Every time Dan Nguyen and his wife, Bich Vu, visit their children in Orange County, they stop by the Vietnam War Memorial.
"If you were a victim of the communists, you will visit here," said Vu, a 70-year-old San Jose resident. "You will know how meaningful this is."
The memorial, which depicts a U.S. soldier and a South Vietnamese soldier standing together, has become a symbol to the Vietnamese community. Visitors to the area around Little Saigon often make a point of visiting the monument. Some repeatedly.
"We always come here, because if it wasn't for these soldiers who sacrificed their lives, we would not be standing here today," said Vu, who said her husband was imprisoned for six years after the fall of Saigon in 1975.
The Vietnam War Memorial is near bustling Little Saigon, the largest Vietnamese community outside Vietnam, and is the centerpiece of Westminster's Sid Goldstein Freedom Park on All American Way. The 15-foot, 3-ton bronze statue is flanked by a marble fountain, flags of the United States and the former South Vietnam, lights, a burning torch and a memorial urn. It is meant to depict the friendship between the countries and honor the 58,000 U.S. and more than 300,000 South Vietnamese soldiers who died in the war.
Creation of the statue wasn't easy.
Community members had to raise at least $500,000 before city officials would approve plans for the project or give it a home. When the money was collected, organizers asked for more money to complete the project, leaving donors questioning the accounting.
Even after more money was raised, the memorial was delayed for months by political squabbles and design disputes. Some even came to see it as a symbol of the divide between the city's leaders and the Vietnamese community.
The statue was dedicated April 27, 2003, three days before the 28th anniversary of the fall of Saigon. It has become a place for reflection. Some say they see it as sacred and peaceful, a place where thanks are offered to the country that took in many refugees.
Flowerpots surround the memorial. Some bear cards offering thanks: "We deeply appreciate those who sacrificed their lives for our freedom" and "God Bless America, the land of freedom."
On a recent windy day, visitors mourned, reminisced and prayed as flags fluttered, the smell of incense was in the air, and rows of fountains released calm streams of water.
On this trip, Nguyen brought his sister-in-law, Lillian Nguyen, 74, of France.
"Look, I used to wear those clothes!" Dan Nguyen, 72, said, pointing to the statue of the South Vietnamese soldier. "This brings back so much memories."
They stood in front of the urn, surrounded with red carnations, candles and incense with their hands clasped, and prayed for peace and strength.
"I want to show her a memento of our history and show how we have prospered in a Democratic country," Dan Nguyen said.
Nguyen, a former Saigon judge and army ranger, was imprisoned in "reeducation camps" before he fled Vietnam in 1991, he said. He snapped pictures and videotaped his wife and her sister standing in front of the statue and the South Vietnamese flag.
"Being able to fly our flag in America is a very proud and happy achievement," Vu explained to her sister. "You won't find this anywhere else in the United States."
"When I get back to France, this will be a cherished picture," Lillian Nguyen said.
Thang Nguyen, 44, and his wife, Diep, 40, from Fort Worth, Texas, traveled 1,400 miles to see the statue, which they had read about on the Internet.
"Their eyes are so real," Thang Nguyen said. "It looks so alive, so filled with emotions."
He took pictures and gazed at the statue, appreciating its architecture.
"This is amazing. This means something. You can touch it, see it," said Thang Nguyen, an engineer who escaped Vietnam by boat when he was 16. "This is a landmark. It's in Little Saigon and it's in ... America."