A Child's Memory of Saigon Falling, April 29, 1975
"Look At Them! These Are Angels!"
I was born in December 1961 in Sa Dec in the Delta. That was the year of the Buffalo, so I'm supposed to be very hard working. The buffalo means a lot to Vietnamese because it symbolizes work and peace. Always working, working, working, peacefully. I have three brothers and three sisters. I am the second oldest child.
My father was an artist. He embroidered flags. My mother was a school teacher until her fourth child came along. Then she stayed home and helped my father with his business. They worked side by side. And that is how I remember my parents in Vietnam now, working always side by side. They were always home, not like the parents here in America, who are always gone. I grew up in the environment where the parents were always at home supervising the kids. We were Catholics.
We moved to Saigon when I was still small.
I've never known my country to be at peace. There were always soldiers around, American or Vietnamese. In my neighborhood in Saigon there were two big buildings with gates around them, and they had swimming pools and recreation facilities. They were called "villas" and that was where the Americans stayed. The gates were always closed and the Americans would come to the gates and let other Americans in and out and then the gates would close again. I remember watching that when I was small. The Americans were always behind the walls and gates. They had big dogs to guard the place. Whenever the gates would open the children would want to get close and look in but then the dogs always barked and we ran away. It was like a game with us. It was very mysterious to us. The children were friendly with the GI's. We would wave at them and say, "Hello, Salem!" Just like the cigarettes. Or we would yell, "Hello, Carnations" as in C-rations. Then we would yell, "Hello, 1, 2, 3, 4, 5." I could count that far in English and we thought that meant something to them. And then the Americans would usually smile and wave back at us and we would laugh and run away.
I tell you this now because when I finally left Vietnam I had this huge hatred for the Americans. And so my feelings underwent a dramatic transformation in a short time and I am not really sure exactly why that happened.
My father did some business with the Americans making flags for them. These Americans came to my father one day and they wanted to order a lot of flags for their unit, almost one flag for each soldier. And they wanted a picture of "Snoopy" on the flag. So they showed my father the picture, and my father said that he thought this was really an ugly dog and that it was drawn by someone who didn't know how to draw a dog. So he said that he would redraw the dog for the Americans and they, at first, said that was all right. And so for the next three or four days my father just drew pictures of dogs, realistic ones and mean looking ones, all kinds of dogs to put on the flags for the Americans. He was sure that they would like his work because it was all very realistic.
The Americans really didn't like what my father did. They said, "No, we want Snoopy." My dad didn't understand why they should want such an unrealistic and funny looking dog on their flag, but he agreed, although he was disappointed, and made them their Snoopy flag. Later, he said that the Americans didn't like the Vietnamese and did not respect the Vietnamese soldiers who fought under their own flag. The Americans, he believed, were willing to go out and risk their lives and die for their Snoopy flag, but not for the Vietnamese.
Then they asked him to do big American flag. My father heard that Hawaii and Alaska had been added to the United States and he wanted to make his flag modern and include the new states. So my Dad carefully improved on the flag that the Americans gave him to copy. He thought there were 52 states and so had made an American flag, a big one, with 52 stars. It took him a long time, many sleepless nights as he tried to arrange the fifty two stars so they would be balanced. And then he made his flag with 52 stars. The Americans came to pick it up ad they looked at it and they thought that something was wrong with it but they didn't know what. Then they counted the stars. There were 52 but they took it anyway. So somewhere in Vietnam the Americans were flying and supporting a flag with 52 stars on it.
My parents had come from the North and they were very anti-communist. The people from the North knew what the communists were like, because they had lived with them before. But although I heard about the communists, I never actually saw one before the end of the war. I heard stories about the VC penetrating the city and doing whispering work, but I never had contact with them. And I never saw dead bodies in Saigon.
My family was musical because they loved music and not because they were talented. We like things and we do them and not because we have natural talents. So, one of the famous musicians in Saigon, Le Van Khoa, was interested in my family because my aunts just loved music so much. He lives in San Diego now and is married to one of my aunts. He began to use everyone in my family for his productions. He took the kids, and my aunts, my mom and would teach us how to sing some songs and to do some traditional Vietnamese dances, and some dances that we made up ourselves. He would then take us to the hospitals, first in the city, and then, later, to the countryside where the troops were stationed. We moved further and further from Saigon to entertain the troops. There were hospital sites where tents had been put up in the countryside for the wounded soldiers.
Sometimes we traveled by helicopter and sometimes by jeep. There were wounded soldiers and some doctors there, in uniform, and we were introduced to them. Mostly I saw wounded soldiers. Most were not hurt badly and they were recovering. Those who were in the process of recovering would come to the tent to see us. And some times we went to their tents to cheer them up. We sang and performed happy songs. We were always very welcome. I felt that it was very much a romantic period of my life. I felt like a little cherub when I was performing, in student uniform or a white dress. I always liked my white dress because I felt like a little angel then when I performed.
But it was shocking. The smell was particularly terrible at times in those areas, and it was hot, often. But I was so happy being an angel to the soldiers that I didn't mind that much. Two things I remember from that time. One was sadness at seeing the pain, and the other was that I was acting happy in order to create happiness and to receive happiness.
In Vietnam the childhood was thought of as a very happy period. I wanted to fulfill the soldiers' expectation and so I pretended to be very happy. I fulfilled my role and the soldiers wanted to see that, to believe, because of their sacrifice and their great pain, that Vietnamese children were still very happy. So I fulfilled their expectations by ridding myself of all pain and sadness. Although I could feel it inside, I could not show that to the soldiers.
I did not know anything but war when I was small. At one level I told myself, this is life. Because I knew no other way of life. Theoretically I guessed that there was something else. And I always had this inner sadness. Sadness was normal to me. I accepted it as though there were no other way. Back then I thought that everything was supposed to be like that. When I came here, and I saw that everyone was not sad, then my own sadness became greatly intensified. So much so, in fact, that I wanted to commit suicide. I have talked with others who had thought of suicide after arriving here. I think many Vietnamese would have the same feeling as me, but they have too much pride to talk about it.
One time I stepped on a nail during our travels. And that became infected and then we went on a big trip. I was upset because it hurt so much, but I wanted to make the trip. So I lived with that small pain. I was hardly able to walk, in time. So I limped badly. By the time the trip came and we had to leave, my feet was very infected. So I went with the group, and it was hot, and my feet hurt, and the pain became more obvious. I felt that was the first time I had some of the pain that the soldiers had. I had the pain but I had to pretend like I was all right. That was how many of the soldiers lived their lives, I thought. And so I shared, in a small way as a child, some of the pain of the young soldiers.
It was a very difficult time for me. That really created more discoherence in me, because I was expected to be a happy child and it became even more difficult. I felt the pain and the unhappiness around me.
In 1973, I heard that the every body anticipated that the VC would strike again after the Americans left. And they would not keep the Paris Agreement. Nobody seemed to believe that the VC would keep the agreement. Perhaps the Americans did, but nobody else did.
After the Americans left the two big villas that they had occupied had activity around them. But it was no longer American soldiers. Now these were American civilians.
I believed that the VC would strike again. I was not afraid. In my mind I always believed that good would win over evil. And if you believe that you are not afraid. I had faith that the Communists would always lose, and I think now that is the way children look at the world. I was taught that outside was a force, the United States, that was good and would help us, especially since we were attacked and we did not attack anybody. We were being invaded. I always believed that we would win. Even though they win battles I thought that we would win in the end.
In 1975 most of my family, aunts and uncles had left their homes by the start of April. Their houses was empty. My grandmother began to burn all of her letters and documents that said that we had been associated in any business way with the government. Anything that would tell the Vietcong of our past she burned. When she started that, and she did it very quietly, I asked why she was burning the material. But she did not have to speak because I remember that I understood her actions. We destroyed all photographs, birth certificates, everything. She burned it in the kitchen. I can recall now the emptiness of the house, people very close who had left, and then the burning of the letters; all of that changed the atmosphere and the feeling in the home. That is when I realized that we were losing and it was serious.
Many of my relatives had already left the country and had gone to Guam on their way to America. My aunts had worked for the Americans. I was aware that they were going. They did not say goodbye. Just one day they were gone.
I became afraid and I remember crying about it because I wanted so much not to have to face the threat of the communists coming into Saigon. Then I was afraid because the same thing would happen to us that had happened in the North. People would start to watch each other. And then children would prosecute parents, spy on their parents, and life as we knew it with the concept of freedom, would disintegrate when the Communists won.
School was suspended for us. And there was a curfew, always a curfew during my life.
I was taught not to say goodbye to anybody in case we could not go then no one could prosecute use for trying to leave the country. It was very secretive at that time.
I was in church the day we decided to leave. My parents had been looking for me all over and they could not find me. I had gone to church in the morning and I stayed for three masses on Sunday. And they couldn't find me. So my father told my Mom to take the children and go on ahead and he would try to leave with me later. Because his logic was that two people would have a better chance than all nine people together.
I was in church then. I was religious then. I almost became a nun. I was afraid and at Mass I think that I was very connected with my church. We had activities there and I met friends there. The first two Masses I came there to help collect the money and then during mass watched the motorcycles so that nobody would steal them. And in the third Mass I went in. I was sitting there and then suddenly one my friend came in and when he came in I suddenly had the feeling that I would not see all of this again. Just some sort of intuition that I had. I knew that he had come for me. But somehow when he came close and talked into my ear, I suddenly jumped. I did not hear anything unusual, but it startled me. He said, "Your family is looking for you." And I just knew that we would leave the country then. It was Sunday the 27th of April.
My friend wanted me to get on his moped, but I didn't want to. I just ran home. I ran all the way home. I came home and jumped on my father's Vespa and we tried to catch up with the rest of the family.
For a month we had always had bags packed just in case we had to go. We went to where we were supposed to go to catch a bus to the airport. One of my aunts could have left before us but she volunteered to stay because she knew the family had no connections for getting out without her. My family would have no way to leave the country if she did not stay and help.
A few weeks earlier she was told by another aunt to go to her office and clean out the desk and was told that she could keep whatever was valuable in the desk. So she went to clean out the desk. And at that time there was another American who had come into the country. It was his first day there. He thought my aunt was one of the employees and so he ordered her around. And by the middle of the day he asked for some papers and she said she didn't know where they were. He yelled at her and said she should know where they were because she didn't work there. She said she was just there to clean her sister's desk. He was very apologetic and told her that if she would stay and work with him he would try to get her family out in return.
That was the connection for us to get out of the country. My father's sister came and took the Vespa after we got to the bus stop.
I was both sad and very happy at that moment. Sad because I felt that even if I was thirteen years old, that was old enough to realize how important it was to be leaving your home and your country. But I was also glad because I felt that it was a survival instinct.
We caught up with the rest of the family finally at the building where the bus was supposed to pick us up. We were stuck there until the 28th. We waited inside a building for the bus. It did not come until six o clock that night. We almost went home before it came. But then my father said that we should not go home because of what he went through in the morning just to get us together. He said we would wait until the bus came, even if we had to sleep there that night. But we would stick together no matter what. We decided then to wait all night if it was necessary. Half of the people got discouraged and went home before the bus arrived.
At the airport there was an air attack on the night of the 28th. People were running to the bunkers, the sand bunkers. But my father said, "We are not going to lose each other now. And if there is a bomb in the bunker it will not make any difference." So we stayed just in an open field together. We did not see the planes, but we saw the explosions and the fire. I had not seen anything quite like this before.
For children it was very exciting. I was not afraid as I was excited at that time. Only after I came to the US and was in peace, then did I begin to see that war was abnormal. But back then war was very normal to me, so I was excited by the raid.
One year after we came to the US we were in San Francisco celebrating Chinese New Year the next year, and my sister just suddenly started running and crying. She was five years old then. She was crying "Phao Kich! Phao Kich! Phao Kich!"(Air raid!" Air raid.! Air Raid!") So I knew that for me it had been exciting but not for my sister.
I was not just excited about the air raid. Everything was mixed in those days. Half glad and half scared. Always half this and half that. Not terrified and not overwhelmed. It was always a positive feeling like excitement, but then on the other side always a sadness. My feelings were split then.
We stayed in Tan Son Nhut that night and we finally left by helicopter the next day. We saw the Marines arrive at the airport by helicopter. I must say that the Marines are so good looking. I just looked at them when I saw them coming in. And all I could think at that time was, "Look at them! These are angels!" They looked beautiful to me then because they were coming to save us.
No one in the family spoke English except for my aunt, so we could not talk to them except through my aunt. We were a big group then, all of us together. I observed all the families at the airport. My observation of the families was more interesting than my own thoughts about myself at that time.
One of the scenes I saw was this pregnant woman, very pregnant. This pregnant lady and her husband. Every time they would move us he would pack their money under her stomach and tape it there. So each time they moved he would take the money out from under her stomach and then would retape it. It was so embarrassing to watch and at the same time it was so interesting. I remember it because it was the very first time I had ever seen a pregnant woman's stomach and this man kept taping his money under the stomach. She must have given birth to her child later on the ship because she was so pregnant.
We were relocated many times during the night because many of the men were of military age, and if the Viet Cong came they would take the men and if the South Vietnamese came they would take the men, and so to protect the men we were relocated many times during the night by this one American who was my aunt's boss. He took care of us at the airport wholeheartedly. He was so nice to us, but I do not remember his name because it was so foreign to me.
The children were all quiet because we sensed the seriousness of the situation. The American provided canned American food for us. When the Americans left there was food all over the airport. There was, I remember, one very large piece of cheese left behind. These things were very expensive in Saigon, but now they were suddenly free to us. So we all ate the cheese. And canned food was available too. Campbell's chicken noodle soup was there, too. And we were so hungry at the time, it seemed like a real blessing. They had a commissary line where they were serving the Campbell's soup for us. Again, I don't know who these people were.
I had my own little bag with me. When we left, because the helicopter could take only a certain weight, I had to leave my bag on the ground. But I was wearing three pairs of pants and three blouses. The main thing was to stay together. My youngest sister was four and the next was only six. When they said, "Run!" all of us ran together, even my four year old sister would run very fast and stay in line, she understood how important that was.
Then it was our turn. Ours was the last helicopter to leave. We were supposed to leave with the first group. And we were so pessimistic about getting out that when they called our name we didn't go on the first flight. And then we waited all day and they never called our name again. We began to fear that our name was not on the list. Then an American came over and asked who we were. My aunt told him and he then told us that we had been called first. So we were the first and we became the last and we left that evening.
I had been in a helicopter before when I had sung for the soldiers. So this was not my first time. I was aware that this was a very important moment. My family had 13 people in it, with 9 of us in the immediate family, and then my aunt and her friend and my grandparents. We got into the helicopter. We had waited so long by that time. At that time we were not really sure that there would be another one for us. We were waiting for that. And I remember, the first time, everybody was on the field and they announced that all the Americans would leave first and then the Vietnamese. So we thought at that time we would be left. But they promised, they said, "Don't panic, we will come back and pick you up." We were waiting for about an hour and a half after that and then suddenly all kinds of helicopters were on top of us and people were clapping and waving and crying and praying and standing up and they were so happy.
When my parents saw the food that the Americans had left all over the airport, they were sure that the Americans had abandoned them. Then they came back and everybody was so excited. My parents had a different reaction from mine. I would listen to them and I knew the seriousness of the situation and I could not help but be very happy with all of this food around me, this was the first time in my life I had seen so much food and I was so excited. So half of me was with my parents worrying and the other half was very glad because at last we had food to eat.
When the Americans left there was permission for the people who worked for them to bring the food out and so it was brought out, just like manna from heaven.
When the Americans came back it was still daylight and we saw them coming before we heard them and I had just the happiest feeling. From the moment I left the church until the moment we were on the helicopter, I had this feeling we were going to go, I had that faith all along. So even though my parents were worried and the people around us were worried, I was not worried. Somehow I knew the future, somehow. It was going to be all right for myself and my family, I felt.
We were held back at first when the helicopter came down. I remember the blades were very strong and the wind pushed us back. I was pushing forward but the wind was blowing us back. My little sister was holding my hand fighting against the wind that kept blowing us back. We ran as fast as we could, leaning forward to the helicopter. I remember that experience one time when I was in childhood when a storm came in from the ocean, and it felt just like that once again. There were two or three Americans at the helicopter door to help us in. We ran in between the Americans, and I remember that one of them picked me up and lifted me into the helicopter. I had the chance to be at the window of the helicopter along with my family friend. And I remember that he said, "Pray!" A thankful prayer is what he wanted, "Say thanks!" he said. And I looked at him and suddenly I felt ashamed, very ashamed. Because for me, suddenly then, that was the first moment that I really hated the Americans.
I felt very hurt. I looked out the window and the helicopter was lifting up. And I saw Saigon, and it was so red because of the sun and because of the fires out there. My last view of Saigon was that it was bright red from the sun and from the fire.
At that moment I was not excited any more. At that moment I started to hate the Americans. I was becoming at that moment traumatized. The moment that the helicopter left the ground then I knew that something very bad was happening. At that moment I tried to cry. I did have tears in my eyes, but not as much as I wanted. I wanted to dramatize all of my feelings inside, and I wanted to cry more, but I had only a few tears left. I stayed at the window and looked out as we left. I saw the people as we left Tan Son Nhut and then they became very small and disappeared.
We went over the beaches and out to the South China Sea. I watched it all from the window. The scenes of Saigon I remember most clearly.
I don't know what the others were doing, crying or not, because I eventually blocked out most other memories of that day. I was standing looking out the window, it was very crowded inside the helicopter.
I was not afraid. Just that irrational feeling that everything would be all right. I remember one of my last thoughts was that I did not have a handful of the ground from Vietnam. I read in some romantic story that a person held a handful of the earth from his country with him. I intended to take a handful of earth from the airport, but with all of the happening, I did not get a chance to get it.
I dramatized everything, and perhaps I should not have done that -- the thought about the earth of Vietnam in my hand as I left.
We landed on the Midway. And then we were there for about two hours, they handed us ropes to help us walk across the deck of the ship.
On the ship I still had some mixed feelings. I had some resentment but at the same time the Americans looked very beautiful to me and they were now my protectors and I felt must trust in these people on the Midway, they were so tall and so beautiful in their physical appearance, big and strong and healthy and to us they were just extremely beautiful.
We were then transferred onto a small ship. I remember a lot of going up and down on the ocean. On that ship we did not have food for about three days. One of the theories that people had on the ship was that some people like my aunt told us that they did not have enough supplies and the little food they had they had to keep for the American soldiers on the ship. And when the helicopters came to transfer the Americans, they still did not have enough food. So the second theory was they wanted us to be hungry so we would not fight with each other or with them.
I was very hungry. And my mother told my brother to go to sleep and he complained that he had not eaten all day. I was very hungry, too. We had water but nothing to eat. So finally one day I stole some food. I feel badly about that even today.
It was near the cooking area of the ship. The story is significant for my trip. I am of course embarrassed about it today. There was a bucket of fish, canned fish, that I discovered one day. I found it always setting in the same place, so I picked up some of the fish in the can, then closed the can and ate some of it. Some cold canned fish. It was whole fish inside, canned and cooked. It tasted very good to me. I knew it was very fishy and cold, but at that time it tasted so good to me. and I got sick from eating it but I could not tell people that I had stolen food and eaten it.
Our ship was just a small one and it transferred us to the Philippines. I thought on the ship about Tan Son Nhut and all the food there and wished I had brought some with us. At Subic it was like paradise because all we did was stay in big tents and we had mattresses and bedding to sleep on the ground. But on the ship we slept on the floor of the ship and it was packed. There was more room for us on the ground at Subic. They gave us shots before we could go to Guam. They had us take showers also so that there would be no disease and no lice to be brought to Guam and then to the United States. We all received vaccinations.
My family wanted to go to California because we had heard that there were more Asians there and better weather. So at Guam they said that they were going to fly us to Fort Chaffee, which had a vacancy, instead of Pendleton, and we refused because we wanted to go to California and not Arkansas. So they let us stay longer on Guam. We did not know a lot, so whatever we did know, we hung on to it, and we knew that we wanted to go to California.