From the Eyes of a Young Girl
Profilers: Ben Tianyang, Michael Rouleau, Reed Malone
Introduction and Life Before the War
My name is Thao; I was born in 1961 in Sai Gon, I lived in Sai Gon until April of 1975, and I have not been back to Viet Nam since. My father was an officer in the South Vietnamese army, and my mother was an accounting clerk working for an agency of the United States government.
For me, life was as normal as a young person at any other country except my father was away from home regularly due to his duties in the army, and my mother was working full time. In addition to immediate family of six, my paternal grandparents also lived with us, at one time we had to have both a nanny and a housekeeper, but later on there’s only a housekeeper when the kids got older.
Because life was very normal, there were many fond memories even though we were surrounded by the war. We had many memories with the whole family, the large extended family use to get together quite often. Another fond memory was we got together to visits to the family farm. We got to play under the sun, in the green field, we got to know a lot of the animals, and it was a lot of fun. Being part of the Asian culture gave family members close bonds.
Activity that I cherished was our annual family vacation to the beach at Vung Tau, about 40 miles from Saigon. My father would rent an ocean front complex, where we all would spend the days soaking in the sun, sand, and water, and the nights gathering, cooking, or gazing at the stars, it’s similar to camping here in the U.S.. My father would always invite my aunt family, and two other families among his friends. My sister and I would always have someone at our age to play with, and those were the amazing memories would stay with me forever.
When Did the War Become “Real” to You?
“The war was a way of life for me since birth. And meaning its always real to me and my father and many of my relatives were serving in the army and the war was just the displacement the death, and the being prisoner of war were part of the stories that surrounded my family. My uncle, my father’s younger brother, was killed in 1961 when I was only 4 months old due to a landmine planed by the Vietcong. My uncle was a civil engineer fresh out of college, he volunteered to take a job in the countryside to build a road for small villages and his car was blown up in one of his outings. I also had uncles who were caught in the war as prisoner and were not released until after 1975. Those kind of stories are part of us even though I was very safe in Saigon we occasionally heard artillery but not to the point where we were danger. Because we lived in the army base camp we were very safe. The only time I was in direct, I shouldn’t say contact, but it was during the 1968 Tet offensive, during that time the NVA actually got close and attacked the US embassy so Saigon was under siege. My aunt’s family had to evacuate from her home to come to our house for safety. We had food to sustain for over a week for I believe about 17 or 18 people in my house at that time. I felt very safe except for all the worry my mother had about the war, but for me the panic wasn’t there.”
“A Pressure Cooker”
“Starting in the year 1975 I could tell from maybe an extreme nervousness in my surroundings. I was an 8th grader. It was just a lot of hushed conversation, quiet sighs from my parents and relatives, and the sentiment got worse by the day. There were talks predicting that the city was falling even though there was no confirmation. So I could tell it was not business as usual. People rolled through life with a lot of hesitation and it seemed like a pressure cooker if I may call it that. It is not the kind of sudden impact panic but it’s a brewing kind of environment. As a child I was shielded from it because there was no social media and no TV. So one day in March of that year my mom gathered her family, her immediate family: just my grandmother and children and husband. She said that she was told that the war escalated and could reach Saigon soon and as an employee of the US government she was offered a chance to evacuate her family to the United States. She asked us to keep this news as the utmost secret and we were instructed to pack our belongings. My brother and I wild and excited at the thought of faraway adventure of going to the United States but my two older sisters were not so happy. My oldest sister actually said she didn’t want to go but at the end all of us prepared.”
“The U.S. decision to withdraw from Viet Nam coincided with the South Vietnamese losing battles as the North Vietnamese army advanced passed the divided border. As each city were taken, the soldiers had to flee and people flee and come to the South and the stories they told, I can tell things were complete chaos. By April 21 1975, President Thieu resigned and left the country. April 25, 1975, my mother informed us that we must go to the airport and wait for our flight. We left and at the airport, the office was filled with people and their families, young children were running around in the office, so there was no working, later I was asking my mom what’s going on that day? And I said how come there’s no working and she said apparently the packing was already done, meaning everything was packed and shipped days ago. We stayed one night, and my father said he changed his mind about leaving the country and so we left the airport and went home. By now, I started to hear scattered bombing, which I hadn’t heard since the Tet Offensive in 1968. The entire time during the time of April, we were asked not to anywhere, we need to stay around the house. The news can only be told by people coming and tell us.
April 27, 1975, my mom came home, we knew that it’s time to go. There was no time to take any belongings that we had prepared. We took one bag for the whole family, and my father’s Samsonite, and he still kept his Samsonite after 41 years, all his important paper is still in that Samsonite. We said goodbye to my grandmother, there was no time for me to process any emotions, we just left. I had no time to process my emotions. It was late afternoon, when I turned around and saw my grandmother tears streaming down her face. We were shocked by what was happening even though we had been prepared, we said we may leave and I was even excited. But at that moment, it was a sudden impact, when you are drawn in to a situation, you don’t think, you just move on.
When we got to the airport entrance, my mother came back and said for some reason the paperwork got mixed up, no one could got in except for her because she got the employee badge. At that time, nothing is on computer. The Vietnamese guard refuse to let her in, so she turned around and said she would go look for her American boss, there were several American Supervisors at the time. She went in the longest time, and I was so scared, the entire time I feel that she would not come back because I had heard so many stories about displacements of the families, separations of families. The thought of not having my mother around or get separated because of the war was devastated. A few hours later, a Ford Falcon came, back then, no many people have cars. The car slowly approached our car, we were just looking, at that time we already heard the signal gun and the sky would light, it’s quite frightening to see that during the war time. He (Dan) came out, he greeted us and he politely and calmly introduced himself, I could never forget his name, Dan. He helped us into the car and we got into the airport. We stayed outside of the building, we couldn’t stay inside of the building because any kind of bombing could be death trap. So everyone stayed outside in the courtyard with their families.
Around 5 am, April 28, 1975, they said the flight is ready so we made our way toward the runway and that scene engrained in me, the area was flooded with people, we made our way toward the C130, cargo plane, the gate already opened for us, with Dan leading the way, we saw a number of U.S. marines each holding an AK 47 stood guard both sides of the ramp in the plane, the scene was astonishing for me because I didn’t think we needed that protection, there were already several Vietnamese government officers, they shout to see the flight manifest, they need to check the people on board and search the plane. Dan was waving the list of people and said he already checked out are these people are all U.S. government employees and their families, and they are now under the protection of the U.S. government, the plane had to take of to be on schedule. As we got on the plane and the cavity close, Dan stayed behind, he didn’t come with our group, he still had business to take care of back then. We all sat on the floor and that was my very first plane ride. The air got sucked out, and it got really hot, the temperature raised and I was panic and felt the plane was going to explode. With all those people around me, I could only hear my family, in the darkness and frightening moment, nobody else seems to be in that space, just you and your family, I was the youngest so I was in the middle of everybody. It seemed to be very long minutes, and we eventually arrived in Clark air base in Philippines.”
All images in the videos are courtesy of “Memories of Pre 1975 Vietnam” An online photo collection curated by Nguyen Ngoc Chinh. These photos and more can be found HERE