SANTA ANA, Calif. – In the chaotic final days before the Vietnam she knew collapsed in 1975, Bang Van Pham was rushed onto a U.S. military plane with her newborn son, headed to a land she had learned about in school but never seen.
Weeks later at a refugee camp in Southern California, they were reunited with her two other children who were sent abroad with relatives and her husband, the son of a rice farmer turned lawmaker, who stayed behind with his constituents until communist troops stormed Saigon.
In the U.S. they began a new life: Pham taught English to immigrant night school students while her husband, Nho Trong Nguyen, worked as a handyman’s helper before eventually becoming a judge. The couple, who say they helped resettle 1,000 other refugees, raised three children who became lawyers and a doctor, and now have three American-born grandchildren.
Forty years later, they still remember what they lost. Every April, Pham helps plan a ceremony to mark the fall of Saigon. It is also a moment to reflect on how her family and other Vietnamese refugees have rebuilt their lives.
“I am very pleased and grateful because our children became good citizens,” Pham said, recalling her doubts back then about how they would make a living. “We are so close together. And we haven’t spent any time neglecting living a good life.”
Their story is just one among the Vietnamese community, which has gone from not even being counted as a distinct group in the 1970 census to numbering 1.7 million people. A major commercial and media hub has grown in Orange County, California, which boasts the largest Vietnamese population in the world outside of Vietnam. Some Vietnamese-Americans have also been elected to public office.
Many elder Vietnamese still cope with the trauma of war or years spent in communist reeducation camps before fleeing in rickety boats, while their children struggle to understand them as they grow up American and speak better English than Vietnamese.
The anniversary comes at a pivotal time for the community, which is trying to preserve the stories of elders – some who refused to speak about their experiences for years – before they are gone, and help younger generations carry on their legacy. Efforts are underway to collect refugees’ oral histories and build a monument to honor those who rebuilt their lives in America.
“They’re passing as we speak,” said Linda Trinh Vo, a professor of Asian American studies at University of California, Irvine. “There is a sense of urgency to collect those stories and to remember this past.”
And yet how to honor Vietnamese-American history while looking forward has repeatedly proved a challenge.
Plans for a 40th anniversary at Marine Corps Base Camp Pendleton – where 50,000 refugees were housed – fizzled after U.S. defense officials barred organizers from flying the South Vietnamese flag since the U.S. has normalized relations with Vietnam.
Earlier this year, some Vietnamese-Americans chastised the mayor of Garden Grove, California, for failing to sign a letter opposing another city’s decision to partner with a sister city in Vietnam. Others rushed to his defense, decrying the practice of branding community members as communists, known as “red-baiting.”
“We recognize the trauma our community has been through,” said Julie Vo, a 33-year-old city resident. “This is the reality of our community, but it should not define who we are.”
Nguyen, now 77, said he still misses life in Vietnam – the rice fields where he lived until his farming family was pushed south by the communists; his father to work as a mason, his mother, as a street vendor.
The eldest of eight children, Nguyen was the first in his poor family to go to college, on a scholarship for forestry engineering. Soon after graduating, he enlisted in the army, and took leave to run for Congress several years later to try to build a new country.
Eight years later, the communists approached Saigon. His family had evacuated. Nguyen got a call from U.S. officials to go to an emergency location for evacuation, but no one came.
Nguyen went to the U.S. embassy, which was surrounded by crowds. He climbed over a wall and told the guards he was an elected official. He was flown to a military carrier, and then to Guam, where he scanned lists of evacuees and spotted his daughter’s name – his family had made it to California.
At the tent city erected at Camp Pendleton, they ate scrambled eggs and hamburgers. They were so cold, especially at night.
A geologist and his wife sponsored the family and helped them settle in the Los Angeles suburbs. Nguyen took odd jobs to get by, but posted notes on the bathroom mirror of his dreams: get a master’s degree, then a doctorate.
“I would make a future,” he recalled thinking. “I have freedom. I have my family. I have everything. Whatever happens, I don’t mind.”
He went to business school and law school and worked as a lawyer before becoming a judge. While he retired two years ago, Nguyen still hears cases on a contract basis.
Today, Nguyen said he’s still sad about the loss of so many lives in a war for a country that fell to communism. But he remembers the advice an American friend gave him when he was leaving Saigon forty years ago.
“If you don’t think of your future, the future of your children will be so much better,” Nguyen recalled the friend saying. “And indeed, their future is better.”