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Lives remembered, lives rebuilt, attitudes changing -- 33 years after South Vietnam fell

Thirty-three years after the Vietnam War ended, the fallen country of South Vietnam lives on -- in the streets of Orange County's Little Saigon and in the minds of thousands of refugees who fled communist forces and rebuilt their lives here.

The memories of hardship are still so bitter for some that they continue to mount street protests, fly the South Vietnamese flag from businesses and lampposts, and rail against communism on radio talk shows.

Now there are signs of shifting attitudes in the historically anticommunist community, the largest Vietnamese enclave in the U.S.

Vietnamese Americans are beginning to see opportunity in their home country, and increasingly, people are moving back, expanding their business ties or starting humanitarian organizations to improve the lives of those in Vietnam -- actions barely imaginable a decade ago.

Though the change is subtle and those who associate with Vietnam often keep a low profile, the movement is remarkable in a community where a statue of a South Vietnamese soldier stands near the civic center and noisy street protests against perceived communist sympathizers are still routine.

"There is tension in the community," said Linda Trinh Vo, a UC Irvine professor of Asian American studies. "It shows the complexities of Vietnamese Americans in terms of their feelings against the current Vietnamese government. At the same time, we have to understand the personal experiences of these people and what they have suffered."

Doing business

Bill Pham fled Vietnam on a plane with his family when he was 4. Now 37, he has no memories of his homeland.

He returned to Vietnam for the first time in 2006 and saw hungry children without shoes and mothers peddling bowls of pho. "I kept thinking that could have been my life," he said.

Pham decided to expand his Orange County-based clean-energy business to Hanoi, the capital of Vietnam and a name that still smolders among refugees. His manufacturing company there employs 80.

Vietnamese Americans who conduct business in their homeland are viewed with suspicion, seen as traitors who help prop up the Communist regime. Vietnam's human rights record and crackdowns on political and religious freedom remain sore points.

Yet there are signs of change, even in the supermarkets and mom-and-pop stores in Little Saigon, where silks and fabrics, fish sauce, souvenirs, peanut snacks and pop music imported from Vietnam are displayed with growing prominence.

This month, Pham hosted a group of Vietnamese delegates trying to lure high-technology businesses in Orange County and San Jose to Vietnam. The meetings were discreet, by invitation only. Pham and the delegates did not want to risk protests.

"Forget the politics," Pham said. "What do you do to solve problems for people in Vietnam?" Pham sees increased business ties with Vietnam as a path to a better economy for the nation. Human rights, education and political freedoms will follow, he predicts.

As ties between the United States and Vietnam deepen, Vietnamese government officials are reaching out to overseas Vietnamese -- Viet Kieu -- with promises of investment incentives, multi-entry visas and less red tape.

The United States and Vietnam did $12.5 billion in business last year, up nearly 30% from 2006, according to U.S. government officials. Vietnamese Americans also sent an estimated $4 million plus in remittances to relatives in Vietnam last year.

Not forgetting the past

Timothy Thieng Chi Ngo was among the hundreds who protested when Vietnamese President Nguyen Minh Triet visited Dana Point in June.

He takes offense at Vietnamese government officials trying to reel expatriates back and doesn't believe a better economy will bring about democracy.

"I wish the people who rush to do business in Vietnam would have more responsibility," Ngo said. "I feel like they have forgotten the past too soon."

Ngo hasn't forgotten. He was a 25-year-old officer in the South Vietnamese Army when he fled Vietnam on a small landing craft and vowed never to return as long as Communists were in power.

Ngo eventually came to Orange County and heard news of friends and relatives in the army being thrown into "reeducation" camps as political prisoners. Others died fleeing Vietnam. He organized protests to support and free political prisoners in Vietnam.

"For my friends who spent 10, 15 years in prison," he said, "their youth, that part of their life was gone forever."

In 1998, Ngo broke his vow and went to Vietnam for charity work and to see the situation there for himself. His anger grew anew.

He holds out hope the Communist government will one day collapse. Little Saigon, he said, is the "last piece of land we have to help the Vietnamese who are struggling."

Slow healing

Linda Trinh Vo says the wounds of war have healed slowly in the Vietnamese American community.

"Especially for the first generation, they're still tied to what happens politically and economically in the homeland," she said. "That will always be a part of who they are, part of their history."

The strong emotions have fueled a grass-roots movement, a desire to show the Communist government that Vietnamese Americans have thrived in their new homes. Vietnamese American activists have lobbied cities across the country to ban the Communist flag from official functions. At the urging of the Vietnamese community, Garden Grove officially declared itself a "no-communist zone" in 2004.

Vietnamese Americans have transformed Southern California in other ways. Refugees-turned-entrepreneurs created Little Saigon, which now bustles with retail shops, Vietnamese lawyers and doctors, and restaurants serving classic Vietnamese dishes.

Orange County is home to 10 Vietnamese American politicians, including Assemblyman Van Tran, the highest-ranking Vietnamese American elected official.

Helping the people

Quynh Kieu started Project Vietnam a dozen years ago, sending doctors to Vietnam's rural areas. In the 1980s, the Fountain Valley doctor treated Vietnamese refugee children who were malnourished and believed the situation in Vietnam was probably worse.

In the past, groups such as Project Vietnam were viewed with mistrust -- criticized as doing work the Vietnamese government was ignoring.

But in recent years, more organizations have been created to build schools, libraries and hospitals in Vietnam.

Today, Kieu is helping Vietnam's health department develop programs for neonatal care.

"You hope that there will be a growing number of people who will start to see the suffering of people in Vietnam and start being more open," she said, "and that they will be able to sort out where the government ends and where helping the people start."

Leaving a legacy

Some in the first generation who fled Vietnam struggle to pass on their legacy to those who never lived through war. For Tammy Tran, who was born in California, April 30 -- the anniversary of the day Saigon fell -- is a time when she learns more about her family's past.

Tran is 27, the age her mother was when she escaped by boat in 1975.

"I try to imagine what it was like for them," Tran said. "Every year Black April is a commemoration of the past, of how we lost this country, of how our parents came here, of how Vietnam continues to be under communism."

Tran has felt strong ties to Vietnam since her first visit, when she said she witnessed a young girl being assaulted in the street.

"I didn't lose what those in the older generation lost," Tran said, "but I am against the Communist government because of things they haven't done for our people."

Tran believes Vietnam will change with more education. She has also helped start an anti-human trafficking organization that helps Vietnamese women in Taiwan.

"Lives in Vietnam need to be as good as our lives here," she said.

my-thuan.tran

@latimes.com

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