Refusing to forget Vietnam; Local immigrants give thanks for lives here, feel for hardship there

By Joshua Benton
Staff Writer

Page 1B

Tom Ha left Vietnam 30 years ago today.

He was a 24-year-old medical student on the island of Phu Quoc, tending to refugees who had fled the advancing North Vietnamese Army. It was on the radio that he first heard the news: Saigon had fallen.

Having worked alongside Americans at an aid agency, he knew his life would be at risk under a communist regime. So after a few confused hours, he found himself silent on a dock with hundreds of his countrymen – looking out to the Gulf of Thailand and hoping for an American ship to arrive.

“We were sitting quietly, like ghosts,” he said. “We were there all night. No one left. We had no choice.”

In the morning, his ship came in; he was on his way to a new life.

“We have everything here,” said Mr. Ha, now an insurance agent in Euless. “We have freedom, we have democracy, we have jobs. But back there, people are still living in fear.”

For many Americans, the war in Vietnam has become a fuzzy, distant memory. But for those who fled the country 30 years ago, it never ended.

“All across Vietnam there is starvation and loss of basic human rights,” said Andy Nguyen, who like Mr. Ha finds an Americanized name easier to use than his birth name, Nguyen Xuan Hung. “We are committed to finish what we have started and bring freedom to the country.”

On Saturday night, several hundred Vietnamese-Americans gathered in Arlington to commemorate the fall of Saigon on April 30, 1975. Some had memories of the war fresh in their minds. Others were their grandchildren, speaking with Texas accents.

There are more than 50,000 residents of Vietnamese origin in North Texas, with the greatest concentrations in Richardson and Arlington.

Many left in the aftermath of Saigon’s fall. Others slipped out years after.

Mr. Nguyen came to the United States at age 14. His father and five siblings all crowded onto a fishing boat and drifted 10 days before landing on a Malaysian beach on Palm Sunday, 1981.

His family had tried escaping just after the fall of Saigon, but the boat they were on ran out of oil before they could reach international waters. His father was president of a local bank, he said, so his family was a target for communists.

“I will never forget seeing the communist soldier point an AK-47 at my father’s head and say he would kill him if he wouldn’t tell them where the bank’s gold was kept,” Mr. Nguyen said. “It was hell.”

His father ended up being dragged to re-education camp. The family survived by catching clams and selling jungle firewood at the local flea market.

Mr. Nguyen – who now owns a computer networking business – is one of many Vietnamese-Americans who take an active role in advocating change in their homeland. Vietnam is still officially a communist state, although trade and political relations with the U.S. have improved recently.

“I will not return there until there is freedom and democracy in Vietnam,” said Mr. Nguyen, president of the Vietnamese American Community of Greater Tarrant County. “In another five years, I hope we can see some positive changes.”

Vietnamese communities across America planned commemorations for today, including a protest outside the Vietnamese Embassy in Washington.

Vietnam is a different place than it was 30 years ago. Some immigrants to America now return home for visits. The communist government has made a few moves toward economic liberalization.

Phu Quoc, where Mr. Ha once treated refugees, is now a resort. Its Web site calls it a “tropical leisure paradise … genuinely unspoiled by time … like Vietnam used to be ten years ago.”

But for Mr. Ha, a decade back in time isn’t quite far enough.

“It’s painful to see 80 million people oppressed for so long,” he said, crying.