What does the fall of Saigon mean to Vietnamese-Americans? You’d think I’d know because, well, I’m Vietnamese. Before a few days ago, I had no idea.
It’s ironic. As someone who tells stories for a living, I never bothered to learn about my own.
Last Thursday, on the 40th anniversary of the fall of Saigon, I was sitting in a news truck in El Cajon waiting for one of my stories to get going. I called my aunt and asked, “How did our family come to the U.S.?” I wasn’t expecting the story I got.
My father was born in Saigon, and that’s all I really know about his life before he met my mother.
He passed away when I was young, and after his death I wasn’t able to talk to (let alone learn about) the Vietnamese side of my family until I became an adult.
My dad had one sister.
I call her Co Ba, which means “aunt on the paternal side” in Vietnamese.
So, back to that phone call.
“It was April 23, 1975. I remember it vividly. Your grandparents and I knew Saigon could fall at any minute,” she started, eager to share.
“At first we didn’t think we had a way out of Vietnam. We didn’t think we had the right connections. Suddenly, we remembered we had a Vietnamese friend who happened to be a U.S. citizen. A couple of months before, he returned home to marry a Vietnamese girl. Grandpa and I rushed to his house, and thank God, he was still in Saigon!” she remembered.
My Co Ba explained the man's wife had the same family name as ours, “Nguyen.” By a stroke of good fortune, his in-laws did not want to leave Vietnam allowing my aunt and grandparents to go in their place.
“We are forever indebted to him,” Co Ba told me.
“That friend told us to pack all our things in one suitcase. I remember saying goodbye to my dogs. I remember my mother hugging my aunt tightly knowing they’d never see each other again. I remember looking at my house and thinking ‘What do we need to pack? What are the things we can’t live without?’”
“Then it dawned on me. We didn’t need any ‘materials.’ All we needed were our minds and the will to live in a free country.”
I had never had a conversation like this with my Co Ba. I was awestruck. Working in news, I’ve written many stories about harrowing journeys. All this time, I had no idea someone so close to me had one of her own.
“That night our friend brought us to Tan Son Nhat airport in Saigon, where we boarded a cargo plane. There weren’t chairs or seat belts, so we all sat on the floor. When the plane took off, it ascended quickly and violently to avoid oncoming Communist rockets. As rockets shot past us, a giant American GI stood guard near the door with an anti-missile device.”
They made it out just in time.
That evening the Viet Cong bombed the airport’s tarmac, according to my Co Ba. She and my grandparents were on the last plane out. Many others were not as fortunate.
“We flew to Guam where we boarded another plane destined for Camp Pendleton. That’s where your dad picked us up.”
“Wait, wait. Camp Pendleton? Like the one here, near San Diego?” I asked incredulously. Before this call, I didn’t think my family had any personal connection to San Diego.
“Sweetheart, you have no idea. Wait until I tell you about your Uncle De.”
De Lê would be Co Ba’s future husband and my future uncle. She didn’t know it at the time, but while her cargo plane took off, De was stranded at the destroyed airport. He and his brothers watched the aircraft leave thinking their last hope of escaping Vietnam had gone with it. To their relief, a U.N. Embassy bus appeared to bring them to the Port of Saigon.
There, the young men boarded a small boat and out at sea a mammoth aircraft carrier came to their rescue. It was none other than San Diego’s own USS Midway.
“I think that’s in San Diego too,” said my Co Ba. “Did you know the little ship he was in is still on display in the Midway right now?”
“Co Ba, I had no idea. I didn’t know to look,” I responded, floored with emotion. The USS Midway is ten minutes from my North Park apartment. I have visited it dozens of times for work and never thought, if it weren’t for this ship and the brave sailors on it, my aunt and uncle would not have met. I would not have my cousins.
“When Uncle De boarded the Midway, he hadn’t had food for two days. Sailors offered him a pastry and De said it was like an incredibly decadent cake.
In fact, it was the most delicious thing he'd ever eaten!
He wanted to ask what it was, but was nervous the sailors wouldn’t understand his broken English.”
It wasn’t until weeks later in the U.S., someone explained to my uncle the delicious pastry was a doughnut.
“He has loved doughnuts ever since!”
Co Ba and I laughed. Unfortunately, that’s when our phone conversation ended because I had to get back to work.
I’ve spent the last few days reflecting on this story and trying to put on paper what it all means. For instance, when I think of my aunt’s flight out of Vietnam, I think about what a matter of minutes means to the survival of a family and the difference between a told and untold story.
When I think of my Uncle De, I think of USS Midway appearing in the middle of the ocean as truly a living symbol of freedom.
I think about never taking my opportunities for granted because of people like my aunt, my uncle and all the service members willing to sacrifice their lives for a better future.
In the U.S, my Co Ba has lived a life of service, first as a public school teacher and then as a social worker helping the unemployed find jobs. She told me, “When I reached Camp Pendleton, I knew I found freedom. I made a promise to myself that in this new land I would be the best citizen I could be for a country and its people who welcomed us with open hearts and open arms.”