Thursday marks the 40th anniversary of the fall of Saigon. This story contains the recollections and reflections of Michael Tran, 48, who has made a lifelong journey from Vietnam to his current home of Grand Prairie.
As light rain fell upon the once-bustling city of Saigon, we could see only silhouettes of a few people caught in its mist. Our mood was somber as our family’s vehicle made its way to a local restaurant. It wasn’t the usually festive affair, as staff outnumbered patrons, and the rain commanded our attention as the food sat on the table getting cold. On our way home, the rain kept my attention as it danced around the vehicle’s headlights, bounced off the hood and slowly dripped down the windows.
I wondered: Were those rain drops descending from the sky a message from the heavens?
Upon arriving home, the phone rang, and all the pieces came together to make the message clear. It was the beginning of the end of the life I knew and the start of my 40-plus-year odyssey in a “foreign” land, my new home of Texas.
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We could hear the sound of “thunder,” and flashes of “lightning” accompanied the steadily falling rain, but as my father learned from the phone conversation, it was neither “thunder” nor “lightning.” Rather, it was the sound of bombs and flashes of fire.
My father could not believe what he was hearing and seeing. A proud military man most of his adult life, he joined the South Vietnamese Army in his late teens, worked hard and rose up the ranks. Being one of the select few to attend military officer training school in the United States, he was a firm believer in freedom and democracy, and he loved his country. This made it difficult for him to comprehend the chain of events unfolding before him in Vietnam. How could this be happening? After countless victories spanning centuries of wars against foreign enemies, was this our final defeat? This time the enemy was from within — this time we fought our own, brothers against brothers, the South versus the North.
A million thoughts raced through his mind as my father knew he had to act quickly. It was April 27, 1975, three days before the Fall of Saigon.
After my father hung up the phone, he spoke with my mother and she told my sister, brother and me to start packing our suitcases for a “short” trip. The next day at the break of dawn, our family got in my father’s jeep and headed for the airport. As we boarded the airplane, to our surprise, my father told everyone good-bye. My mother knew the burden that weighed heavy on my father’s shoulders as he had many men under his command awaiting his orders and other family members relying on him for their safe passage. Tears ran down her face as she faced her own burden to bear. She was six months pregnant traveling with three small children, my grandmother and aunt.
There were already hundreds of people onboard the C-130 aircraft awaiting departure. The plane took off and landed in the Philippines for refueling and then finally landed on Guam, which had turned into a huge refugee camp with makeshift tents as far as the eye could see. Each family was assigned to a tent and we settled into ours and made the most of it the best we could. Life on a hot, humid, crowded island was not easy, and with more and more refugees arriving daily, conditions were becoming more difficult.
A couple of days later, April 30, a nervous and shaky voice came over the loudspeakers announcing that South Vietnam’s capital, Saigon, had fallen to communist forces. The entire camp erupted in cries of sadness for husbands, fathers, sons and anyone still stranded and in the path of the communist’s wrath; for it is perceived a bloodbath will ensue and instant death for anyone in a South Vietnamese military uniform and/or ties to the U.S. government. Worries grew among the refugees that all was lost and loved ones left behind would never be seen alive again. My mother did not leave our tent that day, nor did she say much; the look on her face expressed there were little hopes of ever seeing my father again. As the somber days turn into weeks, life went on at the island tent city with the noticeable exception of voices coming from loudspeakers of those searching for loved ones until one strange day.
I remember it vividly. The day began as most do, with my brother and I, ages 9 and 8, lining up in the early morning hours to get breakfast. Later, as we played outside, a bearded man walked straight into our tent. Fearing for our mother’s safety, we ran into the tent and, to our astonishment, we saw her embracing the bearded man we did not immediately recognize. Our confusion turned to elation when she told us it was our father. We remembered our father as a clean-shaven, proud military man in uniform. This man had a beard, wore civilian clothes and was frail. We embraced him while keeping our joy to a minimum out of respect for other families in nearby tents still awaiting news of their loved ones.
We gathered around my father as he told us stories of his harrowing escape from Saigon as the communists encircled the city. He said there was chaos in Saigon that day — no law or order whatsoever. Businesses were closed, abandoned vehicles littered the streets, widespread looting and a massive crowd could be seen outside the gates of the U.S. Embassy. The airport was receiving heavy artillery bombardment as the communists knew this was the main avenue of escape for most out of the city. Realizing this, my father had his driver take him and my uncle to Saigon Harbor; this was their last hope of escape. Upon arriving at the harbor, there were many cargo barges already lined up and ready to be towed out to sea, instead of cargo these barges held thousands of people. To all onboard, my father included, this was the last hope of escape from the communist and death or long imprisonment for those wearing a South Vietnamese military uniform.
‘All is lost’
As bombs and gunfire exploded around the city, plumes of smoke and flashes of fire could be seen for miles, and added to the chaos were people yelling and screaming while trying to board the overcrowded barges. Sensing the situation about to turn into a riot the U.S. Marines launched the barges one after another, avoiding a catastrophe. The barges were then pulled by an American vessel out to the open sea. When my father turned to look back, Saigon was burning, he fell to his knees, wept and thought, “All is lost, all is lost.”
The journey to Guam was long and arduous. Conditions on the barge were deplorable: overcrowded with a scarcity of food and water and no restrooms. This didn’t bother my father as much as the lingering thoughts of losing the battle, losing a war and losing his country. He was adrift helplessly at sea, he thought, a beaten man without a country nor his dignity. Guam came into view after several days, and everyone was anxious to get off of the human cargo barge and hopefully be reunited with their families. My father was one of the first to locate our tent and we are gathered around him, all the while I was still trying to convince myself that this bearded man was my father.
Life on the tent island became more difficult as the weeks went by, with more refugees arriving daily. But with my father’s presence, my siblings and I could be kids again. Then came the news we all had been waiting for, we were being moved to California, Camp Pendleton to be exact, a Marine base near San Diego. My father told us this was great news as he was familiar with California from his travels while studying in the U.S. We arrived at Camp Pendleton and found the conditions much better with each family sharing a barrack with two others, meals were better, there were schools for kids and entertainment for all. Then more good news arrived: We were notified that St. Martin’s Lutheran Church in Austin, wanted to sponsor our family.
New life in Texas
Our arrival at Austin was met with much fanfare, as church members met us at the airport, and we could not have felt more welcome. Then my mother gave birth to our baby sister. She was the first Vietnamese born in Austin and many local media outlets were there for the coverage. Along with that joy was much difficulty for my family, with my father working during the day and attending night school, and my mother working by day and running a side business for extra income. We arrived in the U.S. with only the clothes on our backs, all the while working hard to attain the “American Dream.”
My high school years were confusing, while trying to discover my identity and heritage; I kept to myself by focusing on academics and athletics. The college years were better. I met fellow Vietnamese students with similar background and beliefs. We all had the same ideology of our homeland and often discussed returning one day. The thought of returning for a visit brought on feelings of happiness and also anxiety. How could I return to a country I was forced to leave and a country now ruled by the very people my father had fought against for much of his adult life?
The college years went by and so did my yearning to return, but the thought never left my mind.
Marriage brought on a whole new perspective of life. I met a wonderful woman who shared different beliefs and upbringing as I. In a way, we complemented each other quite well. Soon we were blessed with two beautiful children, bringing on a whole new set of perspectives. I vowed to teach my children as much as I could about their heritage and hoped to one day take them to see where their parents were born.
The first opportunity for me to return came when my sister-in-law’s family was in Okinawa, Japan. Knowing how I felt and the many mental barriers I had to overcome, my wife treaded lightly and suggested we go visit her sister and make a brief stop in Vietnam. I rejected her offer, saying I’d be confronting too many demons if I returned. Several years later, she brought it up again, and I again refused. I started to question my own beliefs and why I was denying myself the opportunity of returning. I wondered if I could put aside the prejudices I have for the current government, and whether I would be disrespecting my father’s legacy if I return.
Facing my demons
Then my wife came up with a proposal: She said if I return this one time and I don’t like it, she will never ask me to do so again. This seemed fair so I reluctantly agreed. I would finally be facing my demons. I struggled with my decision for months. Every day, I play out the trip in my mind — my arrival in Saigon, seeing the enemy soldiers, and the enemy’s flag waving from buildings where ours use to. Finally, the week leading up to the trip, we also had to decide whether to bring our children, and we ultimately chose to leave them behind with family. It was at this moment I realized the decisions my father had to make for our family and the torment he must have endured while making these decisions almost 40 years ago.
When I told my father of my decision, I could see the hurt in his eyes as he uttered three words, “Be very careful.” I walked away feeling his pains.
When it was time to go, the most difficult part was saying good-bye to our children and leaving them with family along with our last will and testament in the event something were to happen to us, and the realization of our mortality set in.
Approaching the Saigon airport, I looked out the window and saw the dim lights of the city rapidly becoming brighter; we were arriving in the cover of darkness similar to the way I left almost 4 decades ago. I was filled with mixed emotions and the uncertainty of what awaits, the same feelings that scared little 8-year-old boy had in such a time long ago. Waiting in line at customs, I could see from a distance the officer dressed in uniform bearing the enemy’s flag. My heart raced for a demon awaits. Once called upon, I nervously approached the customs officer. He asked for my passport, flipped thru it, realizing I was from the former regime, sternly asked where I was born. I looked him straight in the eyes and sternly replied, “Saigon.” He then said, “excuse me, where?” I sternly replied again, “Saigon,” again he said, “where?” And again I replied, “Saigon,” he then returned my passport, waved off and said, “Go!”
Relieved and elated to have confronted my first demon! He wanted me to say I was born in “Ho Chi Minh City,” but I was born in Saigon. It was Saigon when I left and will always refer to it as Saigon.
‘Good morning Vietnam’
The next morning, I awoke from a light sleep, looked out the window and realized I truly was in Saigon and wanted my family and friends to know I made it and I was alright. Facebook was the best way to get my message out so I posted, “Good morning Vietnam! Your son has finally returned home after 38 years and it’s good to be home….”
While venturing about, I couldn’t help but notice soldiers in uniform and each time I’d pass by one I’d look the other way — my way of dealing with one of my demons. The same applied for whenever I see the enemy’s flag. We visited the former South Vietnam Presidential Palace now turned war museum, on that day I decided to wear a yellow shirt and as we were taking a picture in front of the palace, I defiantly placed my three fingers on the left hand over my shirt to represent the South Vietnamese flag (yellow with three red stripes). As I walked thru the museum, I saw pictures from the enemy’s perspective. It didn’t really matter though, the atrocities of war affect both sides, death is death, it takes no sides.
What really got to me were pictures of child casualties, it really hit home, missing my children more so than ever I walked out of the museum. I turned my attention to the people going about their daily lives; most noticeable were younger and eager to strike a conversation once realizing I was a “Viet Kieu,” or Overseas Vietnamese. Most of them weren’t even born when the war ended; they had only heard about it. They only want the best for themselves and their country and I respected that. The next day we headed to Nha Trang. Nha Trang is a beautiful beach resort catering to tourists abroad. Our next destination was Ha Long Bay, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, a beautiful site to behold; it was even more beautiful to see in person than any pictures or videos. Our final destination in Vietnam was Hanoi, my father’s birthplace and those of his ancestors. We ventured about the city visiting sites. Coming upon Ho Chi Minh’s mausoleum my wife went inside but I waited for her outside while facing south towards Saigon, my final act of defiance and last demon.
Some say, “time heals all wounds,” and in some cases it has for Vietnam. The remnants of war are far and few between, asides from the museums, soldiers and flags, the people’s mindset no longer speaks of war and nature has reclaimed the landscape hiding the scars. The war ended 40 years ago and progress for Vietnam has been slow, I ask myself: What if it never happened? Would Vietnam be as successful and on the same world stage as South Korea or Japan? We will never know, for it did happen, resulting in the loss of countless lives.
Boarding the plane for the U.S., I turned around to take a final look at my birthplace, sad to be leaving but happy to have finally returned, it was bittersweet.
Forty years ago I left as a young boy, scared and confused; I returned a man looking for his past while confronting demons.
Vietnam will always have a special place in my heart, for everything she once stood for and now for everything she means to me.