Chapter 1. I Feel As If We Will Never Reunite Again
Saigon, April 3rd, 1975
Saigon is currently full of crisis and fear — every single one in the city is worried.
This is how my mother, Hồng begins the last letter she will write before war’s end to my father, Hùng. It is April 3, 1975. My mother is 22 years old.
My father, 27 years old and a First Lieutenant in the navy, is stationed off the coast of South Vietnam near the Cambodian border at Radar Station 404 on Pirate Islands. His base is a day’s journey from Saigon, where my mother lives with her parents and eight siblings in a four-story townhouse in the heart of the city. Her mother manages an export/import business on the first floor of the house; her father owns a fabric supply business.
Every night, my mother sits around the dining room table with her family and listens to news of the war. Every night, a new city falls to the Communists. Half the troops in the South are dead. The highways are jammed with fleeing soldiers and civilians.
My mother writes:
No one knows where to go. Some families are preparing to migrate to other countries by merchant ships… Heard that the city of Rạch Giá is in trouble. I’m very worried for you and Uncle Tai… Our lives have no tomorrow. Your future and mine is a huge void. I think that our plans will shatter like the fate of our youth. I’m still attending school regularly here. Sometimes when I am holding my books, I wonder whether I am as fortunate as before? Or will I be killed in a mortar strike or evacuation? I feel as if we will never reunite again. I want to tell you everything between the two of us.
[…] I can’t study at home because my younger siblings keep making noises. The library is full of war news. Sometimes I try to keep myself calm by not listening, but somehow they still stick around my head.
Never before have I had such a mental breakdown like the one right now. I should have waited for your letter and then reply, but I’m having some terrible premonition. I’m afraid communication will be cut — how can I know whether you’re still there in safety. And I’m still thinking of you. Please don’t get too proud or arrogant when I tell you I know how much you love me. We’ve known each other for really long, and I guess you understand me too well. I will not be like other girls. I love you even more, when I know of your love towards me. Please don’t worry too much about me. I’m always under the protecting and loving arms of my family. At nights when I can’t sleep, I miss you very much, and I feel as if you feel the same way?
My mother’s family didn’t know where to go. But there was still a part of them that was not convinced Saigon would actually be taken. President Nixon had promised American intervention if the North Vietnamese broke the Paris Peace Accords. They thought the Americans would repartition the country. The North Vietnamese troops would be stopped.
Toward the end of her letter, my mother tells my father how she has just watched Wuthering Heights at the cinema. She’s purchased a ticket for him when he gets home. She asks him to send his ID card so she can register him for the second part of his law exam while he’s on leave. She mentions the possibility of visiting him for a weekend.
In the days and weeks that follow, a lot would change.
By the end of April, Saigon’s worry has turned to all-out panic. More and more cities that lead to Saigon begin to fall. Nha Trang. Cam Ranh. Đà Lạt. Xuân Lộc.
My mother’s parents pull their money out of the banks and convert them into gold bullions. They hide the bullions in their townhouse. They stock up on food and supplies and make emergency kits for all eight of their children in case of a last-minute evacuation, giving each rations of instant rice, comfortable clothes, money, and gold.
Just seven years earlier, in 1968, the Communists occupied the old imperial city of Huế. They killed thousands and buried them in mass graves. Men, women, and children were bound, tortured, killed, or buried alive. My mother and her family are terrified of a similar bloodbath in Saigon.
At this point, the Americans have effectively pulled out, leaving behind only a small contingent of marines to guard the U.S. embassy. It is very clear that the aid Nixon promised will not be given to the crumbling South Vietnamese government. It isn’t a matter of if, but when, the North Vietnamese will invade the city.
On April 21, 1975, South Vietnamese President Nguyễn Văn Thiệu resigns in a televised address and flees to Taiwan. One hundred thousand North Vietnamese advance on 30,000 disillusioned, tired, unequipped South Vietnamese troops.
My mother has not left her townhouse in nearly a week, too afraid to go outside. She and her family huddle around the radio listening to the BBC and VOA. They watch the televised broadcast of the news, trying to track the movements of the North Vietnamese.
They are all getting ready to run when it is time. They don’t know where they’ll go, they just know that they need to be prepared to leave.
In the last few days of April, my mother is barely able to sleep and eat, just picking at small amounts of rice, braised pork with vegetables each night.
One night, my mother hears the news that the Communists have entered Biên Hòa, a suburb 32 kilometers/20 miles away. There is nothing standing in the way of them taking Saigon.
In the early morning of April 29, 1975, before daybreak, the thunderous noise of rockets and artillery fire startles my mother awake.