APEN’s Development Associate, Ashley Vu, traces her relationship with the end of the Viet Nam war — and her own family’s story — from childhood until today.
Fifty years ago, in 1973, the last U.S. troops in Viet Nam went home, leaving Viet Nam to the North Vietnamese.
It’s funny. If you google “Viet Nam War,” the internet gives you pages on pages of pretty much the same image. A twenty-something-year-old American, army fatigues, center frame, cast against a lush green landscape. He holds a gun.
“What heroism!” — I think that’s what you’re meant to think. Instead I’m left wondering, “where the hell are the Vietnamese people?” Except, I know what images I’m going to see — and I don’t feel excited to look at them.
Instead, I look at old family photos, searching for images of a homeland. There are snapshots of my cousins and I at my grandparents’ old house in Santa Ana, California. I laugh at a photo of myself, my sister, and eight of my cousins: we all have the same bowl cut. There’s my grandma carrying me and my cousin in her lap — I miss her a lot. I find a photo of my grandparents’ sponsors, Mr. and Mrs. Smith (I am not making that up!), holding signs that say “Chao Gam” and “Welcome Yen,” snapped, probably, when my dad’s family first arrived in America.
Looking through the photographs, something jumps out at me: I realize there are no photos of my family actually at home in Viet Nam.
Days of mourning
I never knew much about Vietnamese history growing up. If you asked, I would’ve talked about my families’ immigration stories. That was all I heard about — from aunts and uncles, neighbors and family friends who, like my grandparents, fled from South Viet Nam — and from American history books.
Growing up in one of the largest Vietnamese diasporic communities outside of Viet Nam, one day stuck out: April 30th, 1975, the Fall of Saigon, or Black April. On that day, thousands of South Vietnamese civilians gathered outside of the US Embassy, scrambling up towering walls and over barbed wire in desperate attempts to flee from impending North Vietnamese forces. My grandparents were some of these people, leaving their homeland in fear of persecution for their ties to the American government.
For my family and other diasporic South Vietnamese, April 30 marked a day of mourning and deep sadness.
I listened as my grandmother opened boiled chestnuts and heckled the T.V when Vietnamese leaders appeared on a nighttime broadcast. For the current state of Viet Nam, she had nothing but anger, bitterness, and regret. None of my family had any interest in returning to Viet Nam — at least that they expressed to me.
Meanwhile, the South Vietnamese flag waved proudly, bright yellow and red alongside the American flag in the streets of Orange County’s Little Saigon.
I absorbed the lesson that not only were Vietnamese lives lost, but also Viet Nam’s chance at democracy for its people. That the political and social state of our homeland could never compare to the new communities and lives that we were able to build in this country. And that these new lives, a chance at renewal, were thanks to America.
In 2018, my grandmother passed. I visited her with my sister, one last time in Fountain Valley Regional Hospital. Next to her beside me, I found myself without words, English or Vietnamese. I walked out in tears, feeling like not only was I losing her, but I was also losing a part of my history that I never knew or had interest to know until that moment.
Confronting a new history
Looking for a way to make up for what felt like a personal failure, I enrolled with a friend in a formal Vietnamese language course at my university. It was a difficult course, with little room for personal history.
But one day, at the end of a particularly tough grammar exercise, our professor mentioned a recent trip to Viet Nam. Showing us slides of 15th century Vietnamese ceramics, he ended his story with a little laugh:“We had all of this. Before the Americans came.”
As my friend and I packed up our textbooks and laptops, I asked, “Do you think he’s serious?”
“About what?” her backpack strapped on, she gestured me to the door.
“About losing it all to the Americans? Like, what does that even mean?” I yelled, as we wove through the loud hustle and bustle of other students. My friend stopped.
“Do you have a class you have to get to right now? We can talk about this.”
So, instead of going to my Partial Differentials lecture that day, I talked about the Viet Nam war with my friend over hot plates of japanese curry at Muracci’s. She was the first Vietnamese person I had talked about the Viet Nam War with who wasn’t my family. It was surreal, hearing her talk about the ways our people were harmed in the war.
We talked about the My Lai Massacre of 1968, when the U.S army brutalized and killed South Vietnamese civilians. I learned about Agent Orange, an herbicide developed by the US and that was used against North Vietnamese forces. My friend even pulled out her phone, at one point, to show me images and articles, depicting the lasting environmental and health impacts of the US military tactic. My face grew hot, my shoulders scrunched to my ears — I was so angry. I didn’t want to hear about it anymore, but I also couldn’t stop.
I was set alight, like a campfire freshly stoked — and I had no intention of burning out anytime soon. We said our “see you laters,” and I walked home, heavy in thought.
The United States didn’t intervene to save Viet Nam’s democracy. All of this terror was because an anticolonial struggle threatened American hegemony and power. And in their efforts to preserve that power, the United States sacrificed the lives of not only their own country men, but so many Vietnamese lives.
The anniversary that my family and much of the South Vietnamese diaspora mourns, recites, and remembers would have us simplify the war into a conflict of North and South. But I choose a different interpretation.
The American government had a starring role in this war. And they weren’t the heroes.
Reflecting on ’73 from 2023
Today when I walk home through Little Saigon and pass under the South Vietnamese flag waving beside its red, white, and blue counterpart, it has a different meaning for me.
Now, I see that the two flags waving side by side are a powerful political signal, presenting a neat unity, a narrow path to freedom. It was a path that required us to pledge ourselves to a power that killed our people, that counted Vietnamese life only after we pledged allegiance, and sometimes not even then.
But as I walk through Little Saigon I see something else: parks where people walk, grocery stores stocked with the ingredients to cook a hearty pot of canh chua. My family’s favorite long standing debate is which of the many Vietnamese stores is the best in Orange County. I see Phước Lộc Thọ, a shopping center where people do more than bargain with store merchants — a historic site where the community comes together to congregate, gather, and organize.
My people are a passionate and resilient force. We are capable of building our own paths toward democracy and freedom. As long as we stay committed to one another — choosing one another before a nation that does not value our lives, dignity, or wellbeing — we can continue to hold power and enact change.