Vietnamese-Americans recall losses, relish gains since fall of Saigon 40 years ago

Published 10:03 am Wednesday, April 29, 2015

SANTA ANA, Calif. — In the chaotic final days before the Vietnam she knew collapsed in 1975, Bang Van Pham was rushed onto a U.S. military plane with her newborn son, headed to a land she had learned about in school but never seen.

Weeks later at a refugee camp in Southern California, they were reunited with her two other children who were sent abroad with relatives and her husband, the son of a rice farmer turned lawmaker, who stayed behind with his constituents until communist troops stormed Saigon.

In the U.S. they began a new life: Pham taught English to immigrant night school students while her husband, Nho Trong Nguyen, worked as a handyman’s helper before eventually becoming a judge. The couple, who say they helped resettle 1,000 other refugees, raised three children who became lawyers and a doctor, and now have three American-born grandchildren.

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Forty years later, they still remember what they lost. Every April, Pham helps plan a ceremony to mark the fall of Saigon. It is also a moment to reflect on how her family and other Vietnamese refugees have rebuilt their lives.

“I am very pleased and grateful because our children became good citizens,” Pham said, recalling her doubts back then about how they would make a living. “We are so close together. And we haven’t spent any time neglecting living a good life.”

Their story is just one among the Vietnamese community, which has gone from not even being counted as a distinct group in the 1970 census to numbering 1.7 million people. A major commercial and media hub has grown in Orange County, California, which boasts the largest Vietnamese population in the world outside of Vietnam. Some Vietnamese-Americans have also been elected to public office.