WESTMINSTER — Cries of "Free Vietnam!" echoed at midday Sunday among the throngs of Labor Day Weekend shoppers in the heart of Little Saigon.
Carrying placards and waving Vietnamese and American flags, about 500 marchers trekked up and down bustling Bolsa Avenue, shouting, singing and calling for strict trade sanctions and an end to Vietnam's Communist regime.
The rally was led by a coalition of American Vietnam War veterans and Vietnamese immigrants, some of whom carried parasols for protection from the late-morning sun.
"A free Vietnam, that's what we want," said Diem Do, 32, of the the National United Front for the Liberation of Viet Nam. "We are here to protest the policy of political oppression in Vietnam."
The possibility that the United States might resume trade and renew economic ties with Vietnam prompted the march and rally, which ended at noon with speeches at the Bolsa station of the U.S. Postal Service. A trade embargo, which prevents U.S. companies from doing business with Vietnam, is set to expire this month unless it is reimposed by President Clinton.
"We hope to rally like this once a month, but it was important to do it in September," said Do, a financial analyst who left Saigon with his family 20 years ago and now resides in Anaheim. "When there is a need we will march. We need to maintain this kind of presence because Clinton could lift the embargo anytime."
Until there is freedom for the Vietnamese people, the U.S. government should not lift a trade embargo nor do any business with the communist government, said Chi Chang, 49, of Santa Ana, a former petty officer in the South Vietnamese Navy.
"Right now, there is no freedom at all in Vietnam," Chang said. "If the U.S. government gives the communists money, they will put it in their pockets. Nothing goes for the people."
Vietnam vet Larry (Bear) Hughes agreed, adding that the economic sanctions should be used as leverage to obtain information on the servicemen who are still unaccounted for two decades after the end of the Vietnam War. The embargo should not be lifted until those missing are brought home or identified, Hughes said.
"Our issue is to bring our brothers home," said Hughes, 45, of Fullerton, the founder of the Brothers of Vietnam who marched alongside the mainly Vietnamese contingent of protesters. "We want the missing 2,371 prisoners of war accounted for. There can be no normalization of relations until that happens."
Many of the marchers complained of the lack of religious freedom in Vietnam and the oppression of Buddhist monks, particularly this summer in the city of Hue. Nearly 100 Buddhists and 25 monks were arrested in July when they tried to prevent police from entering a pagoda to question the senior monk, according to news reports.
"There is no freedom of religion in Vietnam," said Hoa Truong, 30, of Fountain Valley, who has lived in the U.S. for 10 years. "Over here it's a free country. We know the value of freedom. There, the government controls everything."
Do, one of the rally organizers, pointed to the crowd gathered in the parking lot in front of the post office.
"This kind of rally here . . . in Vietnam we would get arrested for this," he said.