News / Asia

Vietnamese Americans Save Memories For History

Sarah Williams
On April 30, Vietnam will celebrate Liberation Day, a holiday marking the 38th anniversary of the reunification of North and South Vietnam following a 19-year conflict.
 
For Americans and their former South Vietnamese allies, that day in 1975 is remembered for the fall of Saigon, now Ho Chi Minh City,  the end of the Vietnam War, and a communist victory. 

Before those memories fade, a special effort has been undertaken to capture for posterity the stories of those Vietnamese who took refuge in the United States following the war.

Vietnamese boat people rescued northeast of Cam Ranh Bay, Vietnam, after spending eight days at sea. 15 May 1984. (US Navy)Vietnamese boat people rescued northeast of Cam Ranh Bay, Vietnam, after spending eight days at sea. 15 May 1984. (US Navy)
x
Vietnamese boat people rescued northeast of Cam Ranh Bay, Vietnam, after spending eight days at sea. 15 May 1984. (US Navy)
Vietnamese boat people rescued northeast of Cam Ranh Bay, Vietnam, after spending eight days at sea. 15 May 1984. (US Navy)
“The generation that can recall what Vietnam was like, what the war was like, and also what the experience of immigration, and then resettlement was like, are starting to pass [die], and so we desperately need to capture their stories now,” said Thuy Vo Dang, director of the Vietnamese American Oral History Project at the University of California, Irvine.

Located on a pleasant, leafy campus about 66 kilometers southeast of Los Angeles, California, the university is renowned for its Asian studies program.  That’s appropriate for a campus located in Orange County, which is home the largest concentration of Vietnamese outside of Vietnam, more than 180,000, according to the 2010 Census.

Two Orange County communities, Westminster and Garden Grove, are known as “Little Saigon,” and contain numerous Vietnamese restaurants, nail salons and other businesses.

The Oral History Project was launched in 2011, and is funded by an anonymous donor.  Researchers, including Vo Dang, interview participants about their memories of the Vietnam War and subsequent events. 

“I do many of the interviews, but I also train many of the students to do oral history interviews of Vietnamese Americans, who often are in their own families, or their neighbors or friends,” she said.

Thuy Vo Dang, Director of the Vietnamese American Oral History Project at the University of California, Irvine.Thuy Vo Dang, Director of the Vietnamese American Oral History Project at the University of California, Irvine.
x
Thuy Vo Dang, Director of the Vietnamese American Oral History Project at the University of California, Irvine.
Thuy Vo Dang, Director of the Vietnamese American Oral History Project at the University of California, Irvine.
Vo Dang was born in a small Vietnamese fishing village in the Mekong Delta, and arrived in the United States in 1984 as a child.  Like some of her interviewees, she spent time in a refugee camp, but she doesn’t remember the experience because she was so young. 

The participants have diverse stories to tell. “Many people have opened up to me about their private personal losses, the loss of children, what it was like to lose their homes multiple times, from 1954 to 1975, and having to rebuild,” Vo Dang said.

“These are the stories that really touch me, the ways in which people have persevered and tried to craft a legacy to the next generation.”

The final days of South Vietnam are recounted in the project’s archive. “A small number of my respondents left in 1975, and they could describe how the streets were filled with litter and guns, people had abandoned their ammunition on the side streets and the looting happened,” she said.

Some of the narrations concern those who had no way to escape post-war persecution except on the open seas.  Known as "boat people,"  the refugees had to face deadly storms, disease, starvation and pirates. The United Nations High commission for Refugees estimates between 200,000 and 400,000 died at sea.

“Something that’s not mentioned often is that people who left Vietnam by boat often had to do that many times,” Vo Dang said. “And they failed and they were in prison for that, because at that time in the late ‘70’s and ‘80’s people who tried to leave Vietnam were considered traitors, and so they would be put into prison.”

For those who made it to the United States, the new surroundings were often perplexing. “They were baffled by the grocery stores or how fast cars are going in the road,” she said.

The stories of endurance are particularly significant, according to Vo Dang.  She describes one woman who worked in a Los Angeles sweatshop for 30 years, and who agreed to be interviewed following her son’s urging.

“I told her, ‘how many people will share that experience in public, and what that was like to raise a family, a full family, where your children are going on to do great things, you have successes to share,’” she said. “Those struggles are great; those struggles need to be shared as well.”

The university’s Southeast Asian Archive is a leading center for stories of people from Cambodia, Laos and Vietnam. Donated photographs and documents supplement the oral histories.

“This is the rightful place for this collection to be safeguarded for future researchers, for people who want to make a film or documentary, or students who maybe want to write a paper about Vietnamese Americans,” she said. “Certainly, I hope to see publications come out of this collection in the future.”

Vo Dang has returned to Vietnam twice since settling in the U.S., once for research, and once for her honeymoon. “My husband and I left when we were really young and we wanted to share that experience of discovering our homeland together,” she said.

You May Like

Obama: Alaskans Feel Signs of Climate Change

Alaskans experiencing bigger storm surges as sea ice melts, more frequent and extensive wildfires, deteriorating glaciers, and swift shoreline erosion More

Katrina Brought Enduring Changes to New Orleans

The city’s recovery is the result of the people and culture the city is famous for, as well as newcomers and start-up industries More

Magical Photo Slides Show Native Americans in Late 1800s

Walter McClintock spent 20 years photographing the Blackfoot Indians and their vanishing culture at the dawn of the modern age More

This forum has been closed.
Comment Sorting
Comments
     
by: Anonymous
March 24, 2013 10:12 AM
No need to open old wound and lick. But our children and grandchildren need to know why we are here in the USA.

Featured Videos

Your JavaScript is turned off or you have an old version of Adobe's Flash Player. Get the latest Flash player.
Colombians Flee Venezuela as Border Crisis Escalatesi
X
August 27, 2015 2:08 AM
Hundreds of Colombians have fled Venezuela since last week, amid an escalating border crisis between the two countries. Last week, Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro ordered the closure of a key border crossing after smugglers injured three Venezuelan soldiers and a civilian. The president also ordered the deportation of Colombians who are in Venezuela illegally. Zlatica Hoke reports.
Video

Video Colombians Flee Venezuela as Border Crisis Escalates

Hundreds of Colombians have fled Venezuela since last week, amid an escalating border crisis between the two countries. Last week, Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro ordered the closure of a key border crossing after smugglers injured three Venezuelan soldiers and a civilian. The president also ordered the deportation of Colombians who are in Venezuela illegally. Zlatica Hoke reports.
Video

Video Is China's Economic Data Accurate?

Some investors say China's wild stock market gyrations have been made worse by worries about the reliability of that nation's economic data. And some critics say the reports can mislead investors by painting an unrealistically-strong picture of the economy. A key China scholar says Beijing is not fudging ((manipulating)) the numbers, but that the economy is evolving quickly from smoke-stack industries to services, and the ways of tracking new economic activity are falling behind the change. V
Video

Video Next to Iran, Climate at Forefront of Obama Agenda

President Barack Obama this week announced new initiatives aimed at making it easier for Americans to access renewable energy sources such as solar and wind. Obama is not slowing down when it comes to pushing through climate change measures, an issue he says is the greatest threat to the country’s national security. VOA correspondent Aru Pande has more from the White House.
Video

Video Shipping Containers Provide Experimental Housing

Housing prices around the San Francisco Bay area are out of reach for many people, so some young entrepreneurs, artists and tech industry workers are creating their own houses using converted shipping containers. But as VOA's Mike O’Sullivan reports from Oakland, the effort requires ingenuity and dealing with restrictive local laws.
Video

Video Arctic Draws International Competition for Oil

A new geopolitical “Great Game” is underway in earth’s northernmost region, the Arctic, where Russia has claimed a large area for resource development and President Barack Obama recently approved Shell Oil Company’s test-drilling project in an area under U.S. control. Greg Flakus reports.
Video

Video Philippine Maritime Police: Chinese Fishermen a Threat to Country’s Security

China and the Philippines both claim maritime rights in the South China Sea.  That includes the right to fish in those waters. Jason Strother reports on how the Philippines is catching Chinese nationals it says are illegal poachers. He has the story from Palawan province.
Video

Video Technique May Eliminate Drill-and-Fill Dental Care

Many people dread visiting dentists because they're afraid of drills. Now, however, a technology developed by a British firm promises to eliminate the need for mechanical cleaning of dental cavities by speeding a natural process of tooth repair. VOA’s George Putic reports.
Video

Video China's Spratly Island Building Said to Light Up the Night 'Like A City'

Southeast Asian countries claim China has illegally seized territory in the Spratly islands. It is especially a concern for a Philippine mayor who says Beijing is occupying parts of his municipality. Jason Strother reports from the capital of Palawan province, Puerto Princesa.
Video

Video Ages-old Ice Reveals Secrets of Climate Change

Ice caps don't just exist at the world's poles. There are also tropical ice caps, and the largest sits atop the Peruvian Andes - but it is melting, quickly, and may be gone within the next 20 years. George Putic reports scientists are now rushing to take samples to get at the valuable information about climate change locked in the ice.
Video

Video French Experiment in Integrating Roma Under Threat

Plans to destroy France’s oldest slum have sparked an outcry on the part of its Roma residents. As Lisa Bryant reports from the Paris suburb of La Courneuve, rights groups argue the community is a fledgling experiment on integrating Roma who are often outcasts in many parts of Europe.
Video

Video Kenyans Turn to Agriculture for Business

Each year Kenyan universities continue to churn out graduates for the job market despite the already existing high rate of unemployment among youth in the country. Some of these young men and women have realized that agriculture can be as rewarding as any other business or job, and they are resorting to agribusiness in large numbers as a way of tackling unemployment. Rael Ombuor reports for VOA.
Video

Video First Women Graduate Elite Army Ranger School

Two women are making history for the U.S. Army by proving they are among the toughest of the tough. VOA's Carla Babb reports from Fort Benning, Georgia as 94 men and those two women rise as graduates of the difficult Ranger school.

VOA Blogs