Resilience in the Face of War: Lien Chu's Journey
Profilers: Audrey Marcella, Justin Smith, Michael Sunkin, Sonali Chu
Lien Chu’s journey illustrates the resilience and determination one can have despite all the challenges faced. Her experiences during and after the Vietnam War are powerful reminders of the impact of war on individuals and their communities. Despite the challenges she faced, Lien’s unwavering spirit and determination led her to rebuild her life in the United States, where she has continued to thrive and make a difference. Her story is an inspiration to all those who have faced adversity and emerged stronger.
Part 1 – Before the War:
Q: Can you tell me about your life leading up to the war?
I started living in Saigon in 1949, the end of 1949. That time I lived in Saigon, my father worked for the government in Saigon, and we had a room. But we had a very good life in Saigon at that time. Very peaceful. Very peaceful.
Q: Is there a point when you began to worry about the conflict between the north and the south?
Yes, because my father was worried about the war: the civil war in the north. That’s why he moved the whole family to the south. Early, kind of early in 1949. Not many people were there. Very few people moved to the south because nobody recognized that the war will be severe.
Q: Can you tell me about your experience working at the bank in Saigon?
In Vietnam, there was two biggest bank of Vietnam. What is the Bank of National Vietnam, where they are dealing with foreigners. They’re printing money. They’re dealing with the relationship with foreign country banking in the war. And the second is called the Vietnamese Commercial Bank.
I worked for the Vietnamese Commercial Bank in Vietnam. My bank is half government control and half is civil control. So I was proud to be, I was proud to work for my bank at that time. I said the name is the Vietnamese Commercial Bank.
Part 2 – During the War:
Q: Is there a particular memory from the war that stands out to you?
In 1968, when at the time I was a young girl and still living with my parents in a house, in a nice house, in a suburb of Saigon, like ten kilometers from Saigon, from the center of Saigon. There was one battle between the communists and the Vietnamese soldiers. Right in front of my house.
So when we stayed in the garage, you know, the garage door always has the square hole to get the light. So we saw through there. We saw, like a bullet, fly back-and-forth at night. It was very scary. It was very scary. They fight right in front of my house, like a hundred, like a quarter mile from my house, right in front of my house. Just what am I? But at nighttime, you seemed very close because of all kinds of light from grenades and something scary.
So that’s why after that, so that’s why after that, my mom was so scared. That’s why they left the country and came to Turkey. We could die because you could have been struck by one small bomb with something and a grenade or whatever. Oh, easily. Rockets. Because a lot of my friends have a house and got rockets let out on a lot of people, you know. It’s scary, it’s scary.
So this is the only time I can see the war directly affect me, that’s the only one time because I lived in Saigon all the time. So that’s why it kind of spoiled me, frankly. I feel sorry for my country that happened a lot. I do love my country because Vietnamese people, they were very, I don’t know now, but they were very, very nice and they were really sentimental. Vietnamese people are very sentimental. And that’s the way I am too, that’s the way I am. I have to admit that.
Q: Do you think the war has changed your country and the people in general?
Definitely. Definitely. The Communist has changed people. I have to admit, the war, the Communists, the modern time has changed Vietnam upside down. The Vietnamese people weren’t as materialistic as what you see right now.
But right now the way I see Vietnamese in Saigon, they kind of, I cannot say because I don’t live there. So I cannot say anything about right now, but you know, I know, I don’t recognize them. They don’t look like the Vietnamese people that I knew before I left the country.
Q: How did the war affect your experience at the bank?
At the last minute of 1975, the activities of the bank were high rising. Because the people knew at the time that Saigon will fall into a communist regime. So they want to go into the safety deposit box, they went to the account, the deposit account, and everything. They want to get money out. They want to get the valuables out of the safety box, and they want to get all the money out of their certificate, deposit, everything. And I helped a lot of people get money out from their long-term deposit certificate.
They were locked into a 24-month deposit with higher interest rates, but they want to take the money out because they knew that if they didn’t do it right away, they will lose that money when the country changed regimes. So I kind of helped a lot of people, and I was happy to help them.
Q: What was your opinion on US involvement in the war?
Simple, I support the idea. The U.S. government was involved in the war in Vietnam because it helped my country keep the old regime, which I prefer better than the communist regime. I think it’s more good than bad. Yeah, I still support the idea that having U.S. support in Vietnam during that war.
Q: Towards the end of the war, did you begin preparations to leave the country?
That’s a tough question for all the Vietnamese because of the Vietnamese in Saigon, I think that most of us don’t think that Saigon, or South Vietnam, fell into a communist regime that fast. So nobody prepared. Nobody prepared well and especially at that time, my husband was studying at USC in June, and I was at home with my oldest son.
I didn’t know much about politics and I still went to work just like everybody else. I don’t hear anything about the side of South Vietnam. We fell into a communist regime that fast, and because my family knew a lot of VIPs in Vietnam, and they don’t even know. They don’t even know. They didn’t even prepare. So I didn’t prepare at all about the day I have to leave Saigon because the country already changed the regime. And I didn’t like that the regime, and I was scared of the new regime change. So I even didn’t prepare at all until the last minute; a lot of people just like me didn’t prepare.
Part 3 – Leaving Vietnam:
Q: Can you describe that last day you were in Vietnam and when you ended up leaving?
The communist soldiers are coming closer and closer to Saigon, where I’m living. Day by day. And my parents kind of live ten miles far from me. I’m living right in Central Saigon on Nguyễn Huệ, it’s a famous street in Saigon.
I told my parents, come and live with me so we could be together. And my sister, also with my sister, too. And I’m still going to work. I still go to work until the last day. And my two sisters on the last day, on the 29th, Saigon fell on the 30th of April 1975.
But on the last day, on the 29th, my two sisters, go to school to check if she has passed junior high. Yeah, I remember my sister, named Anh, she’s the youngest sister. She, that day, took another sister, and she goes to my school to check to see if I have passed junior high, at the school named Marie Curie. And, they went, and I stayed home with my parents and with the housekeeper and my son. In Saigon, in my apartment in Central Saigon.
I look out, I went to the balcony and I looked out through the street and I see people. At that time, it had a curfew. This is a curfew that nobody can go out. And now, what I see is a lot of people on the street, and they’re heading to the Saigon River. Saigon River, near a port called Bạch Đằng port, close to my house, close to my apartment. I was like really, and I told my parents, “Why don’t you stay home?” I go with my housekeeper and my son to Bạch Đằng to see what’s happening.
And, you know, when I went out there, I saw all the U.S. naval ships start leaving one by one, one by one, and I counted a total of 14 of them leaving. And on the ship full of people. I don’t know how I can get into the ship. They already left.
In my house, people said, “Oh, I have a boyfriend, he works here.” He works at the port, Bạch Đằng port. And she grabbed one of the oldest military navies and asked about her boyfriend. He said, “Okay,” he’ll go get him, and he went in and got the guy out. The guy said, “Will you go with me here?” And we took the jeep to take you inside and he took the jeep and put the three of us: me, my housekeeper, and my son, on the jeep and drove through the gate and came to the port.
There was only one ship. They had one Vietnamese Navy ship left there. The reason is because that ship wasn’t working well. It could go, but very slowly because this ship had a problem. So he put us down, and we had to wait to see if they can fix it. When I went in and saw it up close, the port, and I couldn’t get out.
At that time, we didn’t have a cell phone or walkie-talkie or anything to call home to let my parents know that we slept in there. I went in around 4:00 o’clock in the afternoon, 4:00 p.m., and we had to wait, until 1 a.m. in the morning. The guy said, “Why don’t you just climb into the ship by the string, by the stringed ladder.” So we: me, my housekeeper, and my son climb into the ship, the U.S. Navy ship, at 1 a.m., and the ship started leaving at 2 a.m.
Q: What was it like on the ship?
The ship, even working cripply, still left Saigon on April 20, actually April 30, 1975, which that’s the last day. The day the whole of South Vietnam fell into a communist regime.
So by 10:00 o’clock, the ship because it’s crippled, it only got not far from Saigon, and we saw a Russian airline fly over the ship (Mrs. Chu is referring to a MIG, a Russian-made fighter jet used by the North Vietnamese air force). Therefore, we thought that they caught us, but they didn’t care because it was so busy with a lot of other things.
So the ship started going very slowly. It took 14 days from Saigon to Subic Bay in the Philippines, where the U.S. Navy was there. It’s called Subic, s-u-b-i-c, Subic Bay.
When we got there, then 14 days for a very short distance from Vietnam to the Philippines, and on my ship were a lot of Vietnamese generals and priests, a lot of them. Because nobody knew Saigon will fall that fast, and besides, we couldn’t find a way to leave Vietnam even if we knew earlier.
At Subic, the seven U.S. Naval, I don’t know how to call the seven U.S. Naval military (Mrs. Chu is referring to the US Seventh Fleet), transfer us from our ship, our crippled ship, our not working ship, to their U.S. ship. And on the U.S. ship, they gave us an apple and scrambled eggs in rice because we didn’t have much food and drinks in the last 14 days on the Vietnamese ship.
And the ship, the U.S. ship took us from Subic Bay to Guam, to Guam, and it ran great, really fast. Really, really fast. The ship, the U.S. ship ran really fast, it made us dizzy. I got sick but soon enough, in only like two days or three days, we got to Guam.
At Guam, a lot of refugees, we are now called refugees, a lot of refugees, and they had a tent for us to sleep in. I, my son, and the housekeeper sleep in a tent together with the few families in one big tent.
They said that the waiting list to go to the U.S. to join my husband in California is a very long time. It could take 2 to 3 months. And I was thinking, oh my God, if I live in a tent for two, three months and we have to go to stay in the sun and get food every day, I’m afraid I may die, because I was very weak and emotional at that time. I was depressed and missing my parents, my sister, brother, and the emotion. I don’t know how I can describe it.
And I said, okay, so I can maybe find a way to go to Canada. To Canada because I have an older sister living in Canada. So I went to the tent where the Canadian consular embassy was there.
I went in and I said that my sister lived in Montreal and may I borrow the phonebook, to find out about my sister. And I found my sister in the phonebook and I call her. I asked them to call her for me, to call her for me, and they call her and she said, “Okay, I sponsor my sister and her son.” So that’s how I went to Montreal.
Q: What was your experience like in Canada?
In Montreal, Canada, my sister calls my husband in California at USC. And my husband said, “Oh my God.” It’s hard for him to get me from Canada to the U.S. to California because it’s not easy. It’s not simple because now, at that time, I was a Canadian refugee. So it’s hard to change the status from Canadian refugee to U.S. refugee.
I have to stay in Montreal with my sister, six months, six months, with my son. My husband does paperwork and everything, and sends it to Washington DC, asking for us to join him in California. It cost my husband a lot of money to pay for phone bills. But finally, he got us to California on October 31st, 1975.
Part 4 – Life in America and Looking Back on Vietnam:
Life in America:
Q: What was life like when you first arrived in the US?
My husband said that he still has a few courses at USC to get his master’s degree in public administration. So he suggests to me to live in Wisconsin with his cousin because it is close to Canada. So my family in Canada can see me easier.
I stayed in Wisconsin from October 1975 and I didn’t know, I didn’t realize that the cold weather in Wisconsin doesn’t fit us because we came from a tropical country. And now, I couldn’t take it and even I couldn’t find a job in banking in Wisconsin.
So, on January 1976, my husband graduated from USC with a master’s degree in public administration. He came over to Wisconsin and brought us back to California. So we got back to California and stayed in San Jose, California.
At that time, electronics were booming in San Jose, Silicon Valley. So I went to drafting class in San Jose, California, and my husband took the job as a digital aide in a school in San Jose.
It took me only like six months for training in drafting, and I went to work for the Intel Company. At that time, Intel still was a small company, not as big as now, and I didn’t know what Intel is or something like that. I just worked.
After I worked for Intel, in the year 1977, my husband got a job at L.A. County as a social worker. We moved again, after one year living in Burbank. I moved to Orange County to live in Buena Park in 1978.
So it’s not very good for my son because he had to change schools so much. But somehow my son, he is a smart boy. And also he adapted very well with the situation. He’s still doing very well in school and makes us very happy.
Q: Were there any challenges with language barriers when it came to getting a job or anything else?
Oh, about when I was in high school, I took English as my second language, so I understand English, but I cannot talk because I haven’t speak even one sentence, English sentence.
When I was in Vietnam, I didn’t have any American friends or any American teacher anything, you know. When I came here, it’s hard for me to speak, but I still can understand simple, simple conversation.
And besides, in that six months, first six months, I did labor jobs, so not much talking, not much talking, we’re working very hard.
Q: How did Americans respond to you being a refugee from Vietnam?
First, I’d say now, now is no problem because it has been almost 50 years, and we already have U.S. citizenship for 40 years. So, I don’t see any difference.
Looking Back on Vietnam:
Q: How do you feel about Vietnam now?
I still love Vietnam because my heart never changed with the war. The place where I was born and my roots are there. No, but I still love Vietnam and everything, but I went back to Vietnam and I went from the south to the north and everywhere in Vietnam. And I was satisfied with what I was seeing.
You know, I went back to Vietnam, but I don’t think that I want to live in Vietnam, now. When I went back to Vietnam, they looked at me differently than a Vietnamese who lived their whole life in Vietnam. So I don’t feel comfortable, and I don’t think they treated me as warm as I expected.