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Orange County's Vietnamese immigrants reflect on historic moment

April 30, 2009|My-Thuan Tran

Thirty-four years after tanks smashed through the gates of Saigon's Presidential Palace, marking a symbolic end to the Vietnam War, the bitter memories still burn among many of the refugees who live in Orange County's Little Saigon.

As decades passed and the memories of war fade with many Americans, community leaders in the largest Vietnamese enclave in the United States want to remind a new generation of the suffering and hardship that took shape on a day they still call "Black Friday."

Some in the community worry that younger Vietnamese -- fully Westernized and many reconciled with the Vietnam of today -- will forget why their parents and grandparents fled their homeland, that the memories of the communist takeover will slowly dissolve.

To serve as a reminder, a group of community leaders is staging a photo exhibit at Cypress College that captures somber moments -- helicopters lifting people to waiting aircraft carriers, the desperation of the boat people trying to float to freedom, a man dressed in the South Vietnamese military uniform paying respects at the Vietnam War Memorial in Washington.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Friday, May 01, 2009 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 4 National Desk 1 inches; 47 words Type of Material: Correction
Fall of Saigon: An article in Thursday's Section A about the anniversary of the fall of Saigon said that Vietnamese community leaders refer to that day as "Black Friday." The community leaders refer to the fall of Saigon and the events related to it as "Black April."

The exhibit, which opened Wednesday and continues today, comes on the heels of a controversial exhibit the college hosted in February by Brian Doan, a local Vietnamese American photographer whose photo of a girl posing with the official flag of Vietnam and a bust of former Communist leader Ho Chi Minh was protested as being propaganda and deeply offensive. Doan argued that he was exercising the very freedom that Vietnamese sought when they came to this country.

Campus officials refused to remove the art but invited community leaders to organize their own exhibit on campus to teach students about the history of Vietnamese refugees.

"I feel saddened that many people do not know about April 30," said Lac Tan Nguyen, president of the Vietnamese Community of Southern California, who organized the exhibit. "They don't know until they listen to us or hear our stories. A lot of people don't understand why we protest and why we feel hurt every time we see the communist symbol."

Nguyen said it has been difficult to pass along stories about the history of the war because there is no natural forum and, for some, the memories are still too painful to share. When the war ended, thousands of former South Vietnamese soldiers and government officials were forced into "re-education camps" or fled the communist government by boat, some perishing at sea.

The photo exhibit, which includes discussions by several refugees, is unique because organizers are reaching outside the sympathetic confines of Little Saigon, home to about 150,000 Vietnamese Americans. Here, three square miles of noodle shops and banh mi stores are spread through Westminster, Garden Grove, Fountain Valley and Santa Ana. Dozens of yellow-and-red striped flags of the fallen South Vietnam hang on lampposts, and there is a statue honoring American and South Vietnamese soldiers near Westminster's City Hall. Street protests still erupt any time someone is suspected of being sympathetic to the communist government.

In the decades since Vietnamese Americans began settling in the U.S., there has been a strong push to have their fallen country recognized. In 2006, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger recognized the South Vietnam flag as the official symbol of Vietnamese Americans in California after lobbying by activists. Activists have persuaded officials in cities and counties across the country to adopt similar measures.

Liem Thanh Nguyen, 75, a former cabinet official in the South Vietnamese government, said he feels pride when he thinks of the efforts of Vietnamese Americans to keep their legacy alive. For Nguyen, the memories come back in waves every April.

"There will always be some kind of sadness in my mind," he said. "The memories of my childhood, the life of peace in the village. That makes me feel sad about what happened to my country and my people. I think, why can't we still live in peace and quiet in the countryside? Why have so many things happened that we had to leave my country and go to the U.S.?"

When the war ended, Nguyen believed he would be able to return, hoping that the communist government would fail. But the situation quickly worsened, Nguyen said, and he did not see any future in Vietnam. "There was no hope to go back," he said.

Nguyen, who spoke Wednesday at the exhibit about Vietnamese families that have transitioned to new lives in the U.S., said he hopes the exhibit will reverberate with students who are unaware of the history. The photo exhibit shows images from before the American entry into the war -- of the 1954 exodus of many Vietnamese from the North to the South -- to the end of the war when people fled by helicopter and boats. There are photos of more-recent Vietnamese history, such as the massive 53-day protests against a Westminster video store owner who displayed communist symbols in 1999 and snapshots of dissidents in Vietnam.

"Even some books about the history of Vietnam did not show exactly what happened, so not that many people know about the consequence of the war," Nguyen said. "That makes me feel strongly that we have to try to explain to other people about the situation in Vietnam after the victory of the communists."

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my-thuan.tran@latimes.com

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