The Fall of Saigon, 42 years later

Mai Nguyen
Apr 30, 2017 · 6 min read

This day is known as the Fall of Saigon or the Liberation of Saigon, depending on which side you were on. This is marked the end of the Vietnam War and the start the reunification of Vietnam under the Socialist Republic. (For the record, my parents and relatives are from southern Vietnam, and we refer to this date as the Fall of Saigon.)

Some of us weren’t alive during the Vietnam War, but if you are the child of an immigrant Vietnamese parent, like myself, then you’ve probably heard a lot of stories about it.

There was never enough to eat and both of my parents’ families were living in poverty. My mom had to run out to the swamps and hide while bullets flew overhead. My dad was drafted into the army. They got extreme seasickness and feared pirates as they fled their country on rickety boats.

Things are a lot better these days. My parents are going to finally retire at the end of the year. All three of their children have graduated from college and have full-time jobs. And of course, there’s always enough food on the table.

But I think it’s important to remember our roots and what our parents had to go through to get us to where we are today.

If you have family or friends who have stories about the Vietnam War and immigrating to the U.S. I highly encourage you to ask them about it. I’ve found these stories to be filled with courage, sadness, sacrifice, and perseverance.

If you’re not ready to talk to your parents about it or maybe they’re not ready to talk about it, I understand. It’s a very heavy topic.

In this post, I also wanted to highlight some amazing work by Vietnamese Americans who have written about the Vietnam War.

The Sympathizer by Viet Thanh Nguyen

The first book I want to mention is The Sympathizer by Viet Thanh Nguyen. It won the Pulitzer Prize in 2016 for fiction. The story follows a double-agent who pretends to work for the South but actually reports to the North. The story begins at the end of the Vietnam War and progresses to the immigration and assimilation of Vietnamese immigrants to America.

There are a lot of common hardships described in the book, like taking jobs they’re overqualified for just to make ends meet, trying to find good Vietnamese food in a foreign country to cure their homesickness, and still trying to fight a war they’ve already lost.

The thing that really stood out to me about this book is how Viet writes to the audience. He was inspired by Toni Morrison to write for an audience that is intimate to him, and not thinking of writing for a “white audience first”

As he puts it:

“The book is confession from one Vietnamese person to another — it was always designed to be addressed to Vietnamese people — anyone else who’s reading they are not the intended audience, at least not in the novel. I thought I was writing the book for myself, but to reach a larger audience it would have to speak to multiple audiences — from the feedback I’ve received, they’ve responded very positively to the book too.” — source

The Refugees by Viet Thanh Nguyen

He also recently released a second book, The Refugees. Unlike The Sympathizer, this book is a collection of short stories about different people affected by the Vietnam War.

The Best We Could Do by Thi Bui

The next book I want to mention is The Best We Could Do by Thi Bui. It’s a beautiful illustrated memoir by Thi. The book begins with Thi giving birth and finally, truly empathizing with her mother since Thi has now also joined motherhood. Thi then goes back in time and starts illustrating her past, as well as diving pretty deeply into both her mother and father’s past.

Thi and her two older sisters were born in Vietnam and their entire family was living in Saigon when it fell. So, the book shows life conditions in Vietnam before and after Saigon fell, as well as their escape from Vietnam and assimilation into American life.

Born to Kill by T.J. English

This next book, Born to Kill by T.J. English, is not written by a Vietnamese American, but by an Irish American. The reason why I wanted to include this book was because of the unique perspective it provides.

Born to Kill was a Vietnamese gang based in New York City. It follows the story of the protagonist, someone who immigrated here, got recruited into the gang, worked for the gang, and then eventually helped law enforcement shut the gang down.

The leader of the gang, David Thai, immigrated to the U.S. after the fall of Saigon and eventually made his way to New York City. Unable to provide for his family through jobs as a dishwasher, he turned to crime. He first joined another gang before leaving and starting his own.

David was able to easily recruit new members as other Vietnamese youths that were immigrating to America had a really hard time getting situated. The new youths were ostracized by Americans and the Chinese community, so they were unable to find work and were often homeless and starving. David recruited these young Vietnamese people by providing food, shelter, and cash in exchange for their loyalty.

I found this book fascinating because it’s a completely different world from what I grew up in. I come from a very safe neighborhood in Virginia and my parents made sure to keep me out of trouble and sheltered me from a lot of dangers.

In the end, I also found it quite heartbreaking that these young immigrants had to turn to a world of crime because they didn’t know any better and didn’t have many options.

Vietgone

The last item I want to mention is not a book, but it is a play called Vietgone by Qui Nguyen. He wrote a play about his parent’s love story, about how they escaped Vietnam and met in a refugee camp. This was an amazing play and I think the New York Times did a better review than I could ever do of it.

There was rapping and singing, it’s funny, it’s witty, and there were definitely moments that resonated with me and were moving. He also decided to use this play as an opportunity to reverse the stereotype. In some American media, Asian are made fun of by speaking with a thick accent and in broken English. Qui reverses this role in his play by having all of the white people speak in Southern accents and speak in jumbled words of “cheeseburger”, “cholesterol”, “waffle fries”, etc.

There is one scene at the end of the play where the character playing Qui is having a heart to heart with his dad. It was during this conversation that I realized that, like Qui, we are Vietnamese American, we grew up in American schools with American textbooks and so our view of the war is completely different from his father’s.

I do think it’s mentioned in the play that his parents had not gone to see the play yet because it brings back too many difficult memories.

I saw this play at the end of last year and it was honestly one of the best things I’ve ever watched. If they ever show it again, I would love to take my family to see it.

I hope this post brought some insight to this historic day for some of you. Personally, I’ve struggled with my identity as a Vietnamese American throughout my life, but seeing and reading about Vietnamese Americans creating amazing work about our culture and history has been truly inspiring and insightful for me.

Mai Nguyen

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