HO CHI MINH CITY, Vietnam — As the aging Vietnam Airlines jet banks sharply and begins its descent, nearly all 86 passengers press their faces against the tiny round windows to glimpse the urban sprawl that swims out of Bangkok's mist.
Pointing out high-rise office towers and highways jammed with cars, these are not simply curious travelers from the hinterlands of Vietnam making their first visit to a developed country. Instead, they are people who have fear and uncertainty etched in their faces, families who have decided to abandon their homeland.
Seated in the first three rows of the aircraft are six members of the Luong family, headed to the unfamiliar world of El Toro, in Orange County. Luong Huu Loc, the 49-year-old patriarch, had been a police captain in the South Vietnamese government. After the fall of Saigon in 1975, he served seven years in a "re-education camp," a combination penal colony and political indoctrination center.
Accompanying Loc is his 47-year-old wife, Vo Thi Hon, who a month earlier suffered a stroke and now is paralyzed on her right side. She is propped up by a pile of airline pillows.
With the couple are their four daughters--Dung, Trang, Tranh and My Hien. Each wears her best ao dai, the elegant silk trouser-suit that for centuries has been the Vietnamese woman's garment of choice for special occasions.
As the Vietnamese plane touches down at the Bangkok airport, an eerie silence falls over the passengers: no applause or laughter, no cheers. One daughter daubs makeup on the face of Vo Thi Hon, who, because of her stroke, has difficulty speaking.
Tears cascade down the mother's cheeks.
On this day, the Vietnamese plane has been chartered by the International Organization for Migration, a Geneva-based refugee assistance group. All passengers, apart from two Western journalists, are emigrating from Vietnam to the United States, Australia or Canada.
Although overshadowed by the human tide known as the "boat people," who have fled Vietnam against daunting odds, tens of thousands of Vietnamese are now leaving legally under a plan called the Orderly Departure Program. Starting with a trickle in the early 1980s, the program has grown to a flood of emigrants, with nearly 4,000 leaving for the United States each month--more than any other ethnic group.
The stroke that incapacitated Hon--like all Vietnamese, she is known by her third name--was only the latest in a run of bad fortune that had dogged the Luong family's efforts to get out of Vietnam.
As with many South Vietnamese, their story really began in April, 1975, when American troops pulled out of Vietnam and the Communists came to power. Loc decided to stay, worried how the new regime would treat his elderly mother.
"My wife wanted to go at that time, but she stayed with me," Loc recalled in an interview at his scuffed wooden dining table in Ho Chi Minh City, formerly Saigon. "If only we had left at that time. . . . We are both full of regrets."
Almost immediately, Loc was arrested and shipped to the re-education camp. In 1980, while he was still there, the family applied to emigrate to Canada, but the Canadians turned them down.
Five years later, in August, 1985, the couple's two sons--Trung, now 23, and Duy, 17--escaped by boat and made their way to a refugee camp in Indonesia. Eventually they emigrated to the United States and found a home with Hon's sister in Orange County.
When they knew the young men had reached safety, the remaining family tried to escape by paying $1,000 each to smugglers. They were arrested by police on the eve of their departure.
Loc was sent to prison camp again, this time for 22 months.
Then two things changed to help the family's struggle: First, in 1987, the Vietnamese government began cooperating with U.S. authorities to draw up lists of people wanting to leave the country, after previously following a policy of dragging its feet.
The second development came in 1989, when Washington and Hanoi reached a historic understanding: The United States agreed to receive as refugees any former South Vietnamese officials who had served at least three years in a re-education camp, as well as their wives and children. Hanoi simply agreed to let these former enemies go.
Three main categories of Vietnamese now qualify for the Orderly Departure Program. First are Amerasians, the offspring of U.S. servicemen, whose "face is their passport," in the words of one official. More than 14,000 have left in 1990 alone.
Next are family reunification cases involving relatives of Vietnamese who have already moved to the United States. Finally are those accepted as refugees, such as the re-education cases, who don't require relatives in the United States to qualify but who must have a "well-founded fear of persecution."