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20 Years After The Fall : Recollections of five Times Orange County Edition staffers on how the Vietnam War shaped their lives. : Two Lives--One Lived, the Other Imagined

April 30, 1995

Thao Hua, 28, Times Staff Writer

I should have been there when Saigon fell to the Communists 20 years ago this weekend. But by a twist of fate, I escaped using a friend's documents, and she was left behind when my homeland succumbed to the North Vietnamese.

Believing that 2-year-old Thao Nguyen could leave on a later flight, her grandfather gave me her papers so I could go with my family. Thao lost her chance for freedom when the Vietnamese bombed the airport hours after we left.

It would be 18 years before she got out of Vietnam.

I became an 8-year-old refugee on a C-130 cargo plane bound for the Philippines with my mother and siblings, the first airplane ride of my life.

The entire trip was in darkness. My voice was drowned out by the mechanical din of the aircraft's engine. Surrounded by people and baggage, I felt almost as if I were being buried alive.

Two days later in the Philippines, a few soldiers who had heard over the radio that Saigon was lost came by our tent to shed tears, and like the ripples created when a rock is thrown on still water, the crying spread from tent to tent until the entire camp was consumed with sadness.

That was the first time in my life that I saw my mother weep.

My mother, my brother, my two sisters and I spent almost four months in refugee camps in the Philippines, Guam and Arkansas waiting for my father, Hua Que Thu. It would be four years before we were reunited.

In the Philippines and Guam, we lived in dust bowls under a blinding sun, spending most of our time standing in line--for food, for water and for the bathroom. I looked for my father every time a busload of people arrived, only to return to our tent without the feel of his hand in mine.

When the camps began shutting down, my adopted sister, Mai, who had married an American GI and settled in Texas years before, invited us to come live with her.

We would become the first Vietnamese family to live in Keller, Texas, population 2,000. A blur from the driver's side if you're headed down Highway 377 about 12 miles north of Fort Worth, it had cowboys, pickup trucks and a single stoplight.

We settled into a $100-a-month wood-frame, shotgun shack, so named because you could shoot straight from the front door to the back porch without hitting a wall. We froze when it snowed and roasted in midsummer heat that climbed above 100 degrees.

I often thought of our house in Gia Dinh, just north of Saigon, which had a ballroom and a fish pond nestled between flower beds.

In Saigon, my mother had been president of an import-export company. In Keller, she got down on her hands and knees and scrubbed bathrooms as a $2.30-an-hour housekeeper for a nursing home. She sewed, sometimes until 3 a.m., to earn extra money.

In Vietnam, we lived in fear. In America, we lived on the kindness of strangers.

It seemed like every family in Keller had something to offer: beds for our new home, food for our stomachs and Jesus for our souls. When our '68 Chevrolet Impala broke down, the local mechanic taught my brother how to repair it, because we couldn't afford to pay him to do it for us.

About a year later, my mother sold our refrigerator for $10 and, in a trailer used for transporting horses, moved us to Irving, Texas, where the schools were air-conditioned and her new job as a dressmaker offered health insurance.

In 1979, my father arrived after his release from a Vietnamese re-education camp and several months in a refugee camp in Malaysia. A business contractor in Vietnam, he went to trade school in the U.S. to become a machinist and we put a down payment on a house. It was a four-bedroom brick home with a crystal chandelier and wallpaper that matched the carpet.

My mother spread rose-colored pebbles in the flower beds because the stones reminded her of the way the streets of Saigon looked during Tet, the Lunar New Year, when the roads were covered with the ashes of exploded firecrackers.

By and by, the rain washed away the colors that brought Tet to Texas for my mother. This year, she's planning to buy gravel taken from the lakes of Texas that won't fade, and she will spread it over the pebbles.

In a sense, that's what I've done with my memories of Vietnam. I've buried them to make way for things more practical.

I have learned to push the memories of my homeland to the bottom of my ocean of thoughts, so that my image of myself as an American might float to the surface. But now those memories are so submerged that I can no longer retrieve them whole.

When I talk of Vietnam, the little I remember emerges as a shadow of the thing itself. I can describe my favorite childhood fruit--a mang cuc --but I can't tell you how it tastes.

I can speak my mother's tongue, but when the words tumble from my lips, they don't land on their feet. And although I can say that I once lived in a country called Vietnam, I can't really say that it feels like my homeland.

More than once, I have wondered if all I gained by fleeing Vietnam belongs to me and not the young girl I replaced three days before the fall of Saigon.

Did she ever wake up on Christmas morning to find more toys than she had time to play with? Does she know what it's like to drive her own car to school on the first day of her senior year? Should she be the one who went on to college and a professional career? She is here in Southern California now, but I am afraid to ask.

And sometimes I wonder if she has anything that belongs to me.

Does she know the words to "Qua Cau Gio Bay," a famous Vietnamese love song? Has she ever worn a white ao dai to school, its silky panels fluttering in the breeze?

Does she know what a mang cuc tastes like?

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