Saigon Coming Home

Steven Kilgore, Digitization & Special Collections

In the Night

In this stifling night
There lies in wait a sun!
Unspoken suffering
Hides nothing but thunder and lightning!
In the starved and shivering millions
Are a thousand armies!
When a new era comes
All will go off like an atom bomb.

-Nguyễn Chí Thiện, 1976

My first memory of Vietnam as a concept was when I was 7, when my auntie was dating my uncle Bobby who came home from Vietnam in a wheelchair. My auntie met my uncle while volunteering at the VA hospital in Long Beach. Uncle Bobby had joined the Marines, to be with his brother, who had been drafted. They told him he would be a war artist, and made him a machine gunner. He thought he was fighting for freedom. He was never bitter, and he was the most unhandicapped person I have ever had the privilege to be around. He was one of the best wheelchair bowlers and basketball players in the world. He competed in the California Wheelchair games, and taught John Voight how to be in a wheelchair for the movie Coming Home.

The Vietnamese population in Los Angeles makes up the third largest Vietnamese community outside of Vietnam. Orange county has the largest population, centered in the communities of Westminster and Garden Grove, better known as Little Saigon. Vietnamese immigration to the United States was a direct result of the Vietnam war and the Fall of Saigon on April 30, 1975, when the first wave of Vietnamese refugees came to the melting pot of California. Through tragedy, strife, and grief, we inherited the gifts and culture of the Vietnamese people to the ever-changing palette of our City of Angels.

I remember being a kid lying down on red shag carpet in Sylmar, watching the Fall of Saigon on the news. I wondered what my uncle must have been thinking, and what a waste the whole war was, with the desperate people trying to climb into helicopters from the rooftops, and the dumping of helicopters and machinery into the ocean to make room for the refugees. I felt a profound sadness in the silent room as the drama unfolded on the television screen. Then the refugees started arriving, and drove home the reality that the United States had lost the war, and what the cost of war really is: the turmoil and chaos that is left behind, the crippled men and broken families. We may have been left with wheelchairs and tears, but from the tragedy rose a strength and renewal. When my uncle was on the operating table half conscious he heard the doctor say to someone, “He is a goner.” My uncle grabbed the doctor's coat and declared, “F@#% you, I am not.”

South Vietnamese immigration to the United States initially came in three waves. The first wave started just before the fall of Saigon by air, followed by massive evacuations by air and on Navy ships to Gaum and the Philippines for processing. From here, refugees were sent to the mainland United States, and stayed at U.S. bases like Camp Pendleton. 125,000 refugees left South Vietnam in 1975, followed by an additional 5,000 in 1976-1977. The overwhelming nature of the humanitarian crisis created by the end of the Vietnam War resulted in the Indochina Migration and Refugee Assistance Act, signed by President Gerald Ford on May 23, 1975. This act allowed the first wave of 130,000 refugees from South Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia to enter and settle in the United States.

The second wave started in 1978 due to the brutality of the North Vietnamese Communist regime, causing refugees to flee Vietnam, mostly in small fishing boats, for asylum camps in Southeast Asia. This period of the “boat people” was the catalyst for the Refugee Act of 1980, which brought down barriers, and aided in the resettlement of Vietnamese refugees. By 1990 there were 543,000 Vietnamese immigrants in the United States. Originally the refugees were scattered around the country, and with sponsor families organized through religious organizations. By the 1980s the diaspora congregated in California, Texas, and Washington State, forming communities, opening businesses and revitalizing old China Town centers. During this period many Vietnamese restaurants opened, popularizing Vietnamese cuisine. One of the first and best known in Little Saigon, Orange County, is Pho 79 opened by Tho and Lieu Tran in 1982.

The often forgotten part of the chaos of war and its long term effects, especially for refugees, are the Amerasian children. These progeny were borne by Vietnamese mothers and U.S. military fathers and were a result of, and caught up in the aftermath of the Fall of Saigon. These children were often not recognised by their American servicemen fathers, abandoned by their mothers, and discriminated against by Vietnamese culture. However, it was relatively easy to obtain safe passage for Vietnamese women and their children who were married to American servicemen. Single Vietnamese women who kept their children had an extremely arduous path to refugee status. As diplomacy between Communist Vietnam and the United States broke down, these children and their family members were left in limbo. It wasn’t until the passage of the American Homecoming Act in 1988 did their plight become easier. Thirteen years after the Fall of Saigon, 23,000 Ameriasian children and 67,000 of their relatives were granted refugee status.

The Vietnam War divided nations, causing grief and heartache to this day among veterans who came home to a hostile public, not to mention physically and mentally scarred. The refugees who came to our shores as people at the end of their ropes, rising to a new reality in the same way my uncle Bobby came home to a new reality. Refugees and veterans took broken situations and created a new world with new opportunities. In the process our refugees have blended their ancient culture to the American experiment that continues in ever unfolding chapters and layers of nuance, tastes, and aromas. Here in the collections at Central Library we have items which highlight the influence and fusion Vietnam has brought to our greater collective. Here are some of the images, menus, and books, which reflect these influences, flavors, and beauty.

They Exiled Me

“They exiled me to the heart of the jungle
Wishing to fertilize the manioc with my remains
I turned into an expert hunter
And came out full of snake wisdom and rhino fierceness.
They sank me in the ocean
Wishing that I would remain in the depths
I became a deep sea diver
And came up covered with scintillating pearls.
They squeezed me into the dirt
Hoping that I would become mire
I turned instead into a miner
And brought up stores of the most precious metal
No diamond or gold, though
The kind to adorn women’s baubles
But uranium with which to manufacture the atom bomb.”

-Nguyễn Chí Thiện, 1972

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Vietnamese refugees arriving (1975). Vietnamese refugees arrive at camp Pendleton, which became a refugee camp almost overnight. The Marines had 36 hours to prepare the camp for the thousands of arriving refugees. In the summer of 1975, 20,000 refugees lived in tents at camp Pendleton, until sponsor families through churches and the Red Cross found homes for them, by October of 1975 the camp closed down. view original
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Vietnamese refugees at Camp Pendleton (1975). Two brothers arriving at Camp Pendleton. Many of the refugees in the first wave were well educated with a proficiency in english, only 5% of the first wave refugees were farmers or fishermen. view original
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Vietnamese refugee (1976). view original
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Vietnamese refugees and sponsor (1976). After the fall of Saigon in 1975 there was a lot of opposition to letting the refugees into the United States, or other western countries. The years of anti-war sentiment, the loss of the war, and discrimanation were all factors in these sentiments. Even with the opposition, there were also many host families, organized through churches and the Red Cross, who stepped up and provided the much needed bridge to the refugees. These sponsors provided aid, shelter, and in many cases lifelong friendship. view original
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Oil tanker rescues "Boat people" (1979). Persecution by the communist regime in Vietnam caused a mass exodus of people seeking asylum, mostly leaving Vietnam on small fishing boats creating the term “boat people” the people pictured here were rescued by the French Vessel, Ventrose in the South China sea. Many of the people who fled were Hoa people, Vietnamese who are ethnically Chinese and suffered persecution in Vietnam. Between 1975 and 1995 around 800,000 who fled Vietnam by boat found safe harbors. According to the United Nations between 200,000 to 400,000 Vietnamese died at sea seeking refuge. view original
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Americanization of a Family (1979). Vietnamese refugees, now settled in their California home are, from left: Le Son Thanh, Le Mai Quynh, Phong Do Le, Le Xuan Dinh and Le Trang Quynh, July 27, 1979. Naturalization among the Vietnamese community is around 86% the highest among all immigrant groups. view original
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Pho 79 was one of the first Vietnamese restaurants in southern California, opened in 1982 by Tho and Lieu Tran named after the street number of a Pho restaurant in Southern Vietnam. The numbers after a Pho restaurant always have a significance, it can relate to a historical event in Vietnamese history or the year a family arrived in the United States, or the year the restaurant opened. Pho 79 has received a James Beard Award for its contribution to American food culture.
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PHO 79. (1986)
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Ritual Ceremony for “100 Families” (1981). Buddhist priest perform the ceremony of “100 families” during Tet Nguyen Dan, better known as “Tet” Vietnamese New Year festival. view original
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Vietnamese Rally (1983). The Vietnamese community remained vocal and vigilant against the Communist regime of Vietnam, and the persecution against the South Vietnamese, where over 300,000 people were interned, and thousands were tortured. view original
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PHO HOA (1986). "A long time Pho restaurant in Chinatown with authentic Pho. The Hoa people owned many businesses in Vietnam before the Fall of Saigon. When Communist Northern Vietnam won the war, they began confiscating the property and businesses of Hoa people, who were forced to flee Vietnam, many via ships and later in fishing boats, becoming part of the refugee referred to as the “boat people.”
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Viet Buddhist vigil at City Hall (1984). Hung Cuong was a South Vietnamese Actor, Singer, and songwriter, who had a lot of fame in Vietnam. After the Fall of Saigon he repeatedly tried to escape the communist regime and was imprisoned, he finally made it to the United States in 1980, with the help of the Hoa Hao buddhist, who were also persecuted in Vietnam. view original
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Hollywood High School Homecoming (1984). Members of the Vietnamese club at the Hollywood High homecoming parade 1984. These refugee children embracing their culture while striving for success in their new home. view original
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PHO LE LOI (1986). Named after Emperor Le Loi of the Le Dynasty and Grand Prince of Dai Viet who drove the Ming army from Vietnam in 1428, Le Loi was from Thanh Hoa Province. The revolt against the Ming Dynasty began in 1418 the day after Tet with the support of the Trinh and Nguyen clans. Legend says Le Loi had a magic sword given to him by the Dragon King. The sword was engraved with the words Thuan Thien “the Will of Heaven”. view original
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Vietnamese Veterans (1988). Photograph captions reads, "Vietnamese veterans fighting the battle alongside the U.S. troops were, from left: Maj. Tho Hoai-le; 1st Lt. Cung Pham; 2nd Lt. Viet Dang, and Master Sgt. 1st Cl. Son Truong-Nguyen. All four men now live in the U.S. Hoai-le says he sometimes hears imaginary blasts, or sees his TV burst into hallucinatory flames." Photograph dated May 15, 1988. After the Fall of Saigon over 300,000 South Vietnamese were sent to “reeducation camps” many soldiers, along with Journalist, Catholic priest, Doctors, and civil servants. Thousands of Vietnamese veterans were granted political asylum through the Orderly Departure Program which was created in 1979 under the United Nations. view original