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USS Carl Vinson's Visit to Vietnam Brings Navy Dentist Full Circle

FILE - Vietnamese American Hien Trinh on the USS Carl Vinson.

The visit to Vietnam by the aircraft carrier USS Carl Vinson “marks an enormously significant milestone in our bilateral relations and demonstrates U.S. support for a strong, prosperous and independent Vietnam,” Daniel Kritenbrink, the U.S. ambassador to Vietnam, told reporters on Monday.

For Cdr. Hien Trinh, who heads the dental clinic aboard the nuclear-powered behemoth, it’s personal.

His family, originally from Hanoi, moved to Saigon after northern communist forces defeated the French colonial army in 1954 and the country was divided.

Trinh’s family fled again after North Vietnamese forces occupied Saigon in April 1975, as the United States withdrew from what Hanoi called the “War Against the Americans to Save the Nation.”

Trinh’s father, a lieutenant colonel in the Army of the Republic of Vietnam who commanded a garrison in Saigon, packed the family of eight in a fishing boat built to accommodate 20 crew members. With 180 others, the vessel headed into the South China Sea, bound for Singapore.

But "the island nation did not take refugees at the time and gave us provisions to head back out to sea," said Trinh.

A U.S. Navy ship rescued the 2-year-old Trinh, his family and the other “boat people” Trinh recalled, adding the family settled in Lansing, Michigan, and achieved “the American Dream.”

“None of that would have been possible without the initial help from the Navy, and more importantly, the opportunities that the United States provides for her citizens,” Trinh told VOA Vietnamese, which interviewed him via email as the Carl Vinson sailed toward Danang for a four-day visit.

The USS Carl Vinson is anchored at Tien Sa Port in Danang, Vietnam, March 5, 2018.
The USS Carl Vinson is anchored at Tien Sa Port in Danang, Vietnam, March 5, 2018.

The current port call comes at a time when neighboring China, which claims most of the South China Sea, is increasing its military buildup in the Paracel Islands. It has built several artificial islands in the Spratlys, maritime territory also claimed by Vietnam. A U.S. Navy statement says the carrier and its strike group came for “promoting freedom of the seas and enhancing regional security.”

Trinh told NPR that he was too young to remember being a refugee. But the Saigon native said that rescue helped him decide to join the Navy to “pay back” to the nation that adopted his family.

The visit to Danang, a major U.S. staging area during the war, is not Trinh’s first to Vietnam. Ten years ago, he participated in a volunteer mission and “had mixed feelings, as the war still was very fresh on the minds of my parents and other family members,” he said.

“I have many family members that did not make it out of the war alive,” said Trinh, “but with time, any of the ill feelings that I had and was taught are being slowly replaced with the love I have for the culture and the people that are there now.”

Trinh told NPR, “I think we’re over it. ... We, as Vietnamese-Americans are just excited to take part in the new Vietnam.”

Trinh said he is “truly excited to be a part of this historic occasion,” telling VOA he hopes the carrier group visit “will usher in a warm and friendly relationship for many more years to come.”

“The country has lots to offer, and I would very much like to share the wonderful Vietnamese culture that I love with as many people as possible,” Trinh told VOA. “From white sandy beaches to beautiful mountains, dense jungles, ancient temples, the serenity of a cool winter day on the lakes in Hanoi. Vietnam is a beautiful place, with friendly people, and with a great location that I hope we can visit many times over.”

On this visit, Trinh wants “to eat, eat, and eat some more! I think the best way to get to know a culture is through their food. I love Vietnamese cuisine because it has influences from all over — China to the north, Thai to the west, Pacific Islanders to the east and French from colonial days. And like Cajun-style food back in the States, Vietnamese food perfectly blends all these influences into something truly unique and delicious.”

Trinh’s wife, Paris-born Evelyne Vu-Tien, is also a child of former refugees from Vietnam and a pediatric dentist. She was on the same dental mission trip as Trinh. As she told VOA, they “discovered that our parents were neighbors in Hanoi, with mutual friends.”

The family lives in San Diego, the Carl Vinson’s home port, with their two daughters, Reagan Mai, 8, and Josephine, 5.

The visit to Danang “is such a historic moment for him, and I feel very proud of him and of how far he has come,” Vu-Tien told VOA. “I feel like it gives him a little bit of closure and pride.”

This report originated by VOA Vietnamese.