Several years back, I was assisting at my wife’s workplace when a colleague of hers posed this unexpected question. I had only recently met her, so her straightforward inquiry caught me off guard: “Vietnam is such a great country, why did you choose to leave? I don’t understand.”
The immediate challenge in responding to her query might not be readily apparent, but as an immigrant who fled a post-war country, I grappled with numerous complex emotions that defied swift verbal expression. I wanted to convey that it was a result of various circumstances, including my family’s exclusion from higher education because their parents had served in the war against North Vietnam, my grandmother’s nine-year imprisonment in a hard labor camp due to her service in the South Vietnamese Air Force as a lieutenant colonel, the new government’s confiscation of our house because our family was considered enemy of the state, etc…
At that moment, a flurry of questions raced through my mind: "How could she not know this?" and "Was she unaware of the Vietnam War and the struggle, as well as the loss of hundreds of thousands of South Vietnamese lives even after war had ended?" But then, I paused, realizing that I couldn't hold her accountable. She appeared young and, being American-born, her lack of knowledge about the war, though surprising, wasn't her fault. I understand the importance of avoiding generalizations, but those were the unfiltered thoughts I grappled with at the time. I had a strong desire to share my experiences, but our attention was diverted by other tasks in the studio.
Only today, I learned the tragic news that she passed away about three months ago. It dawned on me that I'll never have the opportunity to recount these stories to her. I am deeply sadden for her sudden passing especially she was such a wonderful person that I had a chance to meet.
Much like thousands of families in South Vietnam during that era, my own family was deeply patriotic, and we actively participated in the struggle for freedom against the relentless incursions from the communist North Vietnam. It's worth noting that the Vietnam War was essentially a civil war between North and South Vietnam, a narrative that often got overshadowed by Western media's portrayal of the conflict as primarily between Vietnam and the USA, along with its allies. Unfortunately, the broader perspective of the South Vietnamese people was frequently overlooked in the storytelling.
The majority of the men in my extended family volunteered to serve in South Vietnam’s military forces during the war, driven by their desire to protect their homeland from the North Vietnamese incursions. One of my uncles, who was also part of the South Vietnam Air Force (VNAF), was undergoing training in Colorado, USA, when the war came to an end in 1975. With the North’s takeover of South Vietnam, he found himself stranded in the United States, with no country to return to. In the hope that the situation back home was temporary and with the intention of reuniting with the rest of our family and continuing the fight, he applied for asylum.
The dire situation in South Vietnam took a turn for the worse following the communist takeover the whole country on April 30, 1975, marked by grievous human rights abuses by the communist dictators. These included the imprisonment of South Vietnamese ex-military personnel in labor camps without parole or any formal sentence, which the communist government euphemistically referred to as “re-education camps.” Among those incarcerated were my uncles, grand uncles, and my beloved grandma, all held without a clear timeline for their release. They were, in a way, the fortunate ones, eventually regaining their freedom after enduring imprisonment for 5 to 9 years under extremely harsh conditions. They were never tried, judged or convicted of any crime.
Tragically, many prisoners perished in these “camps,” located deep within the forests of central and northern Vietnam, without ever being able to communicate with their families. For years, my family remained in the dark regarding the fate of their loved ones behind bars. It wasn’t until the prisons reluctantly allowed them to write letters home, subject to strict scrutiny and approval by the guards, that we received word from them. Even then, every word or sentence in their letters underwent meticulous examination to ensure they aligned with the communist ideology, a painful reminder of the suppression they endured.
Two of my uncles, who were in Vietnam at the time, embarked on a harrowing journey in 1978. They joined others on a large fishing boat, setting sail towards the sea with the hope of reaching refugee camps in the Philippines. Just a few hours into their journey, they found themselves pursued by communist coast guards who opened fire. My uncle vividly remembered the old man seated beside him, who was tragically shot, with half of his upper body disappearing in the aftermath. My uncle himself was covered in blood, and his right arm remained numb for several days. Those who survived on that fateful boat were ultimately arrested and imprisoned.
Meanwhile, in the United States, my uncle tirelessly juggled two jobs to secure an income. He also embarked on the challenging journey of seeking sponsorship for his sisters and brothers back in Vietnam, aiming to liberate them from the harsh life they endured under the grip of communism. During that era, Vietnam adopted a closed-door policy, shrouding its internal affairs in secrecy. It was akin to the present-day isolation of North Korea. Access to information from the outside world was severely restricted, and we relied on clandestine means to stay informed.
To catch a glimpse of the world beyond, we discreetly tuned our radios to Voice of America (VOA) or British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) on shortwave frequencies. Even this act had to be conducted covertly to evade detection by anyone outside our immediate family. The consequences of discovery by the authorities were dire, as imprisonment loomed as a constant threat in an authoritarian regime. This experience resonates with immigrants who escaped communism in places like Cuba, the Soviet Union, North Korea, or Vietnam.
In 1985, my father faced the harrowing ordeal of arrest after a neighbor reported his VOA radio listening. Fortunately, he was released after a few days, as the authorities recognized his value as a chemistry teacher at the time. However, the incident left an indelible mark on our family. We were subjected to months of surveillance by plainclothes police officers in the vicinity of our home, a persistent effort to dissuade us from seeking foreign information.
Incidents of suicide were tragically not uncommon during those times. Many families found themselves losing everything they had painstakingly built over the years due to the mandatory currency conversion programs initiated by the new government on September 22, 1975. This occurred just five months after the North took control, and it mandated that citizens convert 500 units of South Vietnam currency into a single unit of the North Vietnam equivalent.
To put this into perspective, imagine having to convert all the money in your bank accounts at a rate of $500 to $1. How much would you have left at the end of it all? Simultaneously, the government implemented campaigns targeting households that possessed more than two appliances. Under this policy, if a household had three appliances, two of them would be confiscated.
Due to our family’s background, which included a significant number of men voluntarily enlisting and subsequently rising to high-ranking positions in the South Vietnam military, the government made the decision to confiscate our house and relocate our family to the “new-economy” zones. These zones consisted of agricultural lands recently cleared from forests by felling trees. Families with members associated with the former government were dispatched to these areas to engage in manual labor without any government support.
This would have been an extremely challenging ordeal. At that time, my grandma and some of my uncles were still imprisoned by the communists. With eight young children caring for each other without their mother, attempting to establish a new life on barren land, devoid of even basic shelter, under the harsh tropical weather conditions, would have posed a severe threat to our survival. Fortunately, through the intervention of a relative who had some influence, we were able to stay in Saigon.
Millions of individuals made the heart-wrenching decision to leave everything behind, embarking on small fishing boats bound for the open sea, in the hope that larger container ships would rescue them and carry them to other countries. Tragically, approximately 500,000 of these brave souls perished at sea. The tales of surviving women and children who endured harrowing experiences at the hands of pirates continued to haunt them throughout their lives.
Fast forward to a later time, my grandmother was finally released from the forced labor camp after 9 years and 6 months. In 1991, she embarked on a journey to the United States, thanks to the U.S. government’s Humanitarian Organization program. This program aimed to assist servicemen and women who had served in South Vietnam and had spent more than 2.5 years in these camps in their relocation to America or other countries (France, Australia, Canada or England) and they could bring their family to start a new life. We had to pay a substantial sum to the Vietnamese government under the guise of an application fee for this program. In reality, it appeared to be a way for the government to extract as much money as possible from its own people before they let them leave Vietnam.
Under that program, my mother and I were granted the opportunity to immigrate to the United States following my grandmother. We considered ourselves fortunate to make the journey on a jet plane, free from the fears of pirate attacks or perishing at sea due to scarce resources. At the time, I was just 21 years old and spoke very little English. I had sold all my belongings in Vietnam, amassing a meager sum of $200. I vividly recall holding two $100 dollar bills, and to me, that represented a significant amount of money.
However, upon arriving in California and examining the cost of living, it became clear that $200 would not sustain me for long and ensure my survival. Fortunately, the rest of my extended family had already immigrated before us. They had pooled their resources to rent a house, eventually becoming homeowners years after. For several years, as I pursued my education and worked part-time jobs, I had the privilege of living with them. While I didn’t have a room to call my own, I resided in what was once the dining room. If anyone needed to move from the living room to the laundry room, they had to pass through what was essentially “my room.” Believe it or not, six families were crammed into that four-bedroom, two-bathroom house. You can only imagine the laundry room’s daily circus with that many tenants! Though I had no complaints about that space — that was way better than living on the street. In fact, I find myself reminiscing about the time I spent living there. When we saved up enough money, we moved out to our own apartment. My determination to attain a college degree, secure stable employment, and provide for both myself and my mother burned fiercely. I opted for computer science as my major, a choice rooted in my deep-seated love for mathematics and problem-solving. I hold eternal gratitude for this period of adversity, for it bestowed upon me a profound sense of purpose — to continually strive for improvement, resist complacency, and never overlook the value of the things I’ve been blessed with.
I had hoped to share my story with the girl I conversed with, perhaps over lunch or tea. However, that opportunity will never arise again after her passing. In the past, I used to feel ashamed about being an immigrant who didn’t speak much English and with a strong Vietnamese accent. Yet, as I’ve grown older, I’ve developed a deep sense of pride in my upbringing and a strong desire to share the tapestry of my life with my friends, revealing the chapters that existed before they knew me. I think in doing so, my friends can gain a genuine understanding of me, and acknowledge the person I’ve evolved into.
So, the reasons behind my departure from Vietnam were twofold: to escape the hardships of life under communism and to reunite with the other members of my family who had already found freedom here in America. I suppose I could have simply given her that response, but it’s a simple answer that carries an immense weight of history and emotion.
I’m forever grateful for America’s open arms, welcoming immigrant and refugee families like ours to start a new life here on this land full of opportunities. Over the years, I’ve returned to Vietnam a few times and witnessed its rapid growth, along with a notable improvement in the standard of living for its people since I left — which is undeniably a positive development.
Will I return to visit Vietnam again and again? Most certainly, I love the country and the people of Vietnam. However, do I have a desire to relocate there permanently? Probably not, at least not until the government publicly acknowledges its responsibility for the loss of hundreds of thousands of lives in South Vietnam following the takeover of the South in 1975 including some of my family members whom we’ll never forget.