The Fall of Saigon: El Monte man, Long Beach woman tell how many Vietnamese refugees escaped
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El Monte man, Long Beach woman tell how many Vietnamese refugees escaped
By Courtney Tompkins, The Pasadena Star-News
Leha Hoang was just 12 years old when her family arrived at the U.S. Embassy in Saigon with tickets in hand, waiting to be airlifted out of the war-torn country.
It was the spring of 1975 and news of Saigon’s imminent surrender had spread like wildfire through the city. As North Vietnamese forces began to surround the capital, many were scrambling to escape.
“I saw people trying to force the gates open,” she said. “They begged, ‘Please, let me go, let me go,’ but some, they didn’t have tickets. I saw people trying to climb onto a helicopter, but there were too many on board so people were pushed out to the ground below. It was crazy, so scary.”
After nearly two decades of fighting, the war in Vietnam had ended, abruptly. During the decades-long conflict, 58,000 American soldiers and more than 3 million Vietnamese civilians and soldiers, on both sides, lost their lives.
Thursday marked the 40th anniversary of that fateful day, now simply referred to as the fall of Saigon.
As American troops pulled out, they helped as many allies escape as they could. In the first wave of evacuations, about 100 U.S. choppers had removed an estimated 7,000 Americans and Vietnamese out of Saigon in less than 24 hours.
But Hoang’s family was not among those who escaped. Her father, a colonel in the South Vietnamese Army, changed his mind at the very last minute.
“They tried to tell my dad to go, to save our family and my dad, he just say ‘No.’ He didn’t want to leave the country,” she said. “And my mom, she was scared. She didn’t want to leave my dad.
“But he made a mistake. The next day, the communists come to take my dad away to prison. I never saw him again.”
Because of her father’s status in the Army, the time she endured in the country was “terrible.” Communist soldiers took all their food. She was pulled from school and put on labor duty. where she had to clean trash in the streets and where dead bodies lay in sight.
It would be eight traumatic years before she safely made it out of Vietnam and onto U.S. soil. She now resides in Long Beach.
Her story is only one among the Vietnamese community in America, which has gone from not even being counted as a distinct ethnic group in the 1970 census to numbering 1.7 million people nationwide.
For Dr. Huu Dinh Vo, April 29, 1975, is a day that is impossible to forget. Not only was it the day he fled his homeland, but it was his 25th birthday.
Vo, who was a medical intern at the time, said he felt guilty leaving so many wounded people behind. When his brother, who was involved with the South Vietnamese government, initially asked him to flee, he refused.
He did, however, promise to walk his brother to the pier and see him off. Once there, though, he was taken aback by the complete chaos.
He remembers thinking, “Maybe my brother is right.”
And in that moment, he changed his mind and boarded a large ship bound for Guam. He remembers a stormy trip across the open sea.
“It looked like God was crying for Vietnam,” he said.
The ship refueled at U.S. Naval Base Subic Bay in the Philippines before continuing on to Guam, where he remained for the next few months before making it out to Camp Pendleton in San Diego that summer.
Following the fall of Saigon, more than 125,000 refugees fled the country any way possible, with many escaping by boat.
Van Vo, 54, said he was one of the Vietnamese “boat people.”
Born and raised in the Southern coastal city of Nha Trang, Van was 14 years old when Saigon fell.
Only days later, his father, a South Vietnam government officer, was sent to a POW camp. Like Hoang, his family was blacklisted.
“We had been segregated under a new label as ‘Enemy of the State,’ and the new communist government ordered us to do labor,” he said. “We suffered because we could not go to school, we could not go to work, we lost all the social engagement and social opportunity.”
Van said he, his mother and five siblings lived in squalor.
“The living conditions were very poor,” he said. “We had to do any work we could to survive. My mom would buy rice every day, but that was all we could afford.”
When Vo turned 18 years old, he decided to flee the country. Early one morning in 1979, he made his way to the pier and hopped aboard a small, rickety boat with about 13 other people.
“It was very scary,” he said. “The boat only had a four-horsepower engine. We left to the Philippines, and stayed there in a refugee camp for almost two years before coming to America in 1981.”
Galen Beery, who volunteered with Church World Service in Malaysia during the late 1970s, remembers the thousands of refugees he encountered.
“I wasn’t actually in Vietnam at the fall, but I was in the next stage,” he said.
Beery, who had spent 10 years in Laos from 1962 to 1972, served as a translator for the boat people coming from Vietnam.
“It was not your usual run of the mill experience,” he said. “People were disoriented, they didn’t know where they were. I had to interview them, assign immigration officers and get them on planes to the U.S.”
He said he still remembers shaking hands with refugee number 50,000.
Among Vietnamese refugees in the U.S. and many other countries, the week of April 30 is referred to as Black April, and is used as a time of commemoration of the fall of Saigon. The exiled Vietnamese who served, were affected or displaced often see it as a day of reflection.
Although the refugees each have a different story, they all share a common thread: They left their homes, in fear for their lives, to travel to a country where they could not speak the language and knew nothing of the culture.
It was a tough start for Dr. Vo, who made a living stocking shelves at a local grocery story when he arrived in 1975. He was humbled, though, by the compassion his co-workers showed him after finding out he was a doctor in Vietnam.
They offered to do the tough labor and footed the bill whenever the team went out to eat, saying he needed to save his money to become licensed in America. He ultimately passed the English and medical exams, completed a residency program in Florida and began working at a facility in Pomona in 1980. Today, he owns his own practice, where he specializes in family medicine and pediatrics.
Van went to live with a sponsor in Indianapolis when he arrived in the states in 1981.
He enrolled in school but he couldn’t stop thinking about going back home to his family.
The motivation pushed him to join the Government of Free Vietnam, a anti-communist organization headquartered in Garden Grove. He traveled to Thailand in the 1990s to further his cause, but as a leader of the group, one of his members’ behavior led to imprisonment in Thailand for 10 years, He returned to the U.S. in 2011 and found a home in El Monte. He now attends law school and said he still strives to change the policies in Vietnam.
“Despite the fact that the war is over for 40 years, the ultimate goal of what Vietnamese and American soldiers died for has not been achieved yet,” he said. “So I will continue to fight for freedom and democracy in Vietnam.”
In 1983, Leha, whose surname is now Reeves, went to live with an older brother in Hawaii.
She made her way out to California shortly after, and today, owns a small nail salon in Long Beach.
She vows never set foot in Vietnam again.
“I can’t go there. There are too many memories, and it makes me feel angry,” she said.
Staff writer Monica Rodriguez contributed to this article.