Boat people fleeing from VietnamReflections on Viewing "Exit Saigon, Enter Little Saigon"

Ha Thu Tran

      The Smithsonian exhibition from Washington D.C. at San Jose City College featured pictures and DVDs of the escape of the Vietnamese in April 1975 after the fall of Saigon, ending the war between the North and the South.  Furthermore, the exhibit showed the “boat people” on their heartbreaking journeys, floating in crowded boats at sea in search of freedom, and then focused on the lives of many successful Vietnamese-Americans as they are now 33 years after immigrating to the United States.

            On April 30, 1975 when the Communist tanks rolled into Saigon, there was great war hysteria.  As a result, many Vietnamese fled the country by air and by sea. Thousands of people rushed frantically to the airport, to the harbors, and to the American Embassy.  They were trying to leave Vietnam; they did not care where they were going. They stepped on each other, they crushed each other, and they pushed each other trying to board. Children cried for their missing parents, people yelled to find relatives and friends, the atmosphere was frightful. As they escaped their country by aircraft or on United States military cargo ships, they were sent to United States government bases in Thailand, Wake Island, Guam, and the Philippines.  There, after the refugees had stayed a couple of weeks, they were again airlifted to refugee centers throughout the United States: Fort Chaffee in Arkansas, Eglin Air Force Base in Florida, Camp Pendleton in California, and Fort Indiantown Gap in Pennsylvania.  Fortunately, in 1975 President Ford supported the Vietnamese refugees, and his Administration passed the Indochina Migration and Refugee Act that year.  This law set up a program to help the refugees who fled from Vietnam and Cambodia.  The total number of refugees who came from Vietnam to the United States at that time is estimated at 125,000 Vietnamese.

            After two years under the iron regime of the Communists, a second wave of Vietnamese refugees began fleeing their country in 1977.  As the Communist government took over, they began policies which included “reeducation” and torture of former South Vietnamese military personnel.  Moreover, they took over houses, land, and businesses and forced owners of these properties to relocate in rural areas that were uncultivated or had been ruined during the war.  As a result, many committed suicide because they could not bear the pain of losing all of their wealth.  Rejecting these cruel policies, many Vietnamese escaped Vietnam by sea and they came to be known as “boat people.” They journeyed in overcrowded boats toward the gulf of Thailand. During the journey many were brutally attacked by Thai pirates. These brutal pirates were local Thai fishermen who were looking for an easy means to supplement their income.  According to the survivors, these cruel pirates raped, robbed and murdered thousands of “boat people.”  They attacked an old man and ripped his gold teeth out of his mouth with pliers, threw babies into the sea, raped women in front of their husbands, etc. When they reached shore in Thailand, these refugees faced dehydration and starvation. Despite all the dangers of escaping in small, rickety boats, more and more Vietnamese fled their country. After 1980, the United States government also passed a law to allow children of American service members and former political prisoners to immigrate.  From 1981 to 2000, the total number of refugees and asylum seekers rose to 531,310.

 Since 1975 the Vietnamese have settled all over the United States. However, most of them were not used to living in cold climates.  By the 1990s, the majority of Vietnamese-Americans had relocated to areas with climates that were similar to the climate in their country.  Currently forty percent of them live in Orange County, California and the rest of the Vietnamese-Americans live in San Jose, California and other States. Like other groups of Asian American immigrants, the Vietnamese-Americans have adapted to American culture while keeping their traditions and religious values.  They strongly value commitment to family and education.  As a result, many of the Vietnamese-Americans have established professional positions in society and work as doctors, lawyers, teachers and government officials.

As a Vietnamese refugee, I have lived in the United States for 33 years. I know that if the Communists had not taken over Saigon, I would never have come to this country and I would never have experienced the abundant life here.  Moreover, I have gained a lot of knowledge from my experience in this country. I do not feel a culture clash; I have two countries.  One is Vietnam where I grew up during the war, and America, where I came for freedom and a better life--and I have found both.

When I saw the exhibit at San Jose City College depicting the history of the “Fall of Saigon,” the journeys that my people took in search of freedom, and the prosperity that the Vietnamese-Americans have achieved after 33 years, it brought me a bitter-sweet feeling--the bitter feeling of knowing that many tears have been shed and many lives have been lost and the sweet feeling of  knowing that many Vietnamese refugees made it to this land of freedom and they have done very well.