A Long Way From Home : Some Vietnamese Immigrants Have Quietly Assimilated; for Others Who Yearn to Return Home, the War Goes On

Staff writer David DeVoss, was a correspondent in Vietnam and has made seven trips to Ho Chi Minh City since the end of the war

After four years of “re-education,” 17 months in a refugee camp, a 16-hour flight across the Pacific and a two-hour slog through immigration at Los Angeles International Airport, Lien Phuoc finally clasps the hands of his two dazed children and leads them cautiously through the pneumatic door into a new life.

Shivering in the winter morning’s chill, the 36 - year-old former International Harvester mechanic nervously scans the crowd, looking for his brother Lien Phat, who six years before had fled Vietnam in search of a better life.

“Over here, younger brother,” calls Phat, wading through the swirl of 100 other new arrivals. The brothers embrace amid the clamor of a dozen impromptu reunions. “At last, I, too, am free,” cries Phuoc.

Bundled into the back seat of their uncle’s Buick, the children gaze mutely as office towers more than twice the size of the largest building in Saigon flash past. “Everyone here is in such a rush,” observes Phuoc. “Now I understand why you didn’t write home more often, older brother.”

“I sent more letters than you received,” Phat counters, edging onto the snarled freeway. “I bet the VC know more about Woodland Hills than you do.”


The brothers smile, knowing that they still have a family. As the car climbs through the Sepulveda Pass, Phat speaks of the home he has grown to love even more deeply. Phuoc describes his hopes for the future. Neither mentions California. For both brothers, the reality of the present and dreams for the future lie 10,000 miles away in a land no longer their own.

During the past decade, the United States has accepted more than 485,000 Vietnamese for resettlement. Of this number, about 299,000 live in California. Most of the 165,000 Vietnamese in Southern California have found some form of employment. But for many, cultural assimilation has been hindered by a preoccupation with the past that translates into a continuing determination to overthrow the Marxist government in Hanoi.

“Once I find a job my goal will be to help those still in Vietnam regain their freedom,” explains Lien Phuoc, whose wife and eldest daughter were left behind in the haste of his departure on a tiny fishing boat. “A belief that Communism can be defeated is the only thing that keeps me alive.”

The Vietnamese diaspora differs from others of the past. Entire families arrived at Ellis Island from Europe early in this century. Their migration was voluntary and seldom contested. In Cuba, Fidel Castro invited all his enemies to leave after the 1959 overthrow of Fulgencio Batista, and, in the first four years of his revolution, 208,000 Cubans resettled in America.

Except for the ethnic Chinese encouraged by Hanoi to leave in the late 1970s, most Vietnamese have been forced into clandestine escapes in which family members have been separated or killed. The U.N. Orderly Departure Program is hardly an attractive alternative. Those who apply are ostracized, denied employment, see their children expelled from school and, after they leave, are required by the United States to endure six months of orientation in a Philippine refugee camp before being resettled.

Either way, the emotional trauma lingers for years. New beginnings are postponed by a loneliness born of divided families. The desire for revenge is reinforced as each new refugee recounts his personal litany of Communist abuse.

Many Vietnamese assuage their nostalgia with weekly visits to the Caravelle Club in Anaheim. No other place in Southern California better captures the ambiance of a Saigon cabaret. While customers sip 33, a French beer similar to that once produced in Ho Chi Minh City, or bitter cafe filtre , a succession of willowy vocalists glide through the purple haze. Each wears an embroidered ao dai, a tight-bodiced dress worn over flowing silk trousers, and each sings with the reverberating echo unique to Vietnamese music.

Like a river sadly flowing,

Like a person with no heart.

All joy and happiness is gone.

Saigon has lost its name,

And we have lost Saigon.

“Saigon Memories” will never make the U.S. hit parade. The song’s poignant refrain punctuates a melancholy chronicle of simple pleasures vanished along with the South Vietnamese culture that created them.

“I try to pretend I’m back in Vietnam, but it’s impossible,” sighs Thanh Thuy, a former headliner at Saigon’s Queen Bee nightclub. “It’s easier to change your citizenship than to forget your past.”

Thuy’s remembrance of the past--at least her recollection of popular songs written between 1954 and the Communist victory in 1975--makes her a star attraction with Vietnamese audiences, who have elevated songs about orphans and wartime romance to the status of oral history. “Everyone I knew before in Saigon is 10 years older and stays at home,” she says. “Their children come to hear the songs, learning our story so they may understand why their parents are so depressed and homesick.”

“We Vietnamese are more political than the other Asians in California,” explains Nguyen Thanh Nam, the Long Beach leader of the Hoa Hao, a Buddhist sect dedicated to the restoration of a non-Communist Vietnam. “Japanese, Koreans, Filipinos all waited in line for the chance to come here and make money. Theirs was a conscious decision. Ours was no planned immigration. The society of South Vietnam was transported here intact. We can’t enjoy life here because we don’t belong.”

In many parts of California, Vietnamese have created environments identical to that which existed before the collapse of President Nguyen Van Thieu’s Republic of Vietnam. In Westminster, a “Little Saigon” has mushroomed along a stretch of Bolsa Avenue. For Orange County’s 75,000 Vietnamese it is a familiar, predictable enclave where shopping centers have crenelated tile roofs, bakeries are decorated with the scarlet-and-yellow flag for which their army fought, and business conversation is conducted in the tonal lilt heard throughout the Mekong River Delta. The outside world called California rarely intrudes. Doctors are familiar with acupuncture, tennis elbow is soothed with Tiger Balm. And in Santa Ana, a bar called the East Wind advertises “lovely waitresses anxious to serve old friends.” During the war, American GIs bought a diluted cola called Saigon Tea for hostesses working the Tu Do Street bars. Today, it’s South Vietnamese veterans who buy $1.50 shots of cherry-colored Sprite in return for a cuddle and some conversation.

Thousands of Vietnamese have re-established businesses in Orange County. The former employees of the Thanh The restaurant, which once served the best noodles in Saigon, operate businesses under the same names on Bolsa Avenue. Pho ’79, a sparsely furnished restaurant once located on Vo Tanh Street, now stands across from the Nguyen Hue mini-mall. Fifteen years ago, Thiet Lap tailored intricately embroidered ao dais for Saigon’s wealthiest ingenues, whose weddings were not complete without a set of photographs taken by Kim Mon. Today, both prosper by catering to a new generation of Vietnamese.

Politically, most Vietnamese refugees in California have one goal, and that is to keep alive the dream of a non-Communist South Vietnam. Recently, hundreds of Vietnamese gathered at MacArthur Park in Long Beach to celebrate the 46th anniversary of Hoa Hao Buddhism. Flanked by saffron-robed monks who blessed offerings of flowers and fruit amid the swirl of incense, a colorful parade of Buddhist Cao Dai elders in white robes, brown-shirted Hoa Hao, and young men in peasant black stepped forward to rededicate their efforts to Vietnam’s liberation from Communism. As a scratchy recording of South Vietnam’s national anthem began to play, old women spread blankets under the shade trees and their daughters brought out picnic baskets packed with Vietnamese delicacies.

“The liberation of Vietnam will be done by a younger generation,” one elder said as he shuffled toward a group of squealing children assigned to fold a banner bearing the single word Fatherland .

“We are ready for the long journey,” responded a 35-year-old Chino prison guard ambling at his side. “For me, the struggle begins today.”

In November, Vietnamese gathered in a Bolsa Avenue parking lot to swear allegiance to the flag of South Vietnam. The following month, refugees assembled again in Costa Mesa for a “Thank You, America” rally honoring American veterans. On June 19, which was Armed Forces Day on the calendar of the Thieu Republic, they will again pay homage to their defeated army. In the interval, Vietnamese teen-agers every Friday will seek donations for the anti-Communist resistance, young Cao Dai Buddhists will pray for strength “equal to a grove of young bamboo,” while older children will retreat to a summer camp high in the Angeles National Forest to sing patriotic anthems.

“These are symbolic gestures, a bit like you Americans giving money to Common Cause,” explains Nguyen Thanh Long, a Hoa Hao supporter. “We don’t want our young people to become Americanized and forget why they are here. Our common cause is the ultimate liberation of Vietnam from Communism.”

The rallies that promote patriotism also limit dissent. When the San Jose political journal Dan Toc questioned the motives of leading Vietnamese resistance leaders in 1982, the volume and intensity of threats received by the editors alarmed even the FBI. Last May, following a pro-Hanoi seminar sponsored by the Socialist Workers Party, five San Jose police cars had to be called to prevent a riot.

“Everything that transpires in the Vietnamese community has a political meaning,” says Dan Toc publisher Nguyen Xuan Phac. “Those who left in ’75 still dream of Vietnam. The boat people arrive brimming with hatred. Many of our children still have parents in re-education. Our melting pot also includes Communists determined to divide, and ultimately discredit, the refugee community.”

The Vietnamese community’s “cold war” sometimes turns violent. In July, 1981, a group calling itself the Vietnamese Organization to Exterminate Communists and Restore the Nation took credit for the San Francisco assassination of Duong Trong Lam, the 27-year-old publisher of a pro-Communist newspaper called the Village Pagoda. In May, 1984, the same group targeted Nguyen Van Luy, the founder of the Assn. for Vietnamese Patriots, whose bimonthly magazine, Pacific, was a vehicle for Hanoi propaganda. Luy, 72, survived the shooting; his 66-year-old wife did not. Five months later, on Oct. 13, 1984, Cal State Fullerton physics professor Edward Cooperman, chairman of the U.S. Committee for Scientific Cooperation, an organization of 250 American academicians working to expand scientific and cultural ties with Hanoi, was shot and killed by a Vietnamese former student.

That five different scenarios, all equally plausible, emerged to explain Cooperman’s death came as no surprise to Douglas Pike, director of UC Berkeley’s Indochina Archive, whose scholarly book, “Viet Cong,” provided the standard against which the State Department judged insurgent behavior during the war. “In South Vietnam, truth always hid inside a cocoon whose silk threads led to a number of plausible explanations. The Vietnamese community here is no different from the one that existed in Saigon.”

Yet, in fact, the rules of behavior have changed. “Back in Vietnam you were either a Communist or a nationalist,” says Do Ngoc Yen, editor of the Westminster-based Vietnamese newspaper, Nguoi Viet. “Here all the ideologies are hidden, and the war has no front lines.”

Three hundred California Vietnamese, most of them graduates of American universities, believe that it’s time to establish a working relationship with Hanoi, and together they’ve formed the Reconstruction Development Study Group.

“The only way to change Vietnam’s repressive Marxism is to work with those who will become the next generation of leaders,” says Tran Khanh Van, the former director general of housing in Saigon who sells commercial real estate in Orange County. Last year, Van helped write two computer programs for Hanoi. One interprets changes in the weather and their effect on agricultural yields. The second tracks cash flow in the National Bank. Hardly the stuff of a Le Carre novel, but such actions are unpopular in the refugee community.

“It’s illogical that Vietnamese should still want to kill each other. What’s important is that 15% of the children in my country,” Van says, meaning Vietnam, “are retarded due to malnutrition. If we make small contributions now, perhaps larger ones could follow.”

A year ago, copies of a neatly typed leaflet began appearing in Vietnamese grocery stores and book shops throughout California. Written in Vietnamese and signed by a Vietnamese operative for the FBI named Dai Uy (captain) Bay, the open letter invited Communist spies to defect.

“The United States Government has long been aware of the fact that a number of Vietnamese have come to this country with the intention of committing acts of espionage against the United States,” the notice began. “A few of these people are ‘hard-core communists,’ while the rest are merely victims of the Socialist Republic of Vietnam. With your cooperation, the FBI can help alleviate the awkward situation that you are in, but only with your cooperation.”

The FBI’s solution is a copy of the Chieu Hoi (“please return”) amnesty offered in the late 1960s by the U.S. Army to thousands of Viet Cong, some of whom gave themselves up and became Kit Carson Scouts, point men who led GI sweeps into enemy territory. Spies who reveal themselves under Chieu Hoi II by contacting an FBI mail drop in Washington are promised exoneration and, if necessary, a new identity.

“You will not enjoy the benefits of this program if the FBI must find you,” the letter warns. “If this notice does not apply to you, but you find it might interest a friend, please pass it on.”

The FBI is not the only organization hunting spies. A group of 170 former South Vietnamese police officers informally screens refugees newly arrived in Orange County. “Of the 10,000 people I saw at the Galang refugee camp in Indonesia, 10 were Communist cadre,” says Dang Quy, a 40-year-old machinist who once held the rank of major in the Saigon police. “Some of the suspects here are criminals Hanoi put on a boat instead of in jail. They spread lies and collect welfare, but because of the freedom here, all we can do is report them.”

In July, after she was named Miss Vietnam U.S.A. for the second time, Nguyen Thi Kim Van, a 22-year-old Mary Kay cosmetics distributor with show-business aspirations, began receiving midnight warnings from Communist sympathizers not to use her beauty for political purposes. “Some of my songs are about fighting the Viet Cong, but I never thought they could cause a problem here,” she says. “The best thing, I guess, is not to talk about Vietnam. You can’t even go to a party without students talking about going home.”

Within days of Hanoi’s 1975 victory, South Vietnam’s defeated military leaders, meeting in a Guam refugee center, vowed to recapture their homeland. Given the uninspired performance of the army in the war’s final 55 days, Vietnamese Adm. Hoang Co Minh was selected to head the resistance effort.

His leadership did not go uncontested. During the early 1980s, Nguyen Cao Ky, a former air marshal and vice president of South Vietnam, tried to unite all Indochinese in an anti-Communist insurgency. “Nguyen Cao Ky is not finished yet,” he said in a December, 1982, speech to the Foreign Correspondents Club of Japan. “You’ll hear and see more of me in the future.”

But the future belonged to Hoang Co Minh and the National United Front for the Liberation of Vietnam (NULF). Minh’s credibility was based on a March, 1982, report from the NULF’s “secret war zone” inside Kampuchea, formerly Cambodia. Written by Hoang Xuan Yen, a Saigon barber and free-lance cameraman for NBC during the war, the article described a jungle redoubt from which veterans of Saigon’s defeated army resupplied anti-Communist partisans fighting in the Mekong River Delta. Color photographs showed guerrillas in camouflage tiger suits identical to those once worn by South Vietnamese marines. They were receiving orders from Minh, whose black pajamas and wispy beard evoked memories of the youthful Ho Chi Minh. “With a brave heart nothing is impossible,” Minh told his lieutenants while Yen scribbled notes. “For us, we have only one objective, and that is to march east.”

By the end of 1982 the money was flowing. Donations from San Jose’s Vietnamese community exceeded $3,000 a month. In March, 1983, 11,000 Vietnamese, many paying $600 a ticket, converged on the Anaheim Convention Center to applaud the exploits of an army Minh claimed numbered 10,000 men. The following month, 5,000 people filled an Orange County high school auditorium to hear another “report from the battlefield.” By the end of 1984 contributions of $15,000 a month were flowing from California alone into a NULF treasure chest conservatively estimated by former NULF officials to contain $7 million.

After his return from Southeast Asia, Yen, the barber-cum-journalist, became a NULF fund-raiser. His wife opened a restaurant, and guests entering their San Jose home were confronted by blown-up photographs of Hoang Co Minh and his doughty jungle fighters. Today, however, he admits the counterinsurgency he profiled was actually an elaborate guerrilla theater staged for the benefit of refugees in the United States.

“Ah, here they are,” says Yen, pulling the now-warped photos from beneath a jumble of shoes in his hall closet. “This is what I think of Adm. Minh,” he says, grimacing, as he Frisbees a yellowing blowup toward the backyard arboretum.

“I was tricked when I reported the article,” he says, pacing absently past trees heavy with ripening pears and oranges. “Minh moved the border marker and sent me on a two-day hike through Thailand. I never even crossed into Cambodia.”

Yen’s experience has not diminished his enthusiasm for the retaking of Vietnam, however. He is one of the principle backers of Pham Van Lieu, the ex-Saigon police chief and “godfather” to the 10,000 Vietnamese in the Sacramento Valley, who broke with the NULF in December, 1984, to form his own resistance group. “The tragedy of the NULF is it left Vietnamese frustrated and disillusioned,” says Yen. “If a real hero actually did come along, no one would want to fight.”

Some Vietnamese are fighting Communism inside Vietnam. In September, 1984, Hanoi arrested 119 people--more than 100 of them former South Vietnamese troops--who, with financing from China and French logistical support, infiltrated back into the country with 100 tons of weapons. The abortive raid received no assistance from U.S. resistance groups, however. Indeed, the only tangible result of refugee donations to the NULF is Khang Chien, the group’s newspaper, and a chain of Vietnamese noodle soup restaurants called Pho Hua.

Hoang Co Minh has not appeared in public in California for more than a year. Many believe the “resistance zone,” where he invariably is said to be, is a euphemism for Fresno, where he maintains a residence. NULF spokesman Nguyen Xuan Nghia, a 41-year-old University of Paris graduate, admits that his army’s front line is hard to find on a map. “It could be inside or outside Vietnam,” he says, smiling. “The issue is not the location of our headquarters but how we can psychologically mobilize for war a people living in a peaceful country.”

What has the NULF built with its millions? Are there warehouses filled with war materiel or freighters under charter? Where is the clinic for the wounded? Is there a command center? “Meet me at the newspaper,” Nghia says, “and I’ll explain all.”

The office of Khang Chien turns out to be a modest guest house near the San Jose airport that is bare save for one couch, three folding chairs and a poster of the Perfume River meandering through Hue, the ancient Vietnamese capital. Visitors are welcomed with something less than enthusiasm. The front door opens after 10 minutes of pounding, and then by a man who bleats from behind a chain lock: “Go away, go away. I don’t know what you’re talking about.”

Minutes pass. Finally, an Oldsmobile Cutlass Supreme pulls to a stop amid a spray of gravel. Briefcase in hand, Nghia bounds toward the house, a sweater tied loosely around his neck. “Many of our members don’t like to talk to foreigners,” he says soothingly. “We relied on Americans before and look what happened,” he continues, making a conversation nook with the couch and wobbly chairs. “Ah, to be more like the Viet Cong. Then we’d be sure to win.”

Is this the newspaper office?

“Its location is secret.”

Is this empty house really all there is to see?

“Make your observation and draw your own conclusions,” he sighs.

Prospects for Hanoi’s overthrow do not seem encouraging. But the refugees’ vow to recapture their homeland can’t be dismissed entirely. They are, after all, Vietnamese, and for them a decade is not a very long time.

When the Vietnamese challenged China’s 800-year reign in the 10th Century, the Ly princes contemptuously ordered their unfilial vassals to stop all resistance. “The Emperor (of China) rules over the rivers and mountains of the Southern Country,” they decreed. “This destiny has been indelibly registered in the Celestial Book. How dare you, rebellious slaves, come violate it? You shall undoubtedly witness your own and complete defeat.”

The Vietnamese responded by booting China’s army out of the Red River Valley and declaring independence.

Patience stiffened by determination is a lesson Lam Le Trinh, a 62-year-old former interior minister now teaching at UC Irvine and Orange Coast College, pounds into every new batch of Vietnamese arrivals.

“I tell the students in my U.S. citizenship course to be more like Jews and Palestinians,” he says. “Instead of having dreams, they make plans. Refugees will have to become Americans first if they ever want to be Vietnamese again. If we don’t understand the system here and make politicians dependent on us, we’re never going to get home.”