It's been 30 years since Bing Crosby's "White Christmas" echoed over the Saigon airwaves, signaling the U.S. evacuation of the besieged...

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It’s been 30 years since Bing Crosby’s “White Christmas” echoed over the Saigon airwaves, signaling the U.S. evacuation of the besieged capital. Throngs of desperate South Vietnamese crowded the U.S. Embassy and lunged at departing Army helicopters fleeing the advancing communist troops.

That same day, April 30, 1975, Phi Long Dang watched his father pull out a pistol and threaten to kill himself rather than live under a communist regime. What followed for Dang and his family was an odyssey shared by tens of thousands of South Vietnamese who found new lives in the United States.

Thirty years ago tomorrow, South Vietnam, the place of Dang’s birth, surrendered to North Vietnam. The day — called Thang Tu Den, or “black April,” by many — is observed each year by Vietnamese refugees. How it’s remembered underscores an ideological as much as a generational gap within the community.

The date haunts many older Vietnamese, those who witnessed the war or spent years as political prisoners of the North Vietnamese. “We consider April 30 like our Holocaust day,” says Pham Huy Sanh, 69, a retired South Vietnamese Army colonel who lives in Kent. “It’s a day of sorrow for all the people we left behind.”

Sanh and others will attend a candlelight vigil tonight to mourn the loss of their country. They will also rally tomorrow to condemn communism.

But younger Vietnamese Americans have planned a rally tomorrow to salute the arrival of Vietnamese in Washington 30 years ago, to thank the state for welcoming them and to recognize their own successes.

Events marking the 30th anniversary of the fall of Saigon

Pro-Freedom and Democracy Rally 1 p.m. tomorrow at Seattle’s Union Station, Jackson Street and Fourth Avenue. The event is organized in part by the Republic of South Vietnam Armed Forces Veterans’ Confederation of Washington State. There will also be a candlelight vigil at 7 tonight at Asa Mercer Middle School, 1600 S. Columbian Way in Seattle. Information: Dr. Ngo Quynh Lam at 206-790-1708.

A Day of Remembrance and Hope 11 a.m. tomorrow, also at Union Station. The event is being organized by the Unity of Vietnamese Americans Committee. Information:

“We want to make April 30th a day that doesn’t cast a shadow, that’s not about bitterness,” says Thao Tran, 29, who works as a business-development officer in Rainier Valley. “We want to acknowledge our past, but acknowledge how far we’ve come.”

Local Vietnamese of both generations agree the 30-year mark should be acknowledged. They’re no longer newcomers struggling to start over in a strange country, speaking a new language, seeking employment, raising families. Their community, they say, has come into its own, regardless of a split over issues like the war.

Dang, now 40 and enjoying a middle-class life in Kent, bridges both generations. He can’t help but respect those who have suffered under communism and those who have only the faintest memory of Vietnam.

For 30 years, he listened to his father denounce communism, prohibiting the family from returning to the country for a visit. Even when his father neared death, he refused to return to the land of his birth.

But like most Vietnamese refugees here, Dang has lived most of his life in this country. And he’s hoping the next generation, including his young daughter, values its Vietnamese roots.

“I told her I’d pay her $5 for every Vietnamese word she learns,” Dang says about 8-year-old Sabrina Phi-Khanh, who is Vietnamese-Laotian-American.

His payout thus far? “Twenty bucks,” he laughs.

Coded message

By the time the communist tanks rolled into Saigon that April day, the United States had a plan to evacuate some South Vietnamese citizens along with U.S. personnel. The signal for the start of the evacuation was a coded message on U.S. Armed Forces Radio that included the repeated playing of “White Christmas.”

“Every time I hear the song, it makes me really sad,” says Tam Nguyen, owner of Saigon Bistro in Seattle.

Then-Gov. Dan Evans agreed Washington would accept 500 Vietnamese evacuated at the end of the war. “We ended up taking about 1,000,” says Jeff Kibler, who worked at the U.S. Embassy in Saigon and helped with the evacuation. He now supervises the state’s Refugee and Immigrant Program.

During the next three decades, two more waves of refugees resettled in the United States, now home to 1.2 million Vietnamese and Vietnamese Americans. The greater Seattle Vietnamese community numbers 40,000, the sixth-largest regional population in the country.

Vietnamese community

About 1.2 million Vietnamese and Vietnamese Americans live in the United States. Most arrived after the fall of Saigon on April 30, 1975.

The first arrivals: Some 65,000 Vietnamese were evacuated by the U.S. military and another 65,000 fled Vietnam on their own in spring 1975. They were mostly former military and government officials, Vietnamese who had worked for the United States and their families.

The “boat people”: Beginning in the late 1970s, thousands of Vietnamese and Sino Vietnamese, including farmers and fishermen, escaped Vietnam by boat and reached refugee camps in Malaysia, Thailand, Indonesia, the Philippines and Hong Kong. Many resettled in the United States. Later, Vietnamese officials allowed some nationals to reunite with their families and resettle abroad under the Orderly Departure program.

Amerasians: In 1987, the United States agreed to accept children born in Vietnam to Vietnamese mothers and U.S. fathers during the war. Some 100,000 Amerasians relocated to the United States.

Political prisoners: In 1988, the United States and Vietnam reached an agreement that allowed thousands of former South Vietnamese soldiers and former U.S. government employees who had been detained as political prisoners to resettle in the United States.

Source: Southeast Asia Resource Action Center; Nguyen Dinh Thang of Boat People SOS

Leaving home

Last Sunday, Dang sat in the Ben Le cafe in Rainier Valley. He had spent that morning at the nearby Thanh That Cao Dai temple, where he donned a white ao dai, or robe, and prayed.

The temple anchors him to the larger Vietnamese community, and it especially binds him to the memory of his father, who was equally passionate about religion and politics.

“Every New Year and every April 30, he’d make us sing all these Vietnamese songs,” Dang says over coffee.

Recalls Dang’s brother Phi Van: “You know how some dads take their kids to the movies to spend time with them? My dad would take us to political events.”

Dang was 10 when President Duong Van Minh surrendered to the North Vietnamese. His father, then a local councilman, called to his eldest son, threatening to commit suicide.

Dang and his family lived in South Vietnam’s Ca Mau province, in a narrow house that also held a family-run bookstore. He’d cross the street to ring the bells at the Roman Catholic church and swam in a nearby river. He’d climb on his roof and collect pieces of shrapnel that rained down during the war.

His mother, a nurse, persuaded her husband to put down his gun.

One of her relatives was a communist official, a fact that might have saved his father’s life, given his nationalist-party leanings. But nonetheless, his father spent the next three years detained in communist “re-education” camp.

The Dang family fled Vietnam in 1979, in a patrol boat packed with 30 other people. A Spokane church sponsored the family’s resettlement. They arrived April 23. “Cold, empty, spread out,” Dang recalls about his new home.

During the summers, both parents and all five children picked berries in Oregon. His father assembled electronics; his mother cooked in Chinese restaurants. The parents’ mantra to their children: You need to go to school. You need to be somebody.

“When my parents came to this country, they had no idea what we could accomplish,” Dang says.

Eventually his parents opened an Asian grocery and watched Dang graduate from high school and enroll in college. After two years, Dang dropped out because of his family’s financial troubles. The family lost its store. Money had run out and Dang took a job in an Alaska fish cannery, which turned into a 17-year-career, including stints as a manager.

Thirty years after the war, Saigon is called Ho Chi Minh City and diplomatic relations between the United States and Vietnam have been normalized. There’s a U.S.-Vietnam trade agreement. U.S. Navy ships have docked in Vietnam’s ports. Last December, United Airlines became the first U.S. airline in 30 years to offer direct service to the country.

Visits to Vietnam by former refugees have reunited families or have introduced them to the country of their parents.

“The sheer commercialism was unbelievable,” says Dawn-Thanh Nguyen, 34, of Seattle, who visited in 2003. Fancy store fronts. Sweet fruits that tasted like moist cakes. Buying gingered tofu by running out onto a hotel balcony and hollering to a woman on the street below.

But the decision to make the trip, just like the war or current Vietnamese politics, divides the community.

“There’s still a strong anti-communist sentiment,” said Linda Vo, a professor of Asian American Studies at the University of California, Irvine. “People don’t want it known that they’ve visited or have any business relationship with the country because that might mean you support the Vietnamese government.”

For example, when three artists from Vietnam visited Seattle earlier this year, they earned the disdain of some local Vietnamese who called for protests.

The rift is acutely visible now as the community plans ways to mark tomorrow. “I can understand how one group can be bitter and one group can be carefree. But at the end of the day, they’re all Vietnamese,” says Tam Nguyen, the local restaurateur.

Phi Long Dang admires the economic progress Vietnam has made and says he hasn’t had time to visit the country, a trip he begged his father to make when he was diagnosed with cancer. He offered to pay, but his father refused. Kim Dang died two years ago.

So rather than accepting his father’s politics, Phi Long embraces his father’s faith and tries not to work on Sundays so he can attend temple. “The older you get, the more you go back to your roots. When I come here, I feel like the whole community supports me,” he says about the Cao Dai temple.

Dang doesn’t plan to attend either anniversary event tomorrow, but not for political reasons. He plans to work at his new job, selling cars at an automobile dealership, Toyota of Seattle.

Seattle Times researcher Gene Balk contributed to this report.

Florangela Davila: 206-464-2916 or