History Friday: Saigon and Cinnamon

(Just for a change of pace, some modern history and my recollections of it.)

On an April day, thirty-eight years ago, Mom and I were in the supermarket. In the aisle with the flour and sugar and baking supplies and spices, I took a bottle off the shelf of Schilling brand spices, a cylindrical glass bottle with the light green plastic cap and green and gold label.
 “I wonder how much longer we are going to see this?” I showed it to Mom. The label said ‘Cinnamon’ and in smaller letters “Saigon.” Mom looked at it thoughtfully and said,  “Get three. We’d better stock up.”
 Cinnamon was the only consumer good that we knew of that came out of South Vietnam; as of the cruel month of April, 1975, there would probably be no more of it.

The North Vietnamese had overrun and taken all of the South. The last helicopter had taken off from the room of the American Embassy, and the newspaper was full of pictures, pictures of frantic people mobbing the gates, crammed into boats, thousands, hundreds of thousands of desperate people, pleading for rescue, for shelter, for succor. Their city was gone, their country was gone. There would be no more jars of “Cinnamon-Saigon” on the grocery store shelves. The war was over, but not the memories — or the responsibility that seemed to hang,  for some people  like an albatross around our necks.

I got involved in refugee resettlement shortly after this conversation. For the following two years, I got used to taking off my shoes upon entering a home and the arrhythmical sound of English as spoken by Vietnamese, with no ‘f’ or ‘th’ sound and a ‘p’ roughly inserted instead, and a dash of pungent fish sauce on rice and into practically everything else, small children forgetting that I did not understand Vietnamese and jabbering away at me anyway, and the crackly-crisp texture of spring rolls – a crust like deep-fried tissue paper, but not a drop of oil in the inside, vegetables and bean threads and little bits of pork sausage, and Grandmothers’ vegetable pickles –  oh, yes, I didn’t know Vietnam first-hand, but I knew the Vietnamese Diaspora. That Diaspora that hardly ever merits mention in the mainstream media, even on anniversaries. Sometimes,  news reports mention that that 2 million Vietnamese decamped in 1975 and the years following, but I hardly ever hear any of the stories I heard thirty-eight years ago, or any hint of the terror that impelled people like my parent’s foster-son, or my friends Xuan-an and Hai Tran to leave everything –  and run.

Over the years since, I hardly ever heard  accounts of the last commercial flight out of Danang, a flight which was mobbed by Vietnamese so desperate that they clawed and trampled each other for a chance to climb onto the rear air-stair of an airliner that didn’t even dare stop, but taxied up and down the ramp with a mob stampeding after it… I almost never heard accounts of the USS Hancock, where helicopters were landing so thick and fast it was all they could do to empty out refugees and shove the helicopter overboard because there were two –  three – four more helicopters hovering and desperate to land, each crammed full of desperate people. What of the cargo ship, the Pioneer Contender, where Hai and Xuan-An, and her brother and all their families, and the families of the crew of a coastal patrol launch found brief refuge, at the edge of international waters? What of Hau, the Vietnamese AF mechanic- on a cargo plane which took refuge in Thailand, crammed with Viet Air Force personnel, or Bien, the youngest son of a well-to-do family, who somehow wrangled a visa and way out for him and him alone, so at least one of their blood could be safe, somewhere in the world?

Why are there no stories on NPR about how there was hardly a Vietnamese-American community before 1975, only a scattering of Vietnamese women who had married American men? At a community resettlement committee picnic, to which all the local committees had brought together all the refugees they had taken on responsibility for – and any other resident Vietnamese, as advertised in the local paper – the wife of an American contractor confessed to Xuan-an that she had been reticent to get in touch with any of the refugees until then. She was afraid she would be stigmatized as a former b-girl or a whore; in fact, she had been a perfectly respectable secretary of a contracting firm in Saigon and married her husband with the blessings of her family. Xuan-an teared up and hugged her and said that there was no more any of that, they were now all the same; hopeful refugees in a new land.

 I think it was this woman’s husband, who was legendary in the refugee community; he had gone back to Saigon in that cruel April, to bring out her mother and father. If they had a sponsor, they could get a visa, they could leave, so he went personally to fetch them away. He did get the parents out, but he also pledged to sponsor all of her sisters and brothers – and their families – and the families of his in-laws – immediate neighbors – and six or seven strangers whom he took on in passing, to the tune of eighty-plus individuals, brands spared from the expected holocaust. The only individual to equal that was the Baptist Vietnamese minister, proprietor of the only Vietnamese restaurant in the San Fernando Valley, and possibly the whole Los Angeles area at that time. It was in a bare-bones and otherwise undistinguishable strip-mall, but it was a restaurant six days of the week, and on the seventh, a church – the cash register perched awkwardly on top of the piano, but Xuan-An’s mother, Grandmother respected him enormously, because he was truly a good and devout man— he was sponsoring other refugees right and left, giving them jobs in the restaurant and setting up dorms in the rooms above. Grandmother was herself a devout Buddhist, and a highly respected arbiter of such matters; as an elder whose immediate family had all managed to escape, she was rather envied by the other elders, many of whom had been carried away because their adult children insisted on it.

Yes, the Vietnamese community in Los Angeles — and a good few other places — sprung into existence almost instantly as these things go, after 1975. This is the story I hardly ever hear on NPR or in other mainstream news venues, a story I know happened because I was there. I wonder why? The thought occurs to me that it may be that the exodus of all those thousands might be seen as a reproach. All those people on crowded boats and helicopters, all those people mobbing the Embassy, passing their children over the bars, or getting them onto the orphan flights. It is a reproach, a criticism – even a condemnation of all of those who urged the abandonment of a bad war in a bad place. Every Chablis-and-Brie anti-war intellectual, every campus protestor, every Chomsky-fellow-traveler, every fading movie star or rising politician glomming on to the trendy political position, every bureaucrat with second thoughts about actions they had themselves urged on – they had a hand in pulling the plug on South Vietnam. They have no interest in the stories of people like Xuan-an, and Hai, and Kiet and Bien, and Grandmother, the guy who went to get his in-laws and returned with eighty other people, and those thousands of other Vietnamese in the great Diaspora? Oh, no, taking account of the stories would mean accepting the responsibility for putting them into the boats and sending them into exile. We can’t have that, can we?

10 thoughts on “History Friday: Saigon and Cinnamon”

  1. I remember when it happened. Even in Garden City, we had 2 or 3 Vietnamese families sponsored by locals who lived there for a while until leaving for DFW/Houston/San Antonio mostly.

  2. I live in Orange County near “Little Saigon” so there is still one in existence. A few stories.

    I was on the credentials committee of the medical association in the late 70s when we had an influx of refugee doctors. One of the problems was the fact that no records were available to certify the training of any of these doctors. The solution was that the faculties of all the South Vietnamese medical schools had emigrated so the community was able to recreate the medical faculties who then reconstructed the records for graduates.

    Many of the doctors we interviewed had recreated their practices from Vietnam with many of the same patients. The entire community had moved and found each other. We asked one doctor how his practice was going. He answered that it was slow because he hadn’t been able to buy a van yet. Each doctor had a van which would pick up the patients at home and return them after the appointment. It would then continue through the day. Not many of the refugees could drive or had cars.

    Nguyen Cao Ky, former chief of the South Vietnam air force ran a liquor store in Westminster, center of the Vietnamese community. The refugees became quite active politically and joined the medical association in large numbers. The president of the OCMA a few years after me was Vietnamese.

    A few years later, when I was interviewing applicants to UCI medical school, one was a Vietnamese girl who was a grad student. She told me of her escape when her father carried her from her bed at 9 years old to a canoe and then paddled out to a ship out of sight of shore. They spent a year or so in a camp in the Philippines and then got to California.

    One funny story: We were interviewing a Caucasian orthopedic surgeon applying for membership. One routine question is “Have you ever been arrested ?” He replied he had and told us the story. He had married a Vietnamese girl when stationed there. He brought her home with him but, after 1975, he discovered she was a rabid Viet Cong sympathizer. He got so angry at this that he hired a couple of refugees to kidnap her and take her to Thailand and push her over the border. Of course he got caught. He spent a couple of years in prison. We welcomed him into the association.

    One of the doctors I work with at the recruit center is Vietnamese and about to retire from a career in the Defense Department. He told me his father had a pharmacy in Vietnam. He has a photo on his desk with four generations of his family, all in Orange County, including his father.

    A few years ago, the #1 graduate at West Point was a Vietnamese girl. They are very patriotic, unlike some other immigrant groups but very much like the Cubans.

  3. The original post on these them was written after I heard yet another one of those NPR bleats on the anniversary – where they went to the site of My Lai and did another one of those breast-beating stories about the vileness of it all. (Seriously, these stories were so formatted, I wondered if they got a special tour through the travel agencies.) Never a word about any of the rest of it – like the massacres at Hue, during the Ted offensive, or ever a word about WHY so many South Viets were motivated to leave at speed, on anything that would float or fly. Never a word about the refugees of ’75, or the Boat People in the years following. All disappeared down the memory hole.
    But I was there, and I know what I saw, and what the Viet refugees told me, then.

  4. Mike K
    They are very patriotic, unlike some other immigrant groups but very much like the Cubans.
    Fleeing a Communist tyranny for the US tends to do that.

    Then there is Congresswoman Loretta Sanchez’s racist rant in fractured Spanish about the “Vietnamentas.” [“Vietnamitas” in Spanish] where she says that her Vietnamese-surnamed opponent for the Congressional seat is “anti-immmigrant.” Interesting take, since he came over from Vietnam in 1975, IIRC.

    Had Loretta Sanzchez been a Republican, she would have been hammered for that rant. Guess she made the right move to leave the Republican Party years before.

  5. The recent Snowden asylum escapades reminded me (once again) of Reagan’s famous ‘A Time for Choosing’ speech:

    Not too long ago, two friends of mine were talking to a Cuban refugee, a businessman who had escaped from Castro, and in the midst of his story one of my friends turned to the other and said, “We don’t know how lucky we are.” And the Cuban stopped and said, “How lucky you are? I had someplace to escape to.” And in that sentence he told us the entire story. If we lose freedom here, there’s no place to escape to. This is the last stand on earth.

  6. The last flight from Danang was horrific; there was an account in American Heritage a couple of years ago, a reminiscence by one of the cabin staff.
    The Vietnamese teenager who lived with my family for a year – he was a Viet AF security policeman on duty at the Saigon air port on the very last day. The North Viets began shelling the airport so that only helicopters could take off. He was caught up in a crowd mobbing one of the big helicopters. The press of the crowd rammed him up next to the door, and he impulsively threw away his weapon and got on.
    He hadn’t intended to try and escape – he had a large family; parents, brothers and sisters and their children. All he had was what he had in his pockets when he went on duty. But he was terrified of the Viet Cong.
    (He’s one of the head mechanics for the sheriff’s department in whatever county Houston is in, now. Married a nice Vietnamese girl, and sent his oldest son to Rice University.)

  7. Sgt Mom – I think that was the article I read – and I remember seeing a picture taken by the accompanying 727 showing cargo holds open and people just sitting in them – 1000s of feet up.

    There was enough damage to the plane that it could have ended tragically.

    Then too at that time I remember when a C5A crashed ferrying Vietnamese orphans to the US – Operation Babylift


  8. There were two Air Force combat cameramen killed in the crash as well – there was a memorial plaque for them in the hallway of the Combat Camera Det at Hill AFB. When last seen alive, one was filming and the other carrying the recording unit and holding up the lights.
    The thing about the children in the orphanages was that many of them were half-American, and everyone feared the worst. Kiet, whom I think of as a foster-brother was one of those who feared the Viet Cong to the point where he was certain they had a hand in every historical dirty deal going. (Kind of the opposite of Oliver Stone, matter of fact.) I had also read here and there that many of the orphans weren’t really – they were children surrendered by their mothers and fathers to the orphanage — because their parents wanted to get them out of the country, and giving up their children was an assured way to do it.
    Yeah, another reason to despise Hanoi Jane and the other anti-war fellow travelers. All but Joan Baez – at least she had some principles and stuck to them.

  9. Yeah, another reason to despise Hanoi Jane and the other anti-war fellow travelers. All but Joan Baez – at least she had some principles and stuck to them.

    I have a cousin who was an Marine infantryman who did 3 tours in Vietnam. TO this day if he ever saw Jane Fonda, he’d kill her. She better not ever show up to protest in the West Texas oil patch around Reagan/Glasscock/Upton counties….

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