Thang Bui

Chasing the American Dream

Profilers: Garrett Heil, Man Truong, Andrew Chow


Life in Vietnam


When and where were you born and can you describe your home in Vietnam?

So actually, I was born in 1964. I was born in Đà Lạt, which is in the central part of the South, and it’s more of a tourist town. When I grew up, I lived with my grandparents for the first six years of my life because of the war. My life when I was zero to six was quite good because my grandfather was an architect. So he did pretty well. So he lived in a really nice area, so I enjoyed the war during that period pretty well because we just were away from the main fighting during those stages. But there were a lot of American soldiers around.

What was a normal day for you growing up?

So I think during that period of time, it was nice, but after that — I remember in the early part of that, my dad was in the military: he was a major in the army. He was a civil engineer, and he was in charge of the Civil Corps. So they would be building — rebuilding bridges and stuff when somebody bombed them — basically rebuilding roads. So he will be based in this swamp area. In Vietnam, there’s a lot of swamp area, and vampire bats and very bad snakes and stuff. And I still remember, my mom, telling me a story that when she — it was an outdoor shower — so when she took a shower, my dad stationed a couple of guards around the outdoor shower, in case a vampire bat would swoop down. Because they like human blood.

So during that time, the [war] was always around us, you always hear the “boom, boom” that’s just the bombing that’s all around. So that’s just a constant. And then there’s time when we would stay on the base in Đà Nẵng, which is a large city where there was a lot of military [presence]. And we would just go hear air raids — when you hear air raids in Vietnam, the beds were just solid wood. So you’d just dive under the bed, and then you’d hide under there. And with my dad being in the military, having guns in the house was just common, right? So in Vietnam during that period, war was just a constant state for us.

Then, when we grew older, my dad was a deputy ambassador of Vietnam in Korea, so we went there for three years. After that, we tried to escape at the end of our first term in Korea, because Korea at that time was safer than Vietnam. So we tried to stage an escape in Korea. We got chased down by the embassy, like a real car chase through Seoul. We eventually we got caught, but because we were diplomats, they didn’t do anything. So we just got deported and sent home to Vietnam.

And so when we got sent home to Vietnam, you could still every night you can hear the bombing. And in Vietnam at the time, I still remember growing — we slept in mosquito nets — and as a kid, the time I was like six years old, I thought that this mosquito net would keep the bombs from hitting us. And that was what comforted us when hearing that. We went — in Vietnam, to go to a good school, you go to Catholic school — so I went to Catholic school. So the Catholic school was the closest I ever came to the war. The school was right across from the capitol of [South] Vietnam. And one day, a North Vietnamese jet, flew across and bombed the capitol and blew up all the glasses [windows] in my classroom. So we just ran out of the school and figured out how to get home. So that was part of the scariness of the early part of the war. So you still live and then you still go out and you eat and you go see movies and stuff. But the constant threat of war is always there.

So growing up, were you aware of the politics between the Republic of Vietnam and the National Liberation Front?

The politics is that Vietnam was split in two by the end of the French War, right? So Vietnam was under the influence of China for thousands of years, and then after that, by the French for 100 years. And Ho Chi Minh was a patriot at one point, to kick the French out. But when he kicked them out, there was a split Ho Chi Minh believed in what I call “true communism,” where it is communism that is equal for everybody. But the South wanted to be a republic and want to be more of a republic/democracy. So that’s how the country was split. So the Viet Cong, the People’s Liberation [National Liberation Front] had sympathized with the North and wanted to unify the North and the South. Where the South, unfortunately, was corrupt at this point. And it was actually controlled by the US — by the CIA. So both the President and the Vice President were influenced heavily by the Americans.

Did you know any of this as you were growing up as a kid in Vietnam?

Yeah, and more later — but when we were growing up, my parents talked about it. And you can’t tell a Viet Cong from a South Vietnamese, because we look exactly the same. It’s just that they were working underground, to try and reunite the country.

What forms of media did you see and get information from?

I don’t think there was any media because, in a war-torn country, you might have some radio and newspaper pamphlets. I was too young to see it, but I think that’s how things get disseminated. TV was on a couple of hours a day at night, so you don’t see much of it. There was a radio and mostly pamphlets and newspapers. So I think that’s where it came from. As a young person, I never saw it, but I’ve heard a lot about it.

Did the presence of American soldiers in your country affect you in any way?

Actually, it was a positive effect: the American soldiers were very actually very nice and actually contributed a lot into our economy and our lives. I thought that — of course, there were always some bad apples — but in general, the American soldiers were very kind and nice to our people, in the city. Now there’s, of course, bad stories out in the country and stuff, too. But overall, I think the Vietnamese had a very good impression of the US. And if you really think about it, if you ever have a chance to watch “The Last Days of Vietnam,” it gives you a flavor of how well the American soldiers did for the Vietnamese.

So at the end of the war, there were a lot of South Vietnamese that helped the American soldiers and diplomats in general. At the end of the war, I think, even the ambassador of the US in Vietnam didn’t think the war would end, but it did end. And so the American soldiers on their own, evacuated the Vietnamese that they knew, as much as they could, because they knew if they had been left behind, they would have been persecuted. And you want to think about it, as an example of how history repeats itself — what happened in Iraq, what happened in Afghanistan — the same story. In Iraq, when the US left about 10,000 of the people who were pro-American, they got killed. So same idea, but the Americans did a really good job. That’s why you had such a huge number of refugees in the US because they did it on their own, and then the US decided to allow us to come in as refugees. But it was not a government-organized evacuation.


Escaping To America


When did you leave Vietnam? What year?

So we left seven days before the war ended in 1975.

Leading up to 1975 when you left Vietnam, how did life change for you and your family?

Yeah, I think what happened is that – you can see that the war was getting worse: the food supply was bad, there was no running water — we had a well at the house and the water dripped in every day, so we would collect the water. You had to use an outhouse. Any drinking water, we had to boil. And if you have to take a shower, you boil water, mix it with cold water and you just used buckets to take shower. There was no milk. So food had to be bought fresh every day. And so you see food prices were going up. There was a lot of chaos and nervousness. The currency in Vietnam was not worth anything. So most Vietnamese either kept US dollars or gold.

During the time, the military ruled the country. The police were afraid of the military. So if we go to a movie or a restaurant, my dad could park his car anywhere, and the police would be like “Oh, I will watch your car for you,” because they’re afraid of the military. Then you hear — toward the end — you can hear city after city falling. Because at the end of the war, the Vietnamese didn’t have any bullets or ammunition from the US network. So we were losing city after city. So it was getting very dangerous for us.

When did you find out that you were leaving the country?

The day we left it. During that time, if you can get into the airport or if you can get on an American ship, then you can get refugee status and leave. So some of the American soldiers were charging about $1,000 a person to sneak them into the airport. My uncle knew a guy who was going to take him, his wife and his son, and was paying him $1,000. We were meeting him to say goodbye, my brother wasn’t with us. But my dad, my sister, my mom and I were saying goodbye to my uncle. They were going to squeeze everybody in the trunk of a car — and if you think about Asian cars — it was very small. There was an older man and his daughter who were gonna go, but the older man said, “I can’t get into the trunk of the car. I just can’t.” So my dad negotiates with the guy and said, “If I pay you now, can you take my wife and my daughter?” And since my I was, I think at the time 11, “My small son, can you squeeze him in?” And he said, “Yes.” And that was the decision; right there. My dad said that my brother and he would catch up later. He paid them and we left what we wore: no luggage. We climbed into the trunk of the car, they drove us inside [the] airport, let us out and then we wandered into a hangar.

From the hangar and we’d wait overnight. That night they came down and they took bulldozers and knocked down part of the airfield and the C-130 would come in. Then in the backdrop, we climb into the back of it, sat on the floor of the airplane [and] flew to Subic Bay in the Philippines. So that was the beginning of our journey, getting out of Vietnam. So the decision was [made] that day.

Was your father with you on the plane?

No, he stayed behind. He was gonna go back for my brother, and he was gonna leave later. He left seven days later, same route.

Where did you end up in America? And how did you get there?

So we were in Subic Bay [Philippines] for one night. And from there, they flew us to Guam. We stayed one week in Guam. To get us accustomed. I think they were processing something. And then from there, we flew into March Air Force Base, took a bus from there down to San Clemente and we stayed at Camp Pendleton. At that time, the Americans were not really ready for us, but they cleared out fields and put up military tents and cots. And that’s where we’d stay, actually out in the field, in the cots, and they fed us, and we stayed there for months.

And during that time, to get Vietnamese refugees — we had refugee status — acclimated into the US, you had to get a sponsor. So there was the sponsor; let’s say that you want to sponsor a Vietnamese family. They would give you a tax break and would pay for all the costs for two or three years. So there were good sponsors, that were bad sponsors, and there were a bunch in between. There were sponsors that would only want to sponsor the female Vietnamese. There were sponsors that would want to sponsor us for servants. And there were some sponsors that were good. Unfortunately, we got the bad sponsors: they used us as servants. So that’s how we got into the US and started our life here.

What was establishing a new life in America like for you and your family?

It was interesting. When we came here, we didn’t speak any English. So we came here during the summer, and we actually came to Riverside. We live in Riverside, and the sponsor was in Riverside. So during the summer, my sister at that time, was 17, my brother was 15 and I was 11. So we went to summer school, Chemawa Middle School near your house. Then we would go — at lunchtime and after school — we would go to the library. Somehow my mom got a Vietnamese-English dictionary, and we would get children’s books and that’s how we learned English. We did meet a very nice librarian, and she was actually the one that helped us. So as far as school, based in Riverside, the people were very welcoming. We didn’t feel prejudiced against. When we were in Vietnam, we had no friends, because we lived in the house. Because during war, you don’t go out wandering. So we had no friends. So when we came to the US, my brother, I and my sister all spent time together. That’s how we lived our lives until later on. So we had very welcoming American students and people.

And then my dad got a job — he was an engineer, but it was not recognized in the US. So he got a job as a machinist at Hunter Engineering. And my mom got [a job] as a nurse aide, because she was a nurse, and it was not recognized. So she worked as a nurse aide in a home. Then we got an apartment and then we left the sponsor within a month after we moved in because we didn’t like using food stamps. And we didn’t like the way we were treated as servants. And that’s how we got started. We just went to school. Back then there was English as a second language. But my mother said, “You’re not going in there,” because nobody spoke English. So she threw us straight into English class and said “You’re gonna sink or swim.” So we learned English from there. And that was a good choice. Like a lot of Asian families, we had two sets of homework, the regular school homework and the second set when we got home. So that’s what we did. And that’s how we got started.

So in America, would you say that your closer community was with other Vietnamese refugees or with Americans in general?

For us, Americans in general. My parents wanted us to assimilate. There are a lot of Vietnamese refugees that stay together as a group and they form a Vietnamese community, like in Westminster. But that’s very typical. The Irish are the same — the Polish, the Italians — when they first came to the US. For us, we did not, so I actually have more American friends than Vietnamese friends. We have both, but it was a mix.


Hindsights and Reflections


Do you think that you found success in America and achieved the so-called “American Dream?”

Yeah, I think from my standpoint, I’m very proud to be American. Because I think in America, most Americans don’t appreciate what they have. But if you work hard, and you put the focus in here, in the US the opportunities there, so I feel very blessed. And I feel that we have been able to accomplish a lot in the US. And my family, at least, and a lot of families have been able to achieve a lot because of the opportunity in the US. I think it’s amazing. I’ve gotten a chance to travel all over the world. I still think the best is the US: the opportunity and freedom we have here. So yes, I 100% agree that this is the best place to live.

Have you visited Vietnam since and if so, what’s changed and what stayed the same?

Unfortunately, I’ve never been back as most of my family are here. But we are going in November – my family has gone back. What Vietnam had changed is that with this latest trade war with China [between China and the US] — Vietnam is booming right now. Very high-tech. Very industrious. A lot of manufacturing has shifted into Vietnam. So Vietnam is booming from an economic standpoint. Now we know that Vietnam is making — is exporting an electric car to the US, right? I know you’re familiar with that. It’s coming. Unfortunately, tourism and stuff – Vietnam I wouldn’t say is truly communism now. I think it’s more capitalism. Under communist regime, but I don’t think that they behave that way. They’re not strict like China. So it’s more a capitalist country. I think the beauty and some of the countryside have been — because of too much tourism, too much growing too fast — have gotten worse. But overall, the country and economy are thriving, and the Vietnamese people are doing well.

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