`This is our new home ... new world, good life'

Vietnamese: Twenty-five years after the fall of Saigon, many have built a new life in America through sheer force of will.

April 28, 2000|By Ellen Gamerman | Ellen Gamerman,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

As Saigon was falling, Van Nguyen bounced about in the South China Sea in a battered boat with a dead engine. After two days, a U.S. Navy ship approached. He clambered aboard. On deck, finally safe, Nguyen found himself on the unsteady threshold of his new life.

Eventually finding his way to the Washington area, the former police officer worked night and day jobs, pooled money with relatives and hardly ever slept. In the quarter-century since arriving in the United States, he finally found his solid ground: A front yard and a place in the American middle class.

Sunday marks 25 years since the fall of Saigon, the day Nguyen, thousands of other refugees and the last remaining U.S. forces fled the doomed capital of a nation that would soon cease to exist. Nguyen will mark the occasion in comfortable retirement, a golden Buddha in his house and his son's new BMW M coupe in the driveway.

But a part of him will be back in Saigon.

"All the time you're always thinking of your home -- we know the hardships, we feel the sorrow for our people," says Nguyen, 58, who lives in Falls Church, Va., after escaping with little more than the sandals on his feet. "But this is our new home. It is the free world, the good life."

Nguyen's experience reflects the long, bruising odyssey of many refugees who arrived in this country after Saigon fell to North Vietnamese troops in 1975. As with so many of his fellow refugees in this modern diaspora, he built a new life through sheer force of will. And though he pines for what he lost, he is staying put in his own American Saigon.

Northern Virginia, with its more than 35,000 Vietnamese-Americans, has become a microcosm of this world of refugees. Large numbers from each wave of Vietnamese immigrants have settled here: the first refugees in 1975, the boat people in 1978, the desperate survivors of Communist re-education camps in 1989.

Like so many immigrant stories, the Vietnamese tale has its share of painful chapters. Today, poverty, domestic violence and youth gangs are silent scourges. But the big picture is one of mainstream accomplishment, as over the years strong families shared their salaries, put their faith in hard work and treated success as a matter of honor.

"A Vietnamese friend who was teaching in a university, running a fast-food place and selling insurance was deadly serious when he told me, `It's very easy to become rich in this country -- all you have to do is work three jobs,'" says Douglas Pike, who heads the Vietnam Center at Texas Tech University.

"Like a lot of other sociologists, I believe the Vietnamese are the most successful immigrant group that ever came to this country," Pike said.

`Overseas Vietnamese'

Calling themselves "Viet kieu," meaning "overseas Vietnamese," more than half of those who left eventually landed in the United States. There are 1.4 million Vietnamese-Americans in this country. The largest concentration, about 200,000, resides in Orange County, Calif., with the epicenter in the Little Saigon section of Westminster. In addition to Northern Virginia, sizable clusters of Vietnamese can also be found in San Jose, Calif., Houston and San Diego.

Northern Virginia, perhaps because of its proximity to Washington, has long attracted a privileged subset of refugees, many of whom received American or European educations and came here through connections with the U.S. government.

In Northern Virginia, the number of Vietnamese making more than $50,000 a year surpassed all other foreign-born residents, according to 1990 census figures. The figures also show that their median income more than doubled to $29,772 from 1980 to 1990.

Even as about 10,000 Vietnamese have swung around the Capital Beltway into Maryland -- most settling in Montgomery County -- Northern Virginia remains the East Coast hub. Ground zero can be found at a 16-year-old shopping mall in Falls Church called the Eden Center -- a mix of Vietnamese aromas and American capitalism.

Under an Asian gate, customers buy banh chui cakes wrapped in bright green banana leaves while techno-music blasts outside. A music shop hawks Donny Osmond's "Puppy Love" on karaoke discs to patrons who ask in Vietnamese whether they can charge it; other customers at the mall chat in English as they pick up ancient Vietnamese herbal remedies.

Stacks of Northern Virginia's 11 Vietnamese-language newspapers sit in Eden Center restaurants. Bill Gates stares from the front page of one, over a Microsoft article, and immigrants with technology stocks take note.

In Northern Virginia, signs of Vietnam are everywhere. Vietnamese Boy Scouts in Troop 612 spend every Friday night taking Vietnamese language lessons. At Holy Martyrs of Vietnam Church, Mass is held in the congregation's native tongue three times every Sunday. A teen-ager at the Eden Center sports a tattoo of a map of Vietnam that covers half his arm.

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