of Life:
    deep resentment standing next to deep love.

    That paradox seems so basic, yet we always seem to focus on the one side or the other, not both.


Don't hold back.


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