People often ask me what I remember from the events of April 1975, when Saigon and South Vietnam fell to North Vietnam’s communist forces. For decades my standard response was that I had photo-like recollections. My memories were akin to frozen still shots of the pandemonium. My family fled Vietnam via a first-class route: We managed to obtain paperwork to get ourselves into Tan Son Nhut airport and flew out on a US Army cargo plane to Guam, Hawaii, and then California. We were the lucky ones.
In recent years, as my Vietnamese-American friends and I began trading stories about how we came to America – like our parents did when they were our age, my frozen still shot-like memories of April 1975 gradually thawed. They became more vivid. I remember the fear of 1975. I wore the look of fear in the photo at the top, taken right before we left Saigon. (My husband and good friends say I make that face on occasion to this day.)
As a six-year-old, I was aware that something terrible was about to happen. My parents were preparing for our family to secretly leave. My father took me with him to visit the shipping boat that he was having renovated for our escape. My mother quietly sewed life jackets for the family because no one sold them in Saigon at the time; she stashed thin taels of gold between the Styrofoam in case we got lost at sea and needed currency. Our family of seven left Vietnam with two suitcases suitable for weekend travel. And we were the lucky ones.
On a trip to Vietnam in 2006, my husband and I hired a driver and car for a week. The driver turned out to be my exact age. With the windows rolled up and the air-conditioner on, he told me about hiding under his bed with his mother on April 30, 1975.
A number of my Vietnamese-American food friends – Diep Tran of Good Girl Dinette in Los Angeles, Terrence Khuu of Le Colonial in San Francisco, Eric and Sophie Banh of Monsoon and Ba Bar in Seattle, Cuong Pham of Red Boat Fish Sauce, were stuck behind and eventually – in some cases after multiple tries, able to escape by boat. If my family’s escape was first-class, theirs was akin to a stowaway experience, only they had to pay a handsome amount for their perilous journeys. Pirates, violence, and hunger filled their uncertain paths to freedom.
My friends and I don’t discuss our escapes and refugee experience with much melancholy, but rather, we emphasize how remarkable it is that we made it, that we became friends. We’re in the same boat professionally, and because we deal in Vietnamese food, we’re always looking back in order to look forward.
I thought of that last month when my parents and I visited my aunt, Bac Thoa. In her early 80s, she is a retired medical researcher and psychiatrist, one of the few of her generation in Vietnam; she is the widow of my father’s oldest brother, which makes her a super VIP in our family. Bac Thoa has dementia, mid to late-stage Alzheimer’s. Her sons live with her.
When we visited, my cousin Quan brought out his copy of Into the Vietnamese Kitchen to show his mother, to jog her memory of who I was, who we were as an extended family. Sometimes people with Alzheimer’s can remember distant experiences but the present is foggy. I opened the book to a photo of our family at Camp Pendleton Marine Base, one of the first Vietnamese refugee resettlement facilities. After a few prompts, she could identify many of the faces in the photo, of her children and my family. “That was forty years ago,” I said to her and Quan with a certain amount of disbelief.
Bac Thoa was born and raised in Hanoi, so I pivoted to ask her about eating in Hanoi. She recalled street food vendors selling banh khuc dumplings, banh cuon filled rice noodle rolls and pho. “I was never much of a food person,” she said. “I went to school, managed my family’s finances. Cooking was not for me. You have your mother’s knack for cooking.”
We chatted about a mess of other things from her past, and I realized how important it is to revisit and record memories before they fly away, or perhaps are reframed in our minds. Every April, Vietnamese people like me think a bit about life circumstances and Fate. For the 40th anniversary of the Fall of Saigon, I’m dedicating a few posts to the my family’s food experiences around then. I hope you'll find them funny, poignant and comforting.
What were yours? What did your family cook in the early years after you left Vietnam? What did you eat at the refugee camps? What was it like to make Vietnamese food in America, Australia, Canada or France in the 1970s? How did your Vietnam War experience impact the Vietnamese food experience?
If you’d like to share your story, photos, and recipes — email me. Together we can put together a little history of our own.
Related posts on the Fall of Saigon on April 30, 1975:
- Chicken Back and Celery Rice Recipe - a ghetto-ish but luxe dish we made when we first came to America in 1975
- Cooking Vietnamese Food in 1970s America: Things We Were Grateful For - drinking water, skinned peanuts, and more
- Inside My Mom’s Book of Domesticity: Recipes and Stories - what she brought from Vietnam, how I was inspired to write cookbooks
- Gratitude Fried Wontons Recipe - we made wontons and threw a party for people who helped us resettle
- Revisiting Saigon Now: Memorable People and Places - what the future holds for Saigon residents now