Friday, April 30, 2010


Such a momentous date April 30, the day Saigon fell. And this year it marks thirty-five years since that sad and tumultuous and disturbing day.

At the time I was in Paris, staying with a friend's aunt and uncle. The uncle, Tanh, was from Vietnam, a wonderfully civilized and interesting eye doctor, who had studied medicine in France before the second war and then served as a doctor in the French Army. After the war, in about 1948, he moved to Vietnam with his young son and his spouse, my friend's aunt, and set up a clinic in Cholon, the Chinese quarter of Saigon (now Ho Chi Minh City).

But some time later that year he was called in by the French authorities. They told him they knew he was treating VietCong.
He replied that he treated whoever came to the clinic needing medical attention.

The authorities informed him that as of a year from that day they would not be able to answer for his safety, nor that of his family. It was a clear threat. He sent his spouse and child out as soon as possible, then finally left himself.

The strange thing about a colonial situation like that is that of course, though France and the French were the oppressor, so to speak, France was what he knew, so they went back to Paris and made a life for themselves there.

As we watched the events unfold on television that last week in April 1975, Tanh predicted that with the victory of the North, many people in the South would be sent to the countryside for re-education, and that there would be an embargo so that Vietnamese products, especially Vietnamese fish sauce, a staple in their Paris kitchen, would be impossible to find. He sent us out to buy as many bottles of it as we could. Others had had the same idea of course, so on our excursion to the few Vietnamese groceries in the city we were only able to acucmulate a few bottles.

He also predicted that his extended family, his brother's widow and a lot of grown neices and nephews and their children, would eventually be allowed or even encouraged to leave.

Of course his predictions came true. Many people were sent to re-education camps, and a few years later in the "orderly departures program" Tanh's extended family, all seventeen or eighteen of them, flew to Paris in the middle of winter, with less than twenty-four hours notice, bringing only the clothes on their backs. Like the "boat people" who made their way to Canada and the US and Australia, they settled, figured out how to make a new life, and now the second generation of locally-born hyphenated Vietnamese is growing up in confidence, far from their grandparents' birthplace.

It takes courage and resilience, and some luck too, to survive that kind of uprooting and dislocation.

So let's celebrate survival in the face of pain and unpredictability, on this anniversary day!

POSTSCRIPT: And the countries and people of the industrialised world have benefitted from the influx of Vietnamese. The refugees from Vietnam have enriched other societies enormously in these thirty-five years. And attitudes have changed, with the passage of time. People in the west, who first learned about Vietnam as a place of war (called the Vietnam War in the west, but the American War in Vietnam), now travel there as tourists, or enjoy the wonders of Vietnamese cuisine in restaurants in all the major cities of North America and Australia.


Anonymous said...

I'm reminded by this post that a number of the fishermen in the gulf region are vietnamese-american, and likely hard-hit by the spill.

shantiwallah said...

For many of us who are or have been expats or even long-term travellers, it's easy to think of relocation as something exciting and enjoyable, but it's good to become aware of people on a personal basis that have left their homes without choice. I value these stories as something that we should be telling children in schools so that we can better understand what conflict does to everyday people. Thank you for telling us one more story.