Return to Vietnam: Family reunion worth journey

The Herald

Day two of an eight-day series

It’s quite a jolt, going from sleeping in my East Manatee home one day to waking up in Ho Chi Minh City a few days later.

But we would be in Ho Chi Minh City, the former Saigon, fewer than 24 hours before members of my wife’s family arrived in a rented Mercedes minibus with a hired driver to spirit us to Bac Lieu, the town of her birth.

It was a surreal moment seeing two of her brothers, a sister, and assorted nephews and nieces standing in the lobby of the Hotel Oscar. Everyone grabbed a piece of luggage and we got an early morning jump on the drive to Bac Lieu, six hours to the south down Highway 1.

In 1969, Bac Lieu was home to the second-largest signal site operated by my U.S. Army unit, Company D, 52nd Signal Battalion. It was a link in a network of communications between province capitals in the far south of the country, including Soc Trang, Ca Mau, Vi Thanh and Rach Gia. We also had a four-man team operating a radio relay site at Gia Rai. Those signal sites were in turn linked back to the regional capital, Can Tho, and from there to the rest of the world.

Among those using our telephone links, secure teletype, and around-the-world high-frequency radio, were U.S. attack helicopter companies, Special Forces, advisors from the Military Assistance Command Vietnam (MACV) and the only friendly infantry in the area, a division of the Army of the Republic of Vietnam.

Aside from the geography of the area, I knew little about Bac Lieu back then and had no contact with its people. The glimpses of the dusty town were fleeting, when I would take a Jeep, a driver and two soldiers, all of us armed with M-16 rifles, and drive as fast as we could, about 60 mph, between Soc Trang and Bac Lieu.

Being alone out there, rushing past thatched huts and expanses of rice paddy, no one needed to be told to stay alert. You made that trip with your heart in your throat.

Now, after being away for 35 years, we were once again headed down Highway 1, headed to Bac Lieu.

Initially, we were overwhelmed and intoxicated by the sights and sounds of Ho Chi Minh City, still called Saigon by many.

I recognized several landmarks, and it was good to see that the military strongpoints had been replaced by widespread construction. There were remnants of the old low-rise Saigon, decorated with new year wishes for the Year of the Dog, and national flags, but there were many new high-rises, too.

It was a déja vu experience seeing this city again and its people going about their daily activities.

But I began to think less about the view than how we were getting to our destination. The driver’s aggressive driving style kept me cringing in my seat and my right foot pressing the floor hard for a brake that wasn’t there. Once again, my heart was in my throat.

For the next few hours he blared his horn as he roared up on motorcyclists, buses and trucks alike, often squeezing by with just inches to spare. Almost all of the motorcycles carried at least two riders, some as many as four, including babies. The driver ignored our requests to slow down. The last thing I wanted was for our bus to injure someone.

Our driver wasn’t the only one practicing this brand of road warriorism. Many of the truck and bus drivers simply took over the entire road, driving southbound three abreast, in both the northbound and southbound lanes. Oncoming motorcyclists had no choice but to get out of the way.

Strangely, there was no sign of road rage. If the driver came within a few inches of another big vehicle and sounded his horn, the other driver would gently signal for him to pass.

During our journey, we saw little traffic enforcement, just an occasional road checkpoint where police would cite a driver if his bus was loaded with too many passengers.

We did view the aftermath of a traffic accident, an unattended motorcycle ominously knocked down in the middle of the road. A few minutes later, we caught up with an ambulance driving with emergency lights flashing and siren blaring. Our driver hit his horn and passed the ambulance. I slumped in my seat.

Later, he passed to the left of a concrete road barrier intended to separate oncoming traffic. I heard my wife scream as approaching buses flashed their lights. The driver found a break in the concrete barrier and veered back into his lane. It took all my self control to show no fear. I suspect I failed.

In the old days, there were at least two ferries on Highway 1 between Saigon and Bac Lieu. The one at Vinh Long has been replaced by a modern suspension bridge, but at Can Tho, a fleet of ferries still provides transport across the river.

South of Can Tho, we began seeing intensely green rice paddies sweeping to the horizon and, in some places, harvested rice drying to a golden brown on the shoulders of the road. There were 100-pound sacks of rice stacked along the highway and on the beds of trucks and on pedicabs.

Our driver kept us on Highway 1 through Soc Trang and someone pointed out a narrow lane, the way to the U.S. Army’s old airfield, where my company headquarters was once located. We heard that the airfield had fallen into disrepair. We would take a day trip there to look and reflect, but not today.

Soc Trang, like many of the cities we saw, featured wide, modern boulevards and a jumble of houses and businesses jammed together right on the main drag.

And I saw the same kind of ox carts being pulled by dusty men, scraping out a threadbare existence, that I witnessed more than three decades ago.

When we arrived in Bac Lieu, or more properly Tra Kha, a village just a mile or so from downtown, the trip got really exotic. We walked down a rocky lane off Highway 1, past a Vietnamese Army medical detachment, to river’s edge.

Some family members ushered me onto a sampan, a long, narrow boat riding just inches above the waterline, with two of my wife’s nieces. A boatman rowed us across the brown water to a tree-lined path on the opposite side.

I found myself on one side of the river and my wife, the translator, on the other. I was feeling a little overwhelmed as I walked into her mother’s house. The last time I saw my mother-in-law was June of 1971.

There are a couple of good reasons for that. For many years, there were no diplomatic relations between the United States and Vietnam, making travel nearly impossible. After relations were restored, I thought it was more important for my wife to go home, while I stayed busy with my newspaper job.

But eventually, I felt a moral requirement to go home with my wife and get to know her family.

As I walked into the dark, quiet house, I wondered how my mother-in-law would react to me.

I walked to her bed, took her hand and said, “Chao Me,” Vietnamese for “Hello, Mother.” She squeezed my hand and smiled at me. I didn’t understand what she was saying, but I knew that I was welcome.

I held her hand until my wife arrived a few minutes later. When mother and daughter met, there were tears, laughter and embraces. I stood back and enjoyed the scene. We had reached our destination.


Down to the market


The road to Bac Lieu


To the local marketplace


How we found Soc Trang


Stories that will break your heart


Tet, lunar new year celebration


The mayor of Bac Lieu



Time for Vietnamese To Be Heard on Vietnam War


New America Media, Commentary Immigrant Voices, Thai A. Nguyen-Khoa, Feb 23, 2006

Editor’s Note: American academics, politicians and journalists continue to pontificate about the Vietnam War without the input of Vietnamese. New America Media contributor Thai A. Nguyen-Khoa teaches social studies in the San Francisco Unified School District. He was a Vietnamese Advisory Board member for the Oakland Museum conference “What’s Going On,” from February 2004 to July 2005. He writes for the English-edition of Nguoi Viet 2 and is an editor of Dan Chim Viet, a popular online magazine.
Vietnam War
OAKLAND, Calif.–Thirty-three years after the U.S. withdrawal from Vietnam and the ensuing debacle, America has still not learned the lessons of the war. Despite its utter defeat in 1975, America loves to listen to its favorite sons and daughters rehash the war’s shortcomings in the pretext of finding wisdom and relieving future generations of angst and sorrow. But the voice of the Vietnamese people, here and in Vietnam, is always an afterthought.

Thus for two days (March 10-11), the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library in Boston will host a conference on “Vietnam and the Presidency,” under the auspices of the National Archives and all 12 presidential libraries. Conference organizers have invited an impressive list of political big-shots, including former secretaries of state Henry Kissinger and Alexander Haig Jr., Sen. Chuck Hagel (R-Neb.), first Ambassador to Vietnam Pete Petersen, television journalist Dan Rather and Pulitzer Prize-winning authors David Halberstam and Frances Fitzgerald. President Jimmy Carter will speak via video. The organizers claim to address a wide range of issues and new information, yet curiously, not a single Vietnamese was among the invitees.

In politics, the media and academia, the voice of Vietnamese and Vietnamese-Americans is rarely heard. From the “Vietnam as History” conference at the Woodrow Wilson Center for Scholars in Washington, D.C., to the (USC) University of Southern California’s “Vietnam Reconsidered” event in early 1983 to the recent Oakland Museum conference and exhibit, “What’s Going On: California and the Vietnam Era” to the upcoming JFK library conference, the Vietnamese voice has always been circumscribed and gagged.

“Vietnam was a complex war and they need a more inclusive view,” says Professor Doan Viet Hoat, a dissident who was released from jail in 1989. “The present situation in Vietnam demands it.” Hoat and professor Nguyen Ngoc Bich from the Washington, D.C., area were suggested by various Vietnamese forums, but were not invited. Bui Tin, the ex-colonel from the People’s Army of North Vietnam and the chief editor of Nhan Dan People’s Army newspaper was also bypassed. Quang Xuan Pham, a Marine helicopter pilot in the first Iraq war and author of “A Sense of Duty: My father, My American Journey,” says he contacted the JFK library to suggest Vietnamese speakers, “but to no avail.”

By purposely framing the conference around Vietnam and the presidency, the organizers have effectively shut the Vietnamese voice out of the historical debate and sidestepped the issue of why America went to Vietnam in the first place. In case the pundits have forgotten, the American promise and premise was to secure the blessing of liberty and self-determination for the (South) Vietnamese people.

Or, as John F. Kennedy pledged in his 1960 inauguration address, “Let every nation know, whether it wishes us well or ill, that we shall pay any price, bear any burden, meet any hardship, support any friend, oppose any foe to assure the survival and success of liberty.”

These words ring hollow today, considering the lack of liberty in Vietnam since the less-than-honorable American Congress decided to cut all aid to South Vietnam in 1975 and effectively foreclose the dream of democracy there. Will the conference juxtapose Kennedy’s “survival of liberty” with the Truman Doctrine’s call to “support free people who are resisting attempted subjugation by armed minorities or outside pressures”?

Have Americans forgotten that we Vietnamese were fighting for our independence almost a hundred years before the United States decided to side with France in her attempt to retake Vietnam in 1946?

It was convenient in 1963, on the heels of the Buddhist unrest in South Vietnam, for America to engineer the coup against Ngo Dinh Diem so it could have free rein in the execution of the war. How ironic for the United States to take over the war when, in the struggle for nationhood at the waning of French colonialism, the Vietnamese nationalists and communists had in common, at least, a shared struggle for their place in the 20th century.

How disingenuous, then, for Nixon to “Vietnamize” the war, when beginning in 1961 Kennedy had already set in motion an American-led war. How ironic for “Vietnamization” when Robert McNamara and Gen. Westmoreland kept pouring American troops into Vietnam, where, in April 1969, American troop levels had reached 543,400, giving a false sense of security to the Vietnamese and convincing them that only a reliance on U.S. military superiority would bring freedom to Vietnam. Was it “Vietnamization” when Kissinger forced President Thieu to sign the Paris Accords in 1973 (ineffective as he was, Thieu was prescient enough to resist signing a death warrant for South Vietnam), when Kissinger knew all along that the North Vietnamese were not going to honor the accords?

In the end, there was neither peace nor honor for Vietnam, only a sell-out agreement forged by the Americans.

The United States squandered 58,000 Americans and more than 3 million Vietnamese lives in its last betrayal of Vietnam, leaving more than 1.5 million Vietnamese-Americans and 80 million Vietnamese in Vietnam to sort out their fates in the 21st century. Now, more than 30 years later, those who consider themselves the top thinkers and the very conscience of America will sit at the JFK Presidential Library in judgment of America’s past action and once again leave out the most critical players of all: we Vietnamese.

User Comments

Bill Laurie on Mar 08, 2006 at 21:47:40 said:

Mr. Sidney Tran,
your comments most informative and thoughtful, and partially compensate for the nausea I feel at reading of the self-indulgent pseudo-Viet Nam conference you’ve so correctly called to task. I served three years in Viet Nam and the profound and ludicrous ignorance reflected in the so-called ‘conference’ only reminds me of US stupidity of yesteryear. Of course those of we native-born Americans who worked with the Viet Namese people tried, fruitlessly, to pass ‘lessons learned’ up the chain of command. Unfortunately, terminal bureaucratic mental vacuity dissolved the brain cells of what was supposed to be US ‘leadership.’
To Mr. Murtaugh: you come across as a very decent man but please, PLEASE, read Mr. Tran’s response…very, very carefully.
Tu Do, Dan Chu, Cong Ly!!

International Professors Project on Mar 03, 2006 at 07:26:50 said:

Invite graduate students,post docs professors and emeriti professors to apply for candidacy in our org:

( Email Subject Line: Development Office)

New professor; more or less peripatetic; more or less sovereign; an international ambassador of cultural understanding; a new way of academic living. Vietnamese and other Third & Fourth World academics may teach and research in their native lands or another poor, almost poor, undeveloping or developing country for 18 months to decades. All developed country profs only to teach in poor, almost poor, undevelpoing and developing countries. beginnning to build a list of applicants to send many profs in 2008. Seek 100 additional Project Fellows, and two new Board Directors.

We are an all volunteer educational nonprofit. While we seek funding to acquire a staff through grants and donations we wish to choose our Int’l, East Asian, and South Asian HQ.

Viet Nam strong possibility for the Int’l or East Asian HQ. HQ would begin as International Professors Project Chapter.

Lam Nguyen on Feb 27, 2006 at 15:53:41 said:

There are two possible explanations to why Vietnamse have never been invited to any similar conference:
1/The Vietnam Syndrom:American politicians from legislations to law makers and in past administrations during that era are still afraid to face the truth,afraid to face their so -called “allies” that they betrayed.
2/The arrogance attitude towards the Vietnamese people.The slangs that applies to them are:”jouer papa” or in Vietnamese is “choi cha”.

God bless America!

Sidney Tran on Feb 27, 2006 at 10:36:48 said:

This response is for Jim Murtaugh. History is important. It is through history that wisdom can be attained. A historic tragedy cannot be reversed but lessons can be learned from the past in order to avoid future tragedies. America has moved on. Present day Vietnam is still a one-party, police state. It does not respect human rights. It does not allow religious freedom. It still jails political dissidents. Communist Vietnam still paints the conflict as a struggle for independence against foreign domination. Yet the reality of the conflict does not suggest that this was the case. In this respect Vietnam has not moved on. Communist Vietnam gave new euphuisms to the world. Terms like the “boat people, re-education camps” are some of Hanoi’s handiworks. I wonder what “voices of the Vietnamese people living in Vietnam” Mr. Murtaugh is referring to? If the voices are coming from people parroting the party line, then they are hardly legitimate representation of the Vietnamese people. If Vietnam has truly moved on, then it should treat the people of Vietnam with the dignity and respect they truly deserve. Marxist-Leninism is a European political philosophy that was unjustly grafted on to Vietnam by self-styled social theorists. It has no moral, historical standing or justification in Vietnam.

binh tran on Feb 27, 2006 at 07:27:25 said:

It’s time to let people all over the world and American people knows the truth about the VN war and the Communist’s lies and their brutal reign over the VNamse people.Thanks for your article.

Thai Nguyen-Khoa on Feb 25, 2006 at 15:31:51 said:

Americans tourists can’t never gauge the depth of our despair. There is a wholesale effort and policy on the part of the Hanoi government to blank out the truth about the VN or American War in schools and colleges in VN.

Historical blindness is not an amnesia that won’t come back to haunt the youth future and culture of materialism.

While it may have shed its classless proletarian beginning, the new Red-capitalist rulers of Vietnam would like visitors to feast on an empty capitalist shell while pasting over its inequitable presence with promise for a brighter ubiquitous Party rule.


Jim Murtaugh on Feb 25, 2006 at 03:52:07 said:

Time for America to move on.
In light of what is going on in Iraq,the U.S. learned nothing from the war in Vietnam.Nothing will be learned at the J.F.K.meeting.
If my vietnamese friends in Vietnam could speak to the American people they would tell them that it is time to move on.The war was long ago and just one of many that Vietnam has had to
survive.What is important is
today and tomorrow.We can’t change the past.Those who died are gone and nothing can bring them back.But the future is wide open to change.
I have talked to many,many people in Vietnam and this is their message.While the bitterness of the war still is just below the surface here,it is rare to find it in Vietnam. I wish the American people could hear the voices
of the Vietnamese people living in Vietnam today.There is just so much we could learn from each other.
Jim Murtaugh

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A History Left Behind…
by Peter Nguyen, Contribution Writer

Over forty years ago , in 1964, there were only 603 Vietnamese living in the United States. They were students, language teachers, and diplomats. Over a decade later, the 1975 wave of Vietnamese migrants did not choose to come here unlike the other Asian groups already in America. In fact, they had no decision to make because they were driven out by powerful events surrounding them. During the last days of April, 86,000 Vietnamese were airlifted out of Vietnam.

“On those last days of April,” remembered a refugee, “[there was] a lot of gunfire and bombing around the capital. People were running on chaotic streets. We got scared…”

During the next few weeks, forty to sixty thousand Vietnamese escaped in boats to the open sea, where they were picked up by American navy ships and transported to Guam and the Philippines. Many did not even know they were leaving or where they were going. Later some said, “We did not plan on taking this trip.”

Altogether some 130,000 Vietnamese refugees found sanctuary in the United States in 1975. The first-wave of refugees generally came from educated classes: 37 percent of the heads of households had completed high school and 16 percent had some college. Almost two thirds could speak English well or with some fluency. Generally, the refugees came from Saigon, which was more westernized than the general population. About half of them were Christian or Catholic, a group representing only 10 percent of the group in Vietnam. After their arrival in the US, the ’75 refugees were initially placed in processing camps like Pendleton in California and Fort Chaffee in Arkansas.

Thousands did escape soon after — 21,000 in 1977, 106,500 in 1978, over 150,00 in 1979, and scores of thousands later. Two thirds of the boats were attacked by pirates and each boat were attacked an average of more than two times. Most of the times, the men were tied up or thrown overboard and the women were raped. In 1985 there were 643,200 Vietnamese in the United States.

In the 2000 census, Vietnamese has reached 1.2 million and the fourth largest Asian group only behind Chinese, Asian Filipinos, and Asian Indians in the US. Vietnamese America will continually grow and hopefully our beautiful culture will never be left behind.

*Reference, statistics, and facts were sited from “Strangers From a Different Shore”, by Ronald Takaki