Fear and Poverty: Huong's Life in Saigon
Profilers: Zach Estes, Lauren Lawson, Christine Nguyen, Haruko Warren
Life Before the Fall
As someone born in 1965 and a Saigon native, you were 10 years old when Saigon fell to the North. Can you tell me about what life was like growing up?
Hello, Christine and hi everyone, my name is Theresa Nguyen, and I was born in South Vietnam, Saigon. I came from a big family with five sisters and three brothers, and we lived very happily. We all had a Catholic education, and I remember we only had two kinds of clothes. Boys were blue and girls were pink, and we all would go to school. I had a very happy childhood and a happy family. My mom imported weaving machines from everywhere and resold them in Vietnam. My dad was a mechanic and he worked in the military, but he was not a soldier. He was a mechanic in the navy.
The fall was on April 30, but on February 28 our neighborhood burned down for two blocks and we had nothing left. I remember the Red Cross helped us to put all the things and all the goods to make it become a house for us to stay in.
We’ve been very poor, and we had nothing left and my dad had to find a job to survive and my mom started to work to sell a little stuff.
But anyway, life was very different because we had nothing left. Besides the changing rules I didn’t know much about communism at the time, but I was told by my parents that they had to escape the north in 1954. Because when they announced that they were going to become communist, my dad and my mom escaped from the north (1954) to go to the south- because the south at that time was a Republic. I didn’t know anything about the democratic republic.
Life After the Fall
What happened to your family immediately after the Fall of Saigon?
I remember the day, April 30, 1975, and it was a chaotic situation. My dad disappeared, I don’t know if he got caught in the company or something. But I remember my mom kept telling the eight of us, “stay inside and wear all black clothes.” And we said, “why do we have to wear black?” And it was because people from the north, they all wear black. We have to be like one of them- otherwise, they are going to shoot us. So, stay put inside the house and don’t do anything. And I remember that night, we have no electricity, we have to wait in the candlelight and it would be abnormal for us.
There were a lot of tanks on the street and people screaming and yelling and we were so scared on that day and there was a lot of news- fake news, I think. But we didn’t know what to do, we just listened to my mom and stayed put inside the house. I think we had to stay like that for a few days before it returned back to normal. Whatever was inside the house, we cooked and heated up. Cooked and ate it. There was no grocery shopping. My mom definitely didn’t want us to walk outside because we might get shot, because there were a lot of soldiers on the street. And a lot of people tried to escape Vietnam to somewhere, I don’t know. But I remember it was a scary, scary, day.
What was it like a week later, after all the chaos?
I think a week after that we all went back to school, as usual, but every day there was a new rule. And the public speakers start to speak to give a command out loud to the people, and we would have to follow it. And I remember in our village, we had a meeting every night to vote for the village leader. Everybody has to go to the leader to ask permission, like visiting your cousin or spending time overnight or staying overnight.
For everything you have to ask the leader- and if you have visitors that come to your house, you have to report to the leader that, “today, I have my cousin coming to the house.” After 11 o’clock everything is locked down. You cannot go anywhere, and you are not free to do what you want to do like what you used to do before.
I was so sad, but I was like 10 years old and my mom asked me to do whatever they tell us to do and don’t do any different.
What did your day-to-day life look like when Saigon was taken over by the North?
They tried to teach the youth, the teenagers, how good and how great the Communists were. And they make the meeting so fun for them to listen and to obey. They were very controlling with socialism, because, you know, you’re not really free to do anything.
Besides that I remember they keep changing currency. Because, you know, when they announce, “Oh next month we’re going to change the currency.” You will have a limit on how much you can change. If you have too much money, you have to throw it away because you cannot change it. They wanted to control the rich people. They had to give away their property. I know some rich, wealthy families, they have to give up [their properties] and they went to the country to farm because they had nothing left.
When you go to school, you have to go make a group to talk about politics. Every child has to belong to a group with a good child with red scarves.
What were they telling these kids with the red scarves?
The red scarf is a sign of a good niece of Ho Chi Min. Whoever has a red scarf means they are good children. We have to follow orders like we do this to get this award and do that to get that award.
Vietnam Escape Attempts
Can you tell us about your attempts to escape Vietnam?
From before the fall on April 30, my uncle was already planning an escape. We’re not going to stay in this situation, we are all going to escape- about 40 of us.
My uncle, my aunt, and my family, all of us went to the Vung Tao at the shore. So, we have a way to go to the ocean and escape by boat. And I remember that day- we all packed and wore black, and we all went to Vung Tao to have a chance to escape.
We stayed there, and I remember in the middle of the night- when the water was very low- we had to follow the rail to go down to hide under the house because there was a basement. But it wasn’t really a basement. That is where there was water- the ocean- and we had to hide under that and we were waiting for a small, what they called a taxi, a small boat that would bring us to a big boat to escape. We’ve been waiting and waiting until the water would rise up to my nose and I couldn’t breathe. My mom asked us to go back to the house and wait for another chance, and we all went back to the house. We paid for people to cook for us, and we kept doing that for two nights, or three nights. Finally, the plan, there was no chance of success and we had to leave immediately.
We had to leave Vung Tao to go back to the city within Saigon because my uncle told me, “We cannot stay because they know that we are from the city. We are city people and if they (Northern Vietnamese) followed us, they will put us in a camp.” So that’s why we have to leave. But don’t leave as a big group- divide into small groups and escape to leave Vung Tao and go back to the city, Saigon. And we all went back to Saigon.
How do you feel about sharing that story?
I’m very emotional because it felt like it happened yesterday. Because at that time I was 10 years old, and I was very scared.
My dad still wanted to find some connections to escape. But because at that time we have no money, and we’re very poor, but my dad had the skills to take care of the engines of boats.
And so a lot of people who owned many boats- and were planning to escape by boat- wanted my dad to take care of the boat when they escaped. My dad accepted the plan with the condition for all of us to leave together, but the owner of the boat said to my dad because he only has two boats, “If you want to escape you have to have gold. Three ounces, four ounces, ten ounces per person.” But as I told you, all my family’s property burned down now for two months before the fall of the South on February 28, and the fall on April 30. That’s why we have nothing left, we have no money, no gold.
I still remember every night before the fall, my mom always took all the gold, and said, “This necklace is for you when you grow up. This earring is for you- your gold, your diamond.” Because in Vietnamese culture parents always want to leave a little something for the children when they pass away, so the children get it as a memory. I remember my dad and my mom telling everybody, “Oh, when you grow up I’ll give you this and this.” But after the house burnt down, it all turned black.
We had nothing left, not even an ounce of gold. My dad accepted the offer with the condition that they allow my dad to take my older brother and my older sister, Lien, with them. But at that time Lien didn’t want to go, she was in love and so she didn’t want to go. Instead, they took my second sister older than me. I wanted to go, but my mom said “You’re little, you don’t get to go.”
My brother, my older brother, was the priority because my older brother was drafted. In the north took over the south all of the 18-year-old males or older have to be in the army with no term. That’s why my mom was very scared for my older brother. That’s why my older brother was a priority to leave Vietnam- because when you get an order for being drafted to the army, you never come back! They always get killed!
All of the officers, day and night with guns would search around to find those males who didn’t go to the army- and at that time my older brother was one of them. I remember one night when we were sleeping and there would be a “Bang! Bang!” at the door. My mom has to ask my older brother to climb up to the roof of the house because the officer will come in and take him away. That was the reason why my brother was a priority when planning to escape Vietnam.
But one time they did catch my brother, but they caught my brother in a different way. I remember my mom had to try to pay money to the head of the village for my brother to have an excuse to go home, at least for one time. I remember when they caught my brother they put my brother on the bus. My mom kept running beside the bus and called my brother’s name, and we ran beside my mom. And I remember one day my mom said, “Oh if we die, we still have to escape Vietnam because of my brother.” We were not afraid of escaping, we wanted our freedom. And that’s why we put everything into the escape.
That’s why my mom asked my dad to take the offer right away and let my older brother and my older sister go with him. The owner of the boat also wanted my dad to take care of his three daughters, with the promise that they will let the rest of us go with him from the second boat. But that never happened, he left without us because we have no money.
What do you think the reason was for why your family wanted to leave?
I think the only reason was that we wanted freedom, and we want to do what we used to do before the fall. We never dreamed of America, because we ate all international food- we ate American food, we ate everything as a kid, and we enjoyed it. But after the fall we didn’t have those kinds of things- everything was limited- and we had to follow the rules. I think my parents want us to have the freedom to study, freedom to do things like we used to do before. But now when I think it over, I think there were so many reasons for my parents wanted us to escape, because they already escaped from the north in 1954. So, they have full experience with communist life.
Even if you were rich, you cannot be rich, everything is like cong san, everything needs to be together, if you need it, you have to ask for it. And sometimes even if you asked, you don’t get it. That’s the reason my parents escape Vietnam.
Also due to my dad’s work in the navy, American navy, so he knew a lot about living in the States. That’s why he would love for us to go to live in the States.
Growing Up Apart
What was life like for you, without your father and your siblings?
That time my dad left in 1977 and he got saved by an oil company in Indonesia. About two weeks later and we got a telegraph saying that he landed okay on the island, on the Galang island. I remember we were very poor without my dad and my mom having to wake very early- like three o’clock or two o’clock in the morning- to go to the country to buy rice. In South Vietnam, they sell rice very cheaply, and she’ll go back to the city to resell it with a small profit for us to survive.
Sometimes my mom would have to take me because I was a young kid and they don’t check you. You can hide rice, you can hide whatever on your body. Sometimes my mom would take my brother and sometimes my mom would take me to go to the sea, where they sell very cheap fish or cheap fish sauce. And we would bring it back to the city to resell to make a little profit to survive.
When my dad went to the Indonesian island, he spoke a little bit of English, that’s why they asked him to be a leader of the group. They gave him a lot of left-over medicine. Every month, we would have to receive a little box of medicine, and my dad told me, “I am going to send number one to number 10, if you miss any number, you have to let me know.” But when I received the little box of some medicine, I resold it in Vietnam. So that we would have a little money to survive. Six or seven people lived in our house, so every day after school, I have to do a lot of work to find something for the family to have for dinner that day to survive.
Leaving Vietnam and Reunification
How long was it before you were able to reunite with your dad again?
We came to the States on October 5, 1990. And we separated in 1977, so that is about 13 years.
Back then, my dad worked very hard in the states and he sent gifts and money to support the rest of us. My dad always lived in an apartment, and three days before we came to the States, he purchased a house for us. We were very lucky and never had to live in an apartment for even one day. I remember my dad told me he always lived in apartments to save money to bring all of us over for a reunion.
Do you remember the memory of when you saw your dad and your siblings again, for the first time in 13 years?
Yes, even though he sent a picture to us, when I met him, he was a totally different person. My sister, my brother, they were American.
We were Vietnamese and they’re American. But we were very happy to see them, and talked all day and all night long, sharing our experiences and sharing the memories of when we wanted to escape together, and all of the eczemas I got because I was sunk in under the ocean for so long, I got a skin rash. A lot of memories to share about that day, and now my dad is 92 years old, but every time we talk about that we always cry.
Do you remember the process of coming to the United States? What emotions were you feeling when you were told, “Okay, we have to leave Vietnam and we’re going to move to America now to be with your dad and your family”?
Oh, I remember I was very sad because I left my sister’s family behind with two daughters, Trang and Yen. They were really little, and I was so sad because I wanted them to come along with us, but their parents decided not to come. Besides that, I thought when I left Vietnam that maybe someday if I have the chance, I would come back, but I didn’t really think so.
And I just thought that I would miss my sister’s family when I left Vietnam, that’s all. And of course, I also missed my customers who supported my little tailor shop.
Living in the United States
Have you been back to Vietnam, since you left?
Yes, in 1999, nine years later, I came back to Vietnam because my big brother, my older brother, got married to a girl who was an F1 student in Australia. They decided to go back to Vietnam to get married. That’s why I came back for the first time, nine years later. And I thought it was totally different, there were a lot of big buildings, a lot of changes, a lot of cars, a lot of nice hotels, it was totally different when I left nine years before.
And how does that make you feel?
I think that’s good because it is not like before, the country is getting better when they open up. I think that’s a good sign for Vietnam when they open up to let foreigners in. They learn a lot from everywhere, and they make a big difference and big changes. I’m happy to see Vietnam like that.
Do you think that you made the right decision coming to the United States and leaving Vietnam?
Definitely yes, because when my friend asked me if I want to go back to Vietnam and live in Vietnam, I said, “I don’t think so.” Because I have already stayed in the States for 30 years right now. I’m 55 and it has been 30 years!
Now, I think I’m American, Vietnamese American, and I adapted with the culture, American culture. Back in Vietnam, it’s like a different culture for me. I don’t think I would go back to Vietnam, I think I would stay here, because my family and my children are here, and they are American, Vietnamese American, American Vietnamese.
Why do you think talking about the Vietnam War is important? Why do you think sharing your story is important?
Yes, I think, it is very important to share the story with the young generation, because if you don’t share the story, how do they know about 1975, when the north took over the south with the name “dai phong” that means they think they are going to save South Vietnam from America.
But I don’t think so. They use the “dai phong” which means they will save us from the South, but we were happy with the society at the time. We were very happy, but since they came, and they took over, our lives were totally different.
We need to share this story, share the true story to the youth, so when they grow up they know their origin. They know what is going on. Then they can share that story with their children, their younger generation, that’d be very important for us, to share the story of the Vietnam War.
I’m happy that Christine and your class gave me the opportunity to talk about my past, even though I’m crying a little. I hope I can make you guys understand the situation on April 30.