Please note: This article is published as an archive copy from Philadelphia City Paper. My City Paper is not affiliated with Philadelphia City Paper. Philadelphia City Paper was an alternative weekly newspaper in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. The last edition was published on October 8, 2015.

February 21–28, 2002

cover story

Home and Abroad

Haunting memories aside, many local Vietnamese immigrants refuse to forget the country they fled.

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So far and yet so close: Matin Nguyen, seen here in his shop in Bella Vista, thinks often of the home and relatives he left behind.

photo: Eddy Palumbo

It’s a quiet night in the Gulf of Thailand in 1988. With any luck, it will stay quiet. Neither pirates nor sailors will find the boat in which Matin Nguyen and 78 other Vietnamese are slipping away from their homeland and heading to Indonesia. The pirates in question are fishermen who use their nets, spears and guns to take all the goods — and to abuse the women — on boats leaving Vietnam.

To sail these waters unarmed, with your most valued belongings on board, is to risk plunder and worse. But that fate may be better than what will happen to Nguyen and the others if the Navy nabs them and takes them back.

Everyone is standing, and they have been for hours. There is no room to sit or move in the 39-foot ship. Water collects in fetid pools on the floor. Nguyen knows there is a camp in Indonesia, Galang 2, run by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. What no one can guess is that, for those who don’t drown or aren’t murdered or caught on the way to the camp, the processing of refugees takes months, and things aren’t much better there than in the New Economic Zones from which the 79 have fled.

And the storms haven’t hit the boat yet.

 

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photo: Eddy Palumbo

Jump to Philadelphia in the present, to an age unlike any in the history of U.S.-Vietnam relations. With the world’s gaze fixed on the war on terror, many people have ignored short news items about thaws in the relations. But for the 50,000 Vietnamese in the city, there have been several seismic shifts in recent months.

In October, the U.S. Senate voted 88-12 to approve a bilateral trade agreement, previously passed by the House, that allows American firms to do more business with Vietnam. Pennsylvania’s senators, Arlen Specter and Rick Santorum, were both behind the trade agreement, which President Bush signed Oct. 16. The measure is expected to double the billion dollars’ worth of annual trade between the two nations, and it comes on the heels of a series of changes in how Vietnam’s leaders run their show. Readers of the Far Eastern Economic Review are aware of the aim of Prime Minister Phan Van Khai’s government to help business people, if not the rest of its society, feel more at ease and freer to deal with the rest of the world. The communist government also aims to draw foreign investment to the country. In the last few years, steps taken by the National Assembly have included easing taxes, letting banks go private and allowing up to 30 percent of the shares of firms to go into the hands of foreigners.

 

Now, with lower taxes and tariffs, the climate is better for U.S. companies like Procter & Gamble and Coca-Cola, with their huge plants in Vietnam, and Boeing, which plans to sell jets to Vietnam’s state airline. The trade agreement also gives a boost to the U.S. markets for the rubber, tea, rice, cashews, seafood, milk, sugar, pepper, coffee, garments and other goods that come out of Vietnam. The country exports millions of tons of these goods annually to the U.S., Canada, the European Union and other Asian nations.

The return of diplomatic ties in 1995 was the clearest sign of U.S. aims in regard to Vietnam. Apparently political leaders believe there’s no longer reason to treat Vietnam as a pariah or to see its people, at home or abroad, as victims.

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Strut this, mummers! The Asian shopping centers on Washington Avenue in South Philly sometimes serve as town squares for the area’s Vietnamese immigrant community.

photo: Jon Stark

No one knows this new mentality better than the Vietnamese of this city. New arrivals, do not have the status they did in the past. No one grasps that more than May Chu, who runs the Vietnamese United National Association of Greater Philadelphia.

Given the grandiose name of this outfit, anyone who visits its offices at Eighth and Washington may feel a jolt. While it is the top outfit helping Vietnamese in the area adjust to life here, it is an office with a couple of desks and two posters made by children during the mid-autumn festival, which holds a high place in Vietnamese culture. Apart from immigrants in need of help with legal papers, the visitor meets Chu and a lady whom she smilingly presents as her staff — the wife of a soldier in President Nguyen Van Thieu’s government of South Vietnam that fell 27 years ago.

Out of her concern for the Vietnamese who began coming here in droves in 1975, Chu set up the outfit in 1984 to help them with legal papers, learning English and finding jobs. The new immigrants who poured into the streets of Philadelphia had the status of refugees and were entitled to an array of benefits at the state and federal levels.

But no more. Since the Vietnamese who come to the city often do so with the aid of relatives who have been here for a while, Chu says, they do not fit the usual definition of refugees. They come from Vietnam, not from the old refugee camps in Hong Kong, Malaysia, Indonesia and the Philippines. (In fact, May says, there is only one such camp still going, in the Philippines.)

The view has changed both in the halls of the federal government and in Harrisburg. Once one of the most dynamic programs run by the outfit on South Eighth Street, the job training and placement course has suffered from cuts in funds that took effect at the start of July.

In the eyes of immigration officials, the Vietnamese here are well-adjusted and are doing fine, and, apparently to them, the human-rights picture in Vietnam has changed so much that the nation is no longer a pariah. These Vietnamese are no more "refugees" than people who come here from Sweden.

And indeed, it may seem that the Vietnamese here are on a new footing with their homeland. In contrast to five or six years ago, Chu says, some of them have the means to go back freely to their former country.

 

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U.S., customs: Performers at a Vietnamese festival in South Philly last year.

photo: Jon Stark

In a New Economic Zone (NEZ) many miles from Ho Chi Minh City, several men are standing in the sun digging a well. Sweat pours off them, and they don’t talk. All of a sudden, one of the men stops digging. Seconds later, he is lying in the dust, but the others are afraid to stop.

These men are the worst of the lot, in the eyes of the communists. They tried to get out of the NEZ, or didn’t show enough fealty to the guards or officials running the place, or enough faith in communism. As a result, they got hard labor, digging wells all day with only a bit of water in the morning and one bowl of rice at night to sustain them. No breakfast or lunch, no more water.

One of the guards comes over and hits the fallen man with the butt of his semiautomatic. Not getting a reply, he hits him again. But you can’t hurt a corpse. Malnourishment and overwork have done their job.

Tales like this are not far from the minds of survivors of the NEZs, people like Matin Nguyen, who risked his life to get out of the camp and out of the country. Today he couldn’t ask for a more tranquil setting in which to live and work. The street in Bella Vista where he runs a dry-cleaning shop is a quiet place where plenty of other Vietnamese people run cafes, beauty parlors and travel agencies. Life is worth what it costs to get here, though to this day Nguyen prefers not to go anywhere by boat.

Nguyen had what he calls a wonderful life in Saigon, until the communists won the war in 1975. "After that, they made it unbearable, so I had to leave," he explains. They uprooted Nguyen and his family and dropped them in a place called Ba Dang in Tay Ninh City. Almost 1,300 people, long used to life in a city, found themselves in an NEZ with no running water, electricity or roads. The communists forced them to develop the village by building their own houses with bamboo and banana leaves from felled trees, and by planting yuca and sweet potatoes in the land they deforested. Some of the people lived in houses made from rice stalks. "Success meant we got to eat," Nguyen says. Otherwise, "we were meant to starve."

For some, this life was too much to bear. There were many attempts to flee the camp. The men and women who had lived in Saigon until 1975 did not make a lot of friends among the guards, many of whom came from the north, had been poor all their lives and took a disliking to city dwellers. They liked to make an example of those they hated most. Guards told inmates they were free to run away, then shot them in the back as they fled, later telling the officials they’d foiled a plan to escape.

Even if you made it out of an NEZ, that didn’t mean you were out of Vietnam. Nguyen tells of the racket run by those who stood to profit two ways: taking money from men and women to whom they promised passage out of the country, and then getting a reward for them from the government. The police would nab the men and women who went where the racketeers had told them to assemble.

On the boat that Nguyen took, there may have been some ex-soldiers and other fighters, but it is just as well that no one intercepted the ship full of women and children. After storms drenched the refugees and nearly capsized the boat, the four-day, five-night voyage in 1988 ended with the ship’s arrival at Galang 2 in Indonesia. Families split up and moved into rooms in the houses to eat their rations of fish, eggs and, sometimes, meat, and to wait for processing to start.

In many cases, their aim was to win official refugee status, pick up English and then move to the U.S. or Canada. Nguyen went from Galang 2 to another camp in the Bataan peninsula in the Philippines, where Filipino, Vietnamese and American teachers helped people learn English and about the American way of life.

Nguyen’s father made it out of the NEZ after five years. On returning to Saigon, the father found their house had been taken over by the state. The father, a tailor from whom Nguyen learned his trade, had to start from scratch.

This sort of loss was the fate of many people, for as Nguyen’s cousin Dominic Tran says, the top communists during the war spurred their men on with promises that the houses, cars and wealth of South Vietnam would be theirs on winning the war.

Tran knows about the minds and methods of the communists, for his father spent years fighting them as a colonel in South Vietnam’s police force. The father had been a high-ranking member of Saigon’s police until his superiors got annoyed at his dim view of the passport-selling racket they ran. They moved him to the front lines of the counterinsurgency.

This turned out to be a blessing in disguise, for the father’s front-line duty made him see, before most people did, how the war was going to end. Having lived in North Vietnam after the rout of the French in 1954, he knew what the communists would do when they took over the country. While others held out hope for the survival of South Vietnam, he was making plans for an escape.

His father got the family out of Vietnam just in time in 1975, when Tran was 3 years old. The family set out on a boat that first sailed for the Philippines. When soldiers there saw the boat coming, they shot at it, making it turn and head for a new destination, Guam. There the family boarded a U.S. ship that took them to Hawaii. Then, finally, the family went to California as part of the state’s quota of refugees.

Tran grew up speaking English. Having studied for three years at Penn, he’s now at the Medical College of Pennsylvania. He shares an interest in medical science with Lan Vo, a woman who left Vietnam at a later age than he did and whose father was a major in the ARVN, the army of South Vietnam. She and her family lived in Can Tho, the largest city in the Mekong Delta. After the war’s end, the communists told Vo’s father that, if he turned himself in to them, they’d give him amnesty and let him live freely in the country. When he did so, they arrested him and sent him off for eight years — not to an NEZ, but to a fetid prison in Hanoi. The family got him out of jail at the end of those eight years by bribing the officials.

All these years later, Vo has nightmares. With her father locked up and the family’s houses in Can Tho seized, the rest of the family moved to a hamlet named Cai Chanh, where her sister still lives. The family had to throw out all photos of the father, who had been a major in the ARVN and whose image was by nature subversive. They could have nothing that called the man to mind. The communists raided the house often, storming through it to look for anything suspect. Vo woke up in the middle of the night to the sound of strangers tearing through the house and rifling through drawers and desks.

Those in the hamlet who preached from or even openly showed the Bible vanished without a trace. Vo or her relatives asked for the whereabouts of the neighbors who were suddenly gone, and the answer was that the men and women had moved to another town. But it was not possible to find out which one.

 

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photo: Jon Stark

Like people all over the nation, and all over the world, Vietnamese in South Philadelphia got together to show their patriotism and pray for the victims of the Sept. 11 tragedy and their kin. At a rally on Sept. 21, in the parking lot of the mall at Sixth and Washington, one could get lost in the sea of American and South Vietnamese flags, entwined together on scores of wooden sticks. The singing of "The Star-Spangled Banner" and the anthem of the Republic of Vietnam preceded talks by a few of the political, educational and religious figures in the community.

While a few of the older men who managed the display of pictures and the huge American flag at the mouth of the parking lot wore ARVN outfits, they are all patriotic Americans. All voiced their shock and sorrow at what had taken place earlier in the month, and the air of the September night was full of lit candles along with the pairs of flags.

Only when the vigil was winding down did some of the talk turn to other matters.

"We need to force the communist government to [respect] more human rights," said Peter Bu, when asked about the state of affairs in the country people are going back to visit. "Buddhists, Catholics, everyone" still suffer at the hands of the government, he said, and recently one Buddhist priest set himself on fire in protest, after having sent a letter to the government listing the names of 13 people who had been punished for their views.

"Everything you do, you have to be very careful. Always silent, silent all the time," said Tai Nguyen, one of the young Vietnamese who had helped set up the vigil. He has family back in Vietnam, and he misses them dearly, but is not willing to go back there due to the human-rights mess. "You don’t have free speech, then everything else, forget it," he said, before walking off.

While the world viewed events in New York, Washington, D.C. and the Middle East, reports began to leak out of a wave of persecution of Buddhists and critics of the Communist Party in "liberalized" Vietnam. The wave of violence is no fluke. While it is true that the government let many people out of jail to mark the 25th anniversary of "liberation" in 1975, things have not gotten better since then. Human Rights Watch has noted the arrest of scores of intellectuals and others on charges of siding with foreign reactionaries; the arrest and expulsion of French journalists who sought to meet with dissidents; and late-night visits by police to the pagodas of church leaders. The Hmong, natives of Laos, Vietnam and other Asian countries whom the CIA once enlisted in the war against communism, as well as others nabbed for dissent, sit in prisons marked by shackles, dark cells and torture.

At the mid-autumn festival held in the mall at Sixth and Washington on Oct. 5, Thanh Nguyen, a former ARVN soldier, stood quietly at the rear of the parking lot. His war record included serving as ground support for airborne American special-forces units that used infrared gear to track down Vietcong guerrillas rushing through the jungle at night. Despite what we all heard last year about former Sen. Bob Kerry and the misdeeds of American special-ops units in Vietnam that sought to wipe out any possible support for the enemy in Vietnamese hamlets, Thanh Nguyen and other ARVN vets are proud of their role in the struggle to save South Vietnam from communism.

The backdrop for the stage where mythical creatures danced before the children and their parents was a mural of a Vietnamese hamlet. It was a subdued scene of a few huts, tilled fields and water buffalo moving in the distance. One of the Vietnamese present explained how the peasants use water buffalo the way Midwestern farmers use tractors, as tools to break up the earth before sowing.

Vincent Pham talked about his return visits to Vietnam, where bribes came in very handy at airports. He said that Saigon may be a modern city where well-dressed young people cruise shopping malls and use cell phones, but that once you step outside the city, you find yourself in one of the poorest and most squalid places on earth.

The Vietnamese in Philadelphia love the ideal of what Vietnam once was. The question is whether they can ever reclaim it from the murderers and thieves who stole all of what they have. The ink is still not dry on the deals the communist government has made with Washington and the world. The economic and political order is no fresher than the memories in the minds of the ordinary Vietnamese who fled to tell the world of their ordeal.

Blood calls to blood, and some of the city’s Vietnamese go back to their homeland when they can. Matin Nguyen’s family is glad to see him on those occasions when he does. Thanks to money sent from its prosperous relatives in America, the family was finally able to buy back the house it had owned before. The father is now retired, and Nguyen’s brother ekes out a living selling motorcycle parts from the house. It is a far cry from what they once knew.

"Life was wonderful" before the communists’ victory, says Nguyen. "After that, they made it unbearable."

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