The Positive Side of the War
Profilers: Kieran Reynolds, Jason Lui, Beverly Pham
My name is Long Pham. I am 49 years old. I’m married with 2 children. I immigrated to the U.S. when I was 9 years old in 1975, the day before the fall, so April 29 of 1975.
BEFORE THE ESCAPE / LEAVING VIETNAM
So, I think being in Saigon, we were like the furthest south, so we were kind of like, away from the war, so really, it never caught up to us. The only time it came was in, I think it was ’69, or was it ’72, one of those two days is the Tet Offensive, that’s when the Viet Cong invaded Saigon, and so that I remember that night, I could just see in the distance, you know, like fire, and again, more explosions and we had to get under the bed because they were attacking. So that’s like the closest we came to the war. But other than that, on a day-to-day basis, we see American G.I., we see helicopters fly by, things like that, but you know, not the war.
Yeah, I mean, we basically, they left with the clothes on our back, I was given a backpack with some clothes in it. Actually, I didn’t know what was in it until later on, but it was gold. Yeah, so, you know, it’s basically clothes and gold, because, you know, you could use gold and sell it anywhere. It’s money. So they gave the kid the gold to hold onto (laughs).
Did you know about plans to leave Vietnam?
Not until that morning…and so…again, I thought it was just hey it’s cool, let’s go kind of thing. There were 13 of us. My immediate family is my mom and the four of us, the four kids. My dad actually didn’t go, and I guess in the initial departure, I didn’t realize that he wasn’t coming. So we just all left and by the time we got on the boat, I figured, hey, where is he? And so I don’t recall breaking down or anything. I just thought, “how come he’s not here?” And I don’t remember what my mom told me but in the rush of all things, we just had to get out.
Why didn’t your dad leave with you guys?
He stayed there because…long story short, he had another family, so, you know, I was telling you the first migration from the North to the South in ‘54…he left his family and he migrated down to the South and he met my mom in the South and he married her and had another family, so in the North he had a family and he had three daughters. So I have three half-sisters (laughs).
So that’s why he stayed behind, ‘cause he still didn’t figure…you know, he had to take care…it’s now…the country is like one so he felt the responsibility…he had two…or have them come down.
Actually for my mom and her family, you know, sister, brother, this is like the second time that they had to basically run away from the communists. They were born in the North and so, I think it was in ’54 is when they went from the North to the South to get away from the communists. So basically, again, it’s to get away from the communists, and because of the abuse.
It wasn’t really a choice (laughs).
What was it like getting onto the boat? And how was the trip on the boat?
So we knew a lady…she and nine other families…they owned, like, a freighter, like a cargo ship. So they got a spot for us and so they got spots for themselves, their friends and families. So it’s supposed to be only nine families and friends. Right? So by the time we got to the harbor, there was 2,000 people. They piled onto the…and you can’t stop them, right? ‘Cause everybody just wanted to get the heck out, right? So yeah, so 2,000 people on the boat. We were lucky enough to find like a little cabin with some shelter above us, kind of thing, but very little food. You get, like, a bottle of rice for every meal, right, so three bottles of rice a day, kind of thing. Most memorable thing was we found a bag of ramen–no, we found a case of ramen in that cabin (laughs). And we were just chomping on that. Uncooked. It was really good. Oh, and we were shot at. On the way out. Actually, not by the communists, but by the south because they were trying to get people to go back, that kind of thing. Oh, and my grandfather died on the trip. So we made it through the Philippines but when we got there, he passed away. I guess he was just so scared. Seven days. A whole week to get through the Phillippines. It shouldn’t take that long, right? It should only take about, you know, a day or two. But we didn’t know where to go, there isn’t anything set up yet. So the U.S. 7th Fleet was out there. And so they just told us…hey…you know, we’re getting…I guess I think what it was was they told us “We’re getting stuff prepared, so you guys just go around us, we’ll find you something” and then I guess after 7 days they told us “Ok, go through the Phillippines.”
I know my mom wasn’t…yeah…because my dad was still back there, and so she wasn’t doing too well. She cried every night, basically. Now she’s got 4 young kids…I’m the youngest….my sister was only, 6 years older, so she was 14. So she’s scared, she doesn’t know what to do and my dad isn’t there and who knows if my dad was still alive, that whole thing with the communists, you really don’t know, so yeah, that’s tough.
COMING TO AMERICA / ADOPTING A NEW LIFE
How was your experience in refugee camps?
Actually, it was great. Subic Bay was where we landed and I guess that’s the U.S. Navy R&R, that’s where they go for rest and relaxation. So it has a hotel and this beach and it’s really nice. And then they gave us 24/7, anything you want, anytime you want, you can go and eat. The kitchen is open 24/7. So yeah, it was, for a kid, we could meet some friends and we were just having a good time I guess.
And then we went to Wake Island for 2 weeks and then we went to Camp Pendleton near San Diego.
I mean, it wasn’t as nice as the Philippines. Wake Island, we were in a barrack. In the Philippines, we actually had our own room. In Wake, we had to share in a barrack with a bunch of people. And then in Camp Pendleton, we were in a tent. Thankful for the U.S. that they took care of us really well. And this is like the first wave out. And I have to say we were pretty fortunate that we got out so early ‘cause I know a few years after, it’s really rough, getting out. And after that we went to Downey because that’s where my aunt–the one that married the G.I.–that’s where her house is. And so she had a house in Downey so she took us…her husband, he’s the one who pulled us out of the camp and relocated us to Downey. ‘Cause they were actually living in Germany at the time. So they were living in Germany, they had a house in Downey and so they let us stay there.
We had a church that sponsored us. And so they taught us English, they kind of showed us around, they tried to get my aunt and my mom jobs, so they helped with that. And so I guess for us kids, you know, going to school I guess, it was a little tough at first. I mean you get your share of kids calling you names and things like that. So I guess it was a little rough at first but nothing major. And then once you get ahold of the language, you kind of blended in a lot easier.
Did you keep any ties with your Vietnamese roots?
My family is Buddhist, so we still hold the same, the whole ancestral worship kind of thing. You know, where we celebrate not just birthdays but the death anniversary of an ancestor. So my grandfather passed away on, I think, May 4th, May 5th. And so every year on May 4th, May 5th, we get together and we celebrate him. And then you got your regular tradition of Chinese New Year and things like that, so we still do that kind of stuff.
KEEPING UP WITH DAD
Did you keep in touch with your dad post war?
So when we’re little, we had to write letters back then. As a kid, it’s kind of tough but yeah. We need to stay in touch with him and things like that. And she would send money back. Again, she’s really resourceful, so even though she has like a low-paying job, she was able to find enough money even to support us here and to send back money to him. The way it works is basically there’s two parties. There’s somebody over there and somebody over here. You pay the guy here and the guy over there gives my dad money.
I guess in ‘94…again, I haven’t seen him since ‘75. So he’s really…I guess, in the neighborhood, he’s known as the really wise guy. Not like the “wise guy” wise guy, but wise old man kind of thing. A lot of people come to him for advice and he’s actually into astro…that fortune telling stuff, but it’s looking at the stars instead of…yeah, starlogy. Apparently, he’s pretty good at it. He’s seen pretty accurately for a lot of people. So I got to talk to him. Again, it was strange since I haven’t seen him for who knows how long. So, yeah, by the time I got there, he was already diagnosed with liver cancer and so it was hard for him already. His health had deteriorated, he couldn’t talk very long, he couldn’t go anywhere, he was kind of bed-ridden. It was tough. Immediately after I left…a few days after I left, he passed away.
I guess it wasn’t hard because again, since I didn’t really know him, I didn’t really grow up with him, I guess the attachment and the bond wasn’t there. It wasn’t like somebody close. I really didn’t know him.
RETURNING TO THE HOMELAND
When you returned last year to Vietnam with your family, what were your experiences?
So we went to Hanoi, we went to Hoi An, and then we went to Saigon. I’ve never been to Hanoi, never been to Hoi An, Saigon was all I knew. I felt like a tourist in the country. Even though I could understand what everybody was saying, it wasn’t home. It was kind of odd. I went to my house. We went to the house where we lived. It’s a restaurant now, it’s a chicken place, BBQ chicken (laughs). So there’s no zoning there, right? It’s weird. We walked past it, I didn’t even recognize it. We just walked past it. I knew the address, but that didn’t look like it. And then we met somebody that was living there while my dad was living there, so they knew and they said “Oh yeah, that’s your house over there” and we walked back over there and I finally…because they tore away the front wall and they painted it a different color. I went into the restaurant just to see and everything was just the way it was.
And then we went to this museum. It’s called the War Remnants Museum. The tanks…and it showed all the atrocities of the South and then the mistakes of America. See what I’m saying? I mean, you know, let’s get past it already, here, you know what i mean? But they still…even though it’s all nice and great and everything, I think that there’s still something. There’s still communists. There’s still commies.
So given the good that they did, but the abuse and all the killing they did to their own people doesn’t make up for what they achieved with the independence part. I think the war is a just war. The fight against communism, basically.
Looking back at the war, do you side with the Vietnamese effort or the American?
More from the American side. Because it is a war against communism. Granted, the southern government that the Americans backed…they themselves were a little corrupt because all the money from the Americans, and things like that. I guess you take the good with the bad. They’re corrupt but at least the people live in freedom. It is a tradeoff.
The whole neighborhood has changed, it’s amazing what they did to it. They cleaned it all up, the river behind doesn’t smell anymore, they cleaned it all up, there’s a park now behind the house, the…I went to kindergarten and first grade in a Buddhist temple at the front of the street. That temple is huge now. It’s really really nice. So yeah, I guess on that note, then yeah, a lot of things totally have improved. The only thing that still kind of gets me is the communist vibe is still there. When we went to the airport, when we get there, they give a hard time to the Vietnamese who live here and come back to visit. Not a hard time, but they expect us to give money at the airport. So you slip like 5 bucks or 10 bucks in the passport and then you give it to them. Because if you don’t, they kind of give you a hard time. And a friend of mine said, “Hey you know what you should do is pretend you don’t understand a single word they’re saying. Pretend you don’t understand Vietnamese at all.” So I did that, I went there and said “I don’t understand, sorry,” things like that, and so the guy actually went to me and he goes, “No gift for me?” (laughs) And I go, “Gift? What gift?” I play dumb. But then he goes, “You don’t know?” And I go, “I don’t know.” And then because I didn’t give him a gift, he goes to me, he goes, “Oh sorry, the computer is a little slow, you have to wait a little bit.” Little stuff like that, it kind of bugs me. It’s like, just because we’re the Vietnamese who got out and went to the U.S. And then on the way out, these people, they’re younger than me, so it’s not like…and then so, the girl that was there, she goes, “Where were you born?” So on the way out, I forget the whole pretending not to understand thing. So she goes, “Where were you born?” And I go, “Saigon.” And as soon as I said “Saigon”…and as soon as I said “Saigon”…because right now, “Saigon”…the name is “Ho Chi Minh City.” And so I said “Saigon” and that triggered something in her and so her face turned right away and in the middle of processing my papers, she stood up, went back, and started rearranging her desk. I had to just wait there. And then later on she came back, a few minutes later she came back, and she’s like “Oh yeah, you can go.” What was that? You know, I don’t get it.
I just feel thankful, actually, for the U.S. to do what they did for the country. Because without them, I don’t think I would have this life right now. Yeah. It’s a blessing, to be able to have…yeah.