The Vietnamese American experience in the United States is inextricably linked with U.S. involvement in Southeast Asia. Yet that very involvement, and the passions and trauma surrounding it, has often obscured the complex and evolving story of the Vietnamese American community.

On April 30th, 1975, after U.S. withdrawal from the region, South Vietnam collapsed and Ho Chi Minh’s troops rolled into Saigon, the capital. The modest numbers of students and professionals who had previously immigrated to the United States were joined by a tide of refugees fearing persecution under the new regime. Many thousands left in the weeks leading up to April 30th, and approximately 130,000 Vietnamese fled in the period shortly after that date. Some were airlifted, as Colonel Le and Frank Jao describe in Saigon, U.S.A.; others fled by whatever means they could find, such as Chuyen Nguyen’s harrowing escape with his wife Thuy and his 2 month old son Vu, where they ran across an airfield to the sound of gunfire and commandeered an aircraft to take them to some unknown destination.

Since many of the South Vietnamese who fled in the period surrounding the fall of Saigon had connections with the United States, this became a natural destination. Those who were fortunate to be part of the U.S. airlifts were taken to the Philippines and Guam, and from there to refugee resettlement centers that were established, practically overnight, at Camp Pendleton, in Southern California, Fort Chaffee in Arkansas, the Eglin Air Base in Florida, and Fort Indiantown Gap, Pennsylvania.

Others left later, in the late '70’s and early ‘80’s. Some had been in communist reeducation camps. Others, including ethnic Chinese, responded to growing pressure and discrimination. This wave of refugees cast off in boats to become the boat people, landing in refugee camps in places like Hong Kong, Thailand, and Malaysia, often waiting years for resettlement. The last Southeast Asian refugee camp was closed in 1998.

Based on outcry over the horrors encountered by the boat people, the UN High Commissioner for Refugees and other NGO’s and aid organizations coordinated with the Hanoi government the “Orderly Departure Program," which allowed people to leave Vietnam legally for family reunification and humanitarian reasons. Also, the U.S. government enacted the Amerasian Homecoming Act in 1988, allowing over 70,000 mixed-race descendents of American servicemen to immigrate to the U.S.

In the early years, government resettlement programs attempted to spread refugees across the United States, in part based on the assumption that this would help them to assimilate and to avoid “burdening” any one geographic area. Chuyen Nguyen and his family, for example, were sent to Texas. Vi Ly, an artist featured in Saigon, U.S.A., and her family found sponsors in Cincinnati, Ohio.











However, for many of the new Americans, the journey continued in a secondary migration. As noted in Saigon, U.S.A., a community began to gather in Orange County’s Westminster, California, an hour away from Camp Pendleton. (Some of their experiences at Camp Pendleton were depicted in the film Green Dragon, by Timothy Bui.) This became Little Saigon, starting along Bolsa Avenue and spreading into surrounding areas, like Garden Grove, to become the largest Vietnamese community outside of Vietnam. When Tony Lam ran for and won a seat on the Westminster City Council in 1992, he became the first Vietnamese American elected official. Today, there are over 230,000 Vietnamese Americans in Southern California, according to the 2000 census.

Other communities also coalesced in other areas, notably in San Jose, the Texas coast (which was the site of racial tension between Vietnamese and white fisherman, memorialized in Louis Malle’s 1985 movie Alamo Bay), Northern Virginia, and other parts of the U.S. The total Vietnamese American population is now over 1.1 million strong.

In 1999, the Vietnamese community was outraged when Trung Van Tran, a Vietnamese refugee himself, put a photo of Ho Chi Minh in his video store, and challenged community leaders to shut him down. For many Vietnamese Americans, this was tantamount to a slap in the face. Demonstrations and vigils ensued outside the store for 52 days, leading to widespread mainstream news coverage.

While some people outside of the demonstrations wondered why such a political gesture could cause such a reaction over two decades after the end of the war, the demonstrations indicated a well-spring of unresolved trauma. Despite the changes they had undergone, older Vietnamese Americans were reminded of the loss of their homeland, their forced evacuation, reeducation camps, and other tribulations. Mainstream America took notice, with articles and stories in major news outlets, and representatives from the Democratic and Republican parties sending delegates to speak to the community. The demonstrations became an opportunity to draw the community together over their shared history, and to try and capitalize on their increased visibility.

For some younger Vietnamese Americans, the demonstrations emphasized the complexity and richness of their lives, as they heard stories of their parents’ experiences that had never before been expressed. People like Bao Nguyen and Vu Nguyen, as shown in Saigon, U.S.A., are working hard to craft identities and lives as Americans that respect their heritage while taking advantage of the possibilities of life in America. In numerous fields, such as activism and journalism, Bao, Vu, and others, are helping to shape the evolving Vietnamese American community as it evolves.

The community’s relationship with Vietnam is also evolving. While many Vietnamese Americans refuse to go to Vietnam, out of a desire to avoid supporting the government or fear of reprisal for their role in the conflict, emotional and family ties remain strong. A large quantity of remittances are sent to family members in Vietnam. Some older Vietnamese Americans take tours to their homeland. The most notorious example is Nguyen Cao Ky, the former swashbuckling Prime Minister of South Vietnam, who made a trip back in early 2004, with much criticism from the Vietnamese American community. Younger Vietnamese Americans are also traveling to Vietnam, not so much for or against the political backdrop, but out of a desire to connect with their heritage.

Today, a second wave of Vietnamese Americans is entering the public sphere. In Southern California, politicians such as Van Tran and Andy Quach are joining city councils; 243 pound Dat Nguyen plays football for the Dallas Cowboys; actor Dustin Nguyen continues to act in Hollywood; Tony and Timothy Bui have garnered attention with their feature films; authors and commentators such as Andrew Lam, Qui Duc Nguyen, and Lan Cao are creating insightful commentaries and literature about a changing and fluid America; and Viet Dinh is Assistant Attorney General in the Bush Administrations U.S. Department of Justice (notably drafting large portions of the Patriot Act).

To see and hear a few of these new Americans share their stories of the Vietnamese American experience, you can purchase a copy of Saigon, U.S.A. here. You can also explore additional web resources in the Learn More section.


© 2008 Lindsey Jang and Robert C. Winn. All rights reserved.