Reflecting on Vietnam, now and then

Philip Phu-Van Bui

FOR AMERICANS, the Vietnam war officially ended on Jan. 27, 1973, when the Paris Accords went into effect. Within 60 days, all American troops would withdraw.

Having grown up with the war and seen many relatives and friends killed, I had high hopes the accords would foster a lasting peace.

But the fighting continued. In early spring 1975, communist troops began an assault that struck South Vietnam with lightning speed. Town by town fell like dominoes: Hue, Da Nang, Quang Ngai in March; Qui Nhon, Binh Dinh, Nha Trang in early April.

As the fighting intensified, thousands of Vietnamese and orphans were airlifted out of Vietnam. Tens of thousands more swarmed into Saigon. Horror stories were told: executions by the communist forces; youths with long hair and bell-bottom pants stopped on streets to have a quick trim by communist cadres. As a young university student who loved hippie clothes, the Beatles, Santana and Trinh Cong Son and Khanh Ly – Vietnam’s Bob Dylan and Joan Baez – I wondered whether such things would happen to me if the communists took control of Saigon.

Expectations for a peaceful solution were high when General Duong Van “Big” Minh took power on the afternoon of April 28, 1975. Unfortunately, he was not able to stop the violence. That night, terror rained on the city with rockets and bombs. Several exploded very close to my house, killing several people. It was the longest night I have ever gone through.

The next morning, a cousin and I went around the city to see what was really happening. Shops were closed. Barbed wire was everywhere. A 24-hour curfew was in effect, but people ignored it and kept pouring into the city.

I followed the stream of people running toward the Saigon River where thousands of people were trampling to get on a dozen ships. I saw a boat with an empty deck and wondered why nobody was getting on. A middle-aged woman with her two children saw us standing like lost souls and asked if we wanted to go. I questioned her: Where will it go? She responded hastily: Out of the city to avoid the fighting.

Let’s get on, she said. I jumped on the boat. There were about 20 people on it, and I soon realized the boat did not have an engine. The lady assured me it would be tugged out later.

From the deck, looking toward Tan Son Nhat Airport in the direction of my home, columns of black smoke rose into the yellow sky. Helicopters flew in from the sea, then out in groups. I was scared and felt totally lost. Was the final attack on the encircled capital imminent?

A trawler pulled the boat out, cruising slowly in the river and then on to open sea. Tears blurred my view of a beleaguered city as it became distant in the muggy horizon. I got seasick and fell asleep that night in the bottom of the boat.

Waking up, I found the boat in the middle of a vast water. A man told me it was heading to Singapore since President Duong Van Minh had surrendered and Saigon had been renamed Ho Chi Minh City. I just wept. Was I really leaving my country, friends and family without saying goodbye?

It was April 30, 1975.

After three months passing through refugee camps in the Philippines, Guam and Camp Pendleton, I arrived in Berkeley to begin a new life.

Culture shock and homesickness made me cry at night. I had nightmares about my family. Was leaving the country the right choice? The war had finally ended, and the country was reunified. Why shouldn’t I be home to celebrate the country’s new era?

It was seven months before I received the first letter from home, sent via a third country since all communications between the United States and Vietnam were cut off.

My family had survived, but their lives had changed for the worse. Two of my teen-aged sisters quit school. Our home’s furniture was sold in order to buy food. Many relatives and neighbors were sent to re-education camps. Freedom was severely restricted. My classmates spent weeks doing laborious work in the countryside instead of learning and researching. Their prime time in life was wasted.

With news from home, my aspiration for a more democratic Vietnam was rejuvenated.

As a student leader at U.C. Berkeley, I spoke on human rights abuses in my homeland. Hanoi’s dictatorship and Vietnam’s shambles economy forced more than a million Vietnamese to leave their homeland. The exodus peaked in the early 1980s when thousands of boat people landed ashore each month in Southeast Asian countries. Unfortunately not everyone who left made it to the camps. Refugee officials estimated a quarter of boat people perished at sea.

The Vietnam War took a high toll, with 60,000 American casualties and 3 million Vietnamese. Tens of thousands more Vietnamese had to die as wars continued at the northern border and in Cambodia. Vietnam’s occupation of its neighboring country isolated Hanoi from the world and drained its resources.

In the late 1980s, Hanoi withdrew its troops and agreed to a peaceful solution in Cambodia. Vietnam has mended its relations with China and taken steps, such as resolving MIA/POW cases, toward normalizing relations with the United States, its former enemy.

Since Vietnam opened its door, tourists have arrived by the millions. Like many Vietnamese emigrants, I have returned to witness the drastic changes.

During a trip home I traveled to Nam Duong village in the Red River delta where my grandparents and parents were born and found it poverty-stricken. Many houses in the village still have dirt floors. Cousins and relatives continue to plow the same piece of land, now owned by the government, as my ancestors did hundreds of years ago. Eighty percent of Vietnam’s people still live in the impoverished countryside.

Coming home also gave me the chance to discover other parts of Vietnam.

Hanoi, which once welcomed streams of quiet bicycles in the morning, now bustles with myriad motorcycles jamming its tree-lined streets. The “Hanoi Hilton,” where American prisoners were kept during the war, remains, a humble yellow longhouse next to multistory buildings covered with shining glass, the lone reminder of the war.

Saigon, where I was born and grew up, is vibrant and noisy. The city has become the economic hub of a new Vietnam. People are always doing business, in the office and right on street corners. Vietnamese youths wear Gap clothes, Nike shoes, learn English and memorize the latest songs of the Backstreet Boys, Celine Dion and Ricky Martin.

Today Ho Chi Minh’s teaching “Nothing is more precious than independence and freedom” is given a different interpretation. My 33-year-old brother-in-law said independence now means having your own house and the freedom to do business. With a liberalized economy, he and his wife have succeeded in business deals and saved enough money to buy a house.

Seventy percent of Vietnam’s 78 million people are now 30 years old or younger. They do not pay much attention to communism or the glorious war of the past. They do not believe in any doctrine if it does not help them to find jobs and bring them a more comfortable life.

As Vietnam develops and integrates into the global economy, people are demanding more reforms to fulfill their dreams. Promoting trade and commercial ties will benefit Vietnam and the United States. A more open and democratic Vietnam would encourage its citizens to contribute their talents and ideas in building a prosperous country for themselves.


Philip Phu-Van Bui, a San Pablo resident, is a teacher and writer. He worked with the Peace Corps in Africa and United Nations in Asia.

[Contra Costa Times (Walnut Creek, CA) – April 24, 2000]


About Bùi Văn Phú

Bùi Văn Phú is a community college teacher and a freelance writer from San Francisco Bay Area. He worked with Peace Corps in Togo, Africa and United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees in Southeast Asia. Bùi Văn Phú hiện dạy đại học cộng đồng và là một nhà báo tự do sống tại vùng Vịnh San Francisco, California. Trong thập niên 1980, ông làm tình nguyện viên của Peace Corps tại Togo, Phi Châu và làm tham vấn giáo dục cho Cao ủy Tị nạn Liên hiệp quốc tại Đông nam Á.
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One Response to Reflecting on Vietnam, now and then

  1. Jean Libby says:

    This is a very moving personal history. It shows the chaos of war — decision-making in the midst of it by a very young person.

    The biographical clues show your parents to be migrants in the partition of North Vietnam and South Vietnam according to the Geneva Accords of 1954. Before you were born. So your natal village is in the north.

    I am historically interested in your assessment of the war between Vietnam and Cambodia.

    Altogether — really good biography written in a personal way, which the only way that people truly relate.

    Thank you for your blog!

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