Seattle's Vietnamese community struggles toward unity

Saturday, April 30 marked the 30-year anniversary of the fall of Saigon and the end of four decades of struggle for independence and re-unification by the Northern Vietnamese leadership.

In the metropolis, now called Ho Chi Minh City, hundreds of aging Communist veterans, legendary general Vo Nguyen Giap, Cuba's Raul Castro, and the country's top leaders commemorated the day by watching a parade of soldiers, government workers and performers march toward the old South Vietnamese presidential palace gates. The unified march stood in contrast to those held in Seattle, where the young Vietnamese community, most of them forced to leave their homeland because of the Communists, is still struggling to grasp its identity, and forgive.

A day of terror

"Be ready to go, we're leaving now," came the call on the phone to 21-year-old Thu-Van Nguyen's family as the Communists rolled into Saigon on April 27, 1975, shutting down Tan Son Nhut airbase, leaving only the ocean as a route for escape.

Prior to that day, Saigon had seen little fighting, only news of the daily Communist advances. For the first time Nguyen, whose family was considered upper class, felt the war touch her. Luckily for her, a family friend was a commodore in the South Vietnamese navy, and this night he meant to save them.

"I had a half an hour to pack stuff," Nguyen said. "So I looked at my room and thought to myself, 'what should I bring? There's so much stuff.' I grabbed my jeans. You know I was a 21-year-old girl and you think about what you're going to wear. I did wear my nice shoes."

She and her entire family slipped out into the darkness on their Suzuki and Honda motorcycles, the sound and lights of gunfire in the distance. They were to meet a jeep at the Mystique Hotel on the harbor, but first they had to get past their neighborhood's guards. They were violating curfew, but claimed their house had been hit by mortar fire, and were allowed to continue.

They met the jeep at the hotel, and after some tense moments sneaking along the shore to a patrol boat, they were evacuated from Saigon aboard a South Vietnamese warship packed with thousands of other refugees, which ended up in Guam. From there they decided to start over again in Spokane, Wash. Four years later, after attending school at Gonzaga University, Nguyen moved to Seattle. She has lived here happily ever since.

A day of remembrance

With the sixth largest regional population in the United States numbering over 40,000 Vietnamese and Vietnamese-Americans, Seattle's Vietnamese community by-and-large is not sympathetic towards Vietnam's Communist regime. However, there are differences on how April, 30 should be interpreted.

The Unity of Vietnamese American Committee (UVAC), formed in March 2004 by a group of local community activists and Vietnamese Americans termed the day "A Day of Remembrance and Hope." They organized a meeting at Union Station and a march on Seattle's City Hall where they were addressed by Congressman Jim McDermott D-Seattle and Mayor Greg Nickels.

The April 30 rally focused on the positive contributions Vietnamese immigrants have made since they came to Seattle. It also became a forum for the UVAC members to thank the city for its willingness to take them in.

Conversely, a second group led by veterans of the South Vietnamese armed forces (Republic of South Vietnam Armed Forces Veterans' Confederation of Washington State) left the Union Station gathering and marched on Little Saigon just South of Seattle. They termed the day Thang Tu Den, or "Black April" and took turns condemning the communist regime for human-rights abuses such as the continued persecution of the Montagnards, the mountain people of Vietnam.

The day's turnout, in contrast to the area's sizeable Vietnamese population, was modest. A crowd of about 300 gathered at Union Station initially and then split off in the separate marches. The organizers, however, noted the local Vietnamese community is just beginning to form an identity. They also pointed to the healthy age range that turned out, which the organizers feel is a starting point for unity, not an indication of the community's potential to solidify.

"I think community building is a process that involves many factors," said Thao Tran, 29, a member of UVAC. "A lot of it has to do with timing. A lot of it has to do with personality and character. We have got to have a shared vision, open communication, and a policy of inclusion. We are not always going to agree, but we have to learn to work together and be inclusive of all the members of our community."

Trong Tang, who was a fighter pilot in the South Vietnamese air force and helped organize the Little Saigon event, acknowledged this viewpoint, and also emphasized that dialogue between the groups had only just begun in February of this year.

"In my opinion the event [on April 30] was very positive for our community," said Tang. "We started a dialogue with each other; we started talking with each other. We want to reduce the generation gap. We welcome our children, our younger generation."

Still, heated comments made directly following the event regarding what Tang, and others in the older group, perceived as a lack of respect by UVAC's youngsters left a sting.

"Our group members have met with this group a lot, and want to respect them," said Nguyen, a member of UVAC. "You know, they're older like my parents' age. I know if my dad were alive he would have very strong sentiments, but I would hope that they would really open their minds and understand this. It has been 30 years. They put a strong accusation on how we conducted the event and it broke my heart."

A Day of Hope?

Despite their differences both groups acknowledge the other has a right to its viewpoints, and emphasized that perhaps their coming to a consensus in the future will help to unify a still very young community.

"The thing that people really need to understand with the Vietnamese-American community, not only in Seattle but the rest of the country, is we had five or six very distinct, very different waves to this country," said Chris Brownlee, 30, who helped organize the UVAC event and was a 6-month-old brought to a foster home in the United States when Saigon fell. "What we saw on Saturday was just a real strong example of how diverse our community is, and how much work needs to be done in terms of understanding the different perspectives and coming together as one organized community," he said.

UVAC members acknowledged they could use the wisdom and knowledge of the older group, and in a separate interview Tang acknowledged the Vietnamese community needs the training and expertise of its younger, business-savvy generation.

"Most of the members of UVAC were very young when Saigon fell so their perspective will be slightly different than ours," Tang said "But that does not mean that we have a big gap. Eventually, in the very near future, we will hold a community forum. We will make sure all the generations are represented and talk about creating a community center."

He pointed out that the Vietnamese community had built a float for the Seafair parade the past two years, and there has been growth in its sense of self pride. Most significantly, this sense of self is built out of the community's realization that it exists, by-and-large, because they were forcibly removed from their homeland.

"We believe that we were all there for the same reason," said Tran. "We were all Vietnamese-Americans expressing our deep concerns for what is going on in Vietnam, not wanting to forget what really happened there. Really wanting to hope for a better future in Vietnam and develop a stronger community here in Seattle."

Chris Butterfield may be reached at

[[In-content Ad]]