(Posted a bit early, as I have been reminded of the anniversary of the fall of Saigon. I wrote a version of this early on at SSDB, around 2004.)
Never been there, never particularly wanted to: to someone of my age, it is Bad Place, a haunted place, where ugly things happened. It gave nightmares to friends, co-workers, and lovers for years after it dropped out of the headlines and the six-o-clock news. Today in light of the current war, it seems as far away in time and nearly as pointless as the Western Front. You look, and remember, and wonder, knowing that yes, it really happened, but really, what was the point of it all? Platoon seems as much of a relic as Journey’s End, the image of a helicopter hovering over jungle with “All Along the Watchtower” on the soundtrack an image as archaic as doughboys with puttees and soup-plate helmets, marching along and singing “Mademoiselle from Armentieres”.
But it was a beautiful place. My friends Xuan-An and Hai brought away pictures of where they lived in Dalat, in the highlands, where they married and lived with their three older children, snaps of cool, misty green pines and gardens of rhododendrons, and a horizon of mountains. Eventually, they had to flee Dalat for Saigon, where their youngest daughter was born, and Xuan-An’s mother came to live with them. Hai had left Hanoi as a teenager when the Communists took over there, his family being well to do, part Chinese, and immensely scholarly. He worked as a librarian for the USIS, and Xuan-An as a teacher of English and sciences, so they were on the Embassy list of Vietnamese citizens to be evacuated in the spring of 1975, with their four children, aged 12 to 2 years old. They were waiting at their home, for someone to come fetch them, on that last day. Perhaps someone from the Embassy might have come for them eventually, but Xuan-An’s brother who was the captain of a Vietnamese coastal patrol vessel came to their house after dark, instead. He had sent his crewmen all to fetch their families, they were going to make a run for safety out to sea, and he came to get his and Xuan-Ans’ mother. He was appalled to find his sister and brother-in-law and the children still there, and urged them to come with him straight away, and not wait any longer for rescue. They brought away no more luggage than what the adults could carry, in small packs the size of student’s book-bags, and the youngest daughter was a toddler and had to be carried herself. Xuan-An’s brother’s motor launch was a hundred feet long, and there were a hundred people crammed onto it, carrying them out to an American cargo ship, the Pioneer Contender, which waited with other American rescuers, just beyond the horizon.
“Always take the family pictures,” Xuan-An said, when she showed me the pictures, “Anything else in the world you can get back again or something like it, but not family pictures. And jewelry. You can always sell jewelry.”
It was a an article of faith among the South Vietnamese fleeing Saigon in 1975 that the North Vietnamese and the Viet Cong would treat anyone with the barest connection to the Americans and the Saigon government as they had treated the civilians in Hue, when they overran that city during the 1968 Tet offensive. Those on the losing side of a vicious civil war were not inclined to trust in the magnanimity of the victors, since none had ever been demonstrated heretofore. They took their chances and whatever they could carry and fled, by boat, and by aircraft. Xuan-An, Tran and the children, and her mother, who was always called Grandmother eventually wound up in a tent city at Camp Chafee, Arkansas, with thousands and thousands of other Vietnamese. Grandmother had made a vow, that if all of her family escaped, and were safe, she would shave her head, and so she did: when I first met her, her hair was coming back, an inch or so long. One of Xuan-Ans’ pictures was of Grandmother in her youth; she was gorgeous, and looked like the Dragon Lady of Terry and the Pirates fame. In the vast mess-tent one day, a young Vietnamese man began complaining loudly about the spaghetti and meatballs being served, and a little, elderly Vietnamese woman in line behind him asked him what his name was. The young man turned out to be the son a of a high-ranking South Vietnamese officer, whereupon the elderly woman dumped her bowl of spaghetti and meatballs on his head and told them that if his father had only done his job better, then none of them would have had to be eating food like that. Xuan-an still giggled when she told me that story, and I wonder if Grandmother might have been the dumper of spaghetti.
I met them all when our church began working with some other local churches and associations to sponsor and resettle refugees. They were the first of the families to be sent to us. We had spent a weekend cleaning out the tiny rental house we had found for them, and fitting it up with donated furniture, linens and kitchenware. As we were raking up and bagging desiccated dog-poop from the dusty little side yard, the owner of the house across the road came over and asked what we were doing. When we explained that we were setting up the house for refugees, he asked if we needed a refrigerator, and brought it across the road on a dolly when we said yes. The town was quietly, undemonstratively supportive: like the little elderly Vietnamese woman in the camp, I think a lot of local people felt that we had not done a good job, we had left a lot of good people in the lurch, and now we owed them. (Sunland-Tujunga at this time was a working-class, blue-collar sort of town.)
Xuan-An and Grandmother practically cried when they first walked in, as plain and minimal as the house was. Grandmother immediately took over the housekeeping and taking care of My, who was grave and scholarly and her father’s pride, Liem and Tien, who were a year apart and for whom the phrase “irrepressible scamps” was specifically invented, and little Tao, who at the age of three became Grandmother’s translator when school began in the fall for her sister and brothers. They made an interesting pair, in the local Ralph’s’ grocery, a tiny elderly Vietnamese woman in black loose trousers and white blouse, earnestly picking over the fresh fruits and vegetables, and Tao, barely up to Grandmother’s elbow, translating from English to Vietnamese and back again. I am not sure that Grandmother really needed a translator, after a while: she had the most elegantly expressive face and hands, and the gift of communication without language. Somehow we always knew what she was on about, and she instantly divined whatever it was we were trying to get across. Without ever learning any other English other than the word “Hello”, Grandmother also become quite fond of the soap opera General Hospital. She did all the cooking, putting the cutting board on the floor of the kitchen and dismembering a whole chicken with a cleaver the size of a machete.
Occasionally, Grandmother gifted us with a jar of homemade pickled vegetables, beautifully carved slices of carrot and daikon radish, and whole tiny onions, in a brine slightly spiked with fish sauce.
Xuan-An and Hai meanwhile worked two jobs each, for a while. Like many of the 1975 Vietnamese refugees, they spoke English well, although the children did not at first. All summer, we gave them lessons, and they started in the fall at grade level. My would eventually go on to college, while Xuan-An and Hai bought first a car, then a house of their own, in the neighborhood where they had lived as refugees. Later, Liem and Tien would serve in the Army. In the early days, Xuan-An sometimes talked of going back to Vietnam, that it would be important for the children to remember their original language, in that case. I would look at Tao, and know that Tao would not remember anything but growing up in America.
In a strange way and looking back on it now, perhaps in one way we did win that war. We skimmed off the cream of the middle class, the city folk, any of them with any ambition, any restlessness, any desire for more than what they had. It’s a third-world backwater, of fields of rice, and jungle, and rather lovely beaches, where they are trying to grow coffee, and induce the more adventurous tourists to come back. Failing that, maybe a factory for export shoes and clothing. You can buy a Coke in Ho Chi Minh City, so they tell me, and perhaps they hope for the Diaspora of Vietnamese, who came away in 1975 to return.