As Saigon was falling, Van Nguyen bounced about in the South China Sea in a battered boat with a dead engine. After two days, a U.S. Navy ship approached. He clambered aboard. On deck, finally safe, Nguyen found himself on the unsteady threshold of his new life.
Eventually finding his way to the Washington area, the former police officer worked night and day jobs, pooled money with relatives and hardly ever slept. In the quarter-century since arriving in the United States, he finally found his solid ground: A front yard and a place in the American middle class.
Sunday marks 25 years since the fall of Saigon, the day Nguyen, thousands of other refugees and the last remaining U.S. forces fled the doomed capital of a nation that would soon cease to exist. Nguyen will mark the occasion in comfortable retirement, a golden Buddha in his house and his son's new BMW M coupe in the driveway.
But a part of him will be back in Saigon.
"All the time you're always thinking of your home -- we know the hardships, we feel the sorrow for our people," says Nguyen, 58, who lives in Falls Church, Va., after escaping with little more than the sandals on his feet. "But this is our new home. It is the free world, the good life."
Nguyen's experience reflects the long, bruising odyssey of many refugees who arrived in this country after Saigon fell to North Vietnamese troops in 1975. As with so many of his fellow refugees in this modern diaspora, he built a new life through sheer force of will. And though he pines for what he lost, he is staying put in his own American Saigon.
Northern Virginia, with its more than 35,000 Vietnamese-Americans, has become a microcosm of this world of refugees. Large numbers from each wave of Vietnamese immigrants have settled here: the first refugees in 1975, the boat people in 1978, the desperate survivors of Communist re-education camps in 1989.
Like so many immigrant stories, the Vietnamese tale has its share of painful chapters. Today, poverty, domestic violence and youth gangs are silent scourges. But the big picture is one of mainstream accomplishment, as over the years strong families shared their salaries, put their faith in hard work and treated success as a matter of honor.
"A Vietnamese friend who was teaching in a university, running a fast-food place and selling insurance was deadly serious when he told me, 'It's very easy to become rich in this country -- all you have to do is work three jobs,'" says Douglas Pike, who heads the Vietnam Center at Texas Tech University.
"Like a lot of other sociologists, I believe the Vietnamese are the most successful immigrant group that ever came to this country," Pike said.
Calling themselves "Viet kieu," meaning "overseas Vietnamese," more than half of those who left eventually landed in the United States. There are 1.4 million Vietnamese-Americans in this country. The largest concentration, about 200,000, resides in Orange County, Calif., with the epicenter in the Little Saigon section of Westminster. In addition to Northern Virginia, sizable clusters of Vietnamese can also be found in San Jose, Calif., Houston and San Diego.
Northern Virginia, perhaps because of its proximity to Washington, has long attracted a privileged subset of refugees, many of whom received American or European educations and came here through connections with the U.S. government.
In Northern Virginia, the number of Vietnamese making more than $50,000 a year surpassed all other foreign-born residents, according to 1990 census figures. The figures also show that their median income more than doubled to $29,772 from 1980 to 1990.
Even as about 10,000 Vietnamese have swung around the Capital Beltway into Maryland -- most settling in Montgomery County -- Northern Virginia remains the East Coast hub. Ground zero can be found at a 16-year-old shopping mall in Falls Church called the Eden Center -- a mix of Vietnamese aromas and American capitalism.
Under an Asian gate, customers buy banh chui cakes wrapped in bright green banana leaves while techno-music blasts outside. A music shop hawks Donny Osmond's "Puppy Love" on karaoke discs to patrons who ask in Vietnamese whether they can charge it; other customers at the mall chat in English as they pick up ancient Vietnamese herbal remedies.
Stacks of Northern Virginia's 11 Vietnamese-language newspapers sit in Eden Center restaurants. Bill Gates stares from the front page of one, over a Microsoft article, and immigrants with technology stocks take note.
In Northern Virginia, signs of Vietnam are everywhere. Vietnamese Boy Scouts in Troop 612 spend every Friday night taking Vietnamese language lessons. At Holy Martyrs of Vietnam Church, Mass is held in the congregation's native tongue three times every Sunday. A teen-ager at the Eden Center sports a tattoo of a map of Vietnam that covers half his arm.
But the culture is hardly insular. Artists draw on American pop icons for inspiration -- singer Elvis Phuong and TV actor Dustin Nguyen do so by their names alone. The cultures meld unpredictably, such as the Vietnamese actress who played a Mighty Morphin Power Ranger on television or the former South Vietnamese premier, Nguyen Cao Ky, who gained a reputation as a California playboy.
Tradition of hard work
As the younger generation grows up, many Vietnamese-American parents are desperate to instill the traditions of hard work and family respect that they believe helped them survive in the difficult years that followed April 30, 1975. As a result, census figures show, the number of Vietnamese enrolled in college grew by 35 percent between 1980 and 1990 -- with half of all college-age Vietnamese Americans pursuing their degrees.
A national study showed Vietnamese-American children in public schools spent an average of two hours a night on homework -- four times more than their classmates. Another survey asked Vietnamese children to complete the sentence, "The trouble with my mom is ..." Their overwhelming answer: "I am not able to please her yet."
At the end of the war, the 137,000 people who made it to this country were scattered by the U.S. government to small towns under the care of sponsors, usually churches or humanitarian groups. With some struggle, they migrated to their own ethnic enclaves, where they were able to support each other.
The tens of thousands of boat people who came next had an even rougher time. An estimated 100,000 drowned in the South China Sea. For those who reached the United States, arriving in the recession of the late 1970s and early 1980s, much of public sympathy had run out.
Even so, this was a second chance, and they seized on it.
"Most of us try real hard and work to get ourselves to adapt to the system," says Tuy Le, 45, who fled in 1981 after the Vietnamese government ordered him to clear land mines.
People that had the opportunity to get out of Vietnam carry with them something," says Le, who runs the computer system for a Virginia company. "I call it a mission to survive."
As it ages, the community has experienced its problems. Arlington social worker Kim Oanh Cook, who counsels fellow Vietnamese refugees, says depression, isolation and domestic violence are well-hidden demons. "Just because you're a doctor or an engineer, do you still have nightmares about the family you left behind in Vietnam?" Cook asks. "Many people don't talk about that -- they don't want to face it."
Young people in the community suffer their own set of troubles. Smoking a cigarette at the Eden Center, Anhhao Nguyen bears scars on his arms where his Vietnamese gang tattoos were removed. At 22, he talks of "wasting my years" and trying to start over.
"For a while I just didn't want to accomplish anything," says Nguyen, who left in 1984 with his aunt and uncle while his father remained behind in a prison camp. "I just didn't know where to go."
Vietnamese-American activists are eager to address such troubles, something they say the community has failed to do in focusing on day-to-day survival. Unlike the Cuban-Americans in Little Havana, the Vietnamese as a group have never organized politically. Their only elected official is a city councilman in Westminster, Calif.
Jackie Bong Wright has led a drive to register voters in Northern Virginia and inspire activism beyond issues directly related to Vietnam.
"For me, I would like to empower my community," says Bong Wright, 59, whose first husband, a political activist, was assassinated in South Vietnam during the war. "We cannot turn only toward ourselves now."
Return to homeland
Vietnamese-Americans sent $1.2 billion to their homeland last year, and some, such as Rockville lawyer Thai Nguyen, have returned in the hopes of making the country a better place.
jv0 Nguyen, 28, who escaped Vietnam 18 years ago, went back for six months to help advise the government on the country's infant stock market. But such efforts can be met with hostility even a quarter-century after the war's end.
"There are those who will say that those people who go back are influenced by Communists," Nguyen says. "Sometimes they're even accused of working for communism as a spy."
While 87,000 returned for visits last year, only a handful of Vietnamese-Americans have moved back. Some cite restrictions on where former refugees are allowed to live and buy land. Others refuse to set foot in the country until the current government is out of power.
The anger is palpable in Northern Virginia, where the few one-time Communists there are ostracized by most of the Vietnamese community.
Many dream of going back. But Le, the refugee once forced to clear mines, holds the government responsible for the deaths of four uncles and for his own forced labor -- an ordeal, he says, that "almost made you want to give up and drink a lot of wine and shoot yourself."
Still, he is often homesick. His parents and all his siblings remain on Go Noi Island, where he grew up. When his grandfather died recently, the old man left his farm to Le in the hope he would return.
In the spring, when "The Star-Spangled Banner" plays before his son's baseball games, Le often reflects on the life he inherited and the one he left behind.
"The kids put the hat down and cover their heart, and they state that they love this country and they play their best -- and you know I feel, of course, very, very proud each time," Le says. "But also, I wait for the day they will be able to say that to their former country. I am longing for that."