April 30, 1975 is a significant day for many Vietnamese people. How you feel about it depends on which side you were on four decades ago. For my family, that date marks the day that we arrived in California. We luckily managed to escape from Saigon on April 24, tasted glorious freedom for a week in Guam, and were then transported to Camp Pendleton Marine Base in Southern California, which served as one of the resettlement facilities on the mainland. That day was also a day of sadness.
As a six year old at the time, things were fuzzy. However, what I do recall on April 30, 1975 was hearing adults repeatedly say “mất nước rồi” (the country is lost already). The North Vietnamese communist had arrived in Saigon, the city where my family lived, signaling that the country had collapsed into their hands.
For South Vietnamese people of a certain age, April 30, 1975 became ngày mất nước, the day the country was lost. For the North Vietnamese of a certain age, the date was ngày chiến thắng, the day of victory. Vietnamese people born after wartime may think of April 30 as just another day. I considered those perspectives, along with those of Vietnam War veterans, while watching Last Days in Vietnam, a riveting, academy award nominated documentary that you can watch here.
I’ve been back to Vietnam five times since my family left in 1975. It was painful the first time around and I cried when we landed in Saigon at Tan Son Nhut, the airport and landmark point of departure for those lucky to leave by plane. On each of the first three trips, I stopped by my family’s former home near Cong Ly Bridge (it’s en route from the airport into town). I’d look at the building, take a photo, and shared it with my family.
But on the last trip in January 2014, I didn’t want to check up on the house, which was turned into a preschool years ago. It’s no longer our home. We gave it up and the subsequent occupants stripped it clean of whatever that had remained of our family.
Vietnam has changed and continues to change. Some places like Notre Dame Cathedral in Saigon remain, as do the charmingly decrepit buildings around Cho Lon (Chinatown) and the ladies in pajama outfits; both are below. But the life that swirls around the city makes me I agree with my parents who say that it is “no longer our country.” They are not interested in revisiting. I imagine that it may be too painful for them. They may not recognize it. I remain curious because I’m looking for connections, not for me as a six year old child, but for me as an adult.
As a writer, I ask a lot of interview-type of questions, perhaps as many as Vietnamese strangers ask of me: How long have you been away, sister? Where do you live now? Is that your husband? Do you have children? How often do you come back to visit? If you are a Viet kieu (overseas Vietnamese), you have experienced these somewhat awkward moments.
To get a fair exchange of information, I ask questions in return to get a sense of their experience.I’ve been collecting stories from people I’ve met in Vietnam, and here are a few to consider.