On the 40th anniversary of the end of the Vietnam War, immigrants Phuong and Mai Nguyen consider themselves blessed for settling in Washington state.
OLYMPIA — The day before their lives changed forever, Phuong Nguyen and his future wife left what they’d known as Saigon for the little river town of Can Tho with only the clothes on their backs.
They carried no money, no valuables and no mementos. They were careful not to appear as if they were out for anything other than a day trip.
As they boarded the boat on the Hau River that Easter nearly 40 years ago, they were terrified about what lay ahead. They were even more determined to leave Vietnam behind.
More than 58,000
Number of U.S. servicemen killed in Vietnam and neighboring Laos and Cambodia.
More than 3 million
Number of Vietnamese communist fighters and civilians killed. That does not include South Vietnamese forces, whose losses are estimated by some U.S. sources at up to 250,000.
Number of Americans missing in action or otherwise unaccounted for in Vietnam at war’s end.
More than 700
Number of U.S. remains recovered and identified by joint U.S.-Vietnamese teams since then.
The Associated Press
“It was scary and very dangerous,” recalled Nguyen, now 59 and living in Olympia. “There were police on river patrol going back and forth and if they caught us … well, if people did not fight back, everyone would be taken to prison.
“If they fought — and usually somebody would shoot — the police would shoot back.”
Nguyen and his wife, Mai Nguyen, consider themselves blessed to be among the approximately 4,000 Vietnamese refugees who resettled in a welcoming Washington state between 1975 and 1980. That they ended up in Washington, nearly 12,000 miles from their homeland, was no accident.
In the years immediately after what has come to be known as the fall of Saigon, when the People’s Army of Vietnam and the Viet Cong captured the capital of South Vietnam, an estimated 125,000 refugees immigrated to the United States.
While some states actively tried to repel refugees after the end of the unpopular war, Washington’s then-Gov. Dan Evans championed immigrant- and refugee-friendly policies that remain in place today.
The state’s former Secretary of State Ralph Munro is quoted as saying Evans once told him to tell Jerry Brown — the California governor who was working to keep refugees from settling in his state — “you just remind him what it says on the base of the Statue of Liberty.”
Nguyen had grown up amid the civil war between North and South Vietnam. His parents had fled the North to settle in the small village of Vo Dat in the South, and he recalls, when a child, seeing grenades explode and climbing on roofs to watch the bombings.
In 1972, when he was around 16, Nguyen’s parents sent him to Saigon to continue his education. He wound up living in the home of Mai’s older sister, Hai Vo.
Mai was only about 10 at the time, and he “considered her a little kid” and paid her no mind.
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Nguyen, a musician partial to bell-bottoms and long hair, also had little interest in statecraft.
“I was a teenager,” he said. “I didn’t pay attention to politics. Of course, we never thought that we would lose the whole country. We were stronger than the North. It was only after Nixon stopped aid and Russia increased aid that the North ran over the South. And then it was very quick.”
On April 30, 1975, the forces of North Vietnam entered Saigon, an event forever linked to the iconic photographs of desperate refugees being plucked by helicopter off the roof of the U.S. Embassy.
Mai did not see any of it. She stayed inside her home with her family and listened to the planes pass overhead.
Nguyen roamed the streets with friends and saw South Vietnamese soldiers stripping off their uniforms and casting them aside. Their firearms littered the road or were flung into rivers.
“They did not want to be shot by the North,” he said.
Over the next year, Nguyen learned what a communist Vietnam looked like.
People his age were ordered to work without pay, and refusal was not an option, he recalled.
The government seized businesses, property, fishing boats — anything of value — and consolidated them into state-run operations or holdings. People were not allowed to gather in groups, talk about politics or wear their hair long. Music was banned.
“They threw people into prison right and left,” said Mai Nguyen, 53. “And they could knock on your door anytime and then nobody would see you again.”
Nguyen, who by then had left the former Saigon, tried several times to buy his way out of the country on a fishing boat. Each time he was cheated by fishermen who kept the money but never left the country.
“What could you do?” said Nguyen. “You couldn’t go to police.”
At the end of March 1978, Nguyen returned to the city on a whim and learned Mai’s family was planning their own escape.
Hai Vo’s husband, Coi Hoang, chief mechanic on a government-owned fishing vessel, had plotted an escape with six of the 11 crew members.
Under the guise of a family outing, a group including Phuong, Mai, her sister and her sister’s five children made its way to the river village of Can Tho, about 105 miles southwest of the former Saigon, now called Ho Chi Minh City.
They arrived after the six crew members who were plotting to flee had gotten the five communist crew men drunk and tied them up. It was March 26, 1978 — Phuong’s birthday and Easter.
Nguyen was well aware of the danger.
“There are estimates that half of the people who tried to leave died,” he said.
Many drowned when rickety boats sank. Others suffocated in the stifling holds below deck. Some were killed by marauding pirates, or were turned back by countries that didn’t want them.
Their first plan was to sail to Australia, but as they approached Pulau Tengah, an island off Malaysia, they saw a mass of other Vietnamese refugees on the beach waving excitedly.
“They were so happy to see us,” said Nguyen. “The leader came out on a canoe and said we could go to Australia, but we would be flown there.”
They spent several months on the island, where Nguyen applied for permission to enter Australia and the U.S. Mai’s family applied for asylum in the U.S.
Nguyen believes Australia turned him down because he was rail-thin.
‘”They wanted big-muscle guys to work as farmers,” he said.
He ended up being accepted into the U.S. as part of Mai’s sister’s family, which had priority placement because of their five children.
After a stop at Kuala Lumpur, the family was sent to Washington, where they were among the first wave of refugees to be welcomed by their sponsor, the First Baptist Church in Lacey, Thurston County.
Former church member Fern Powers, who is now 84, remains in touch with many of the nearly 3,000 original refugees to the state she is credited with helping.
“She took us to her house, and there was a shed in back filled with clothes and she told us to take whatever fit us,” said Nguyen.
Powers’ church had also rented an apartment for the family and set them up with English classes. They were taken to the Capital Lake Fair, where they rode their first roller coasters.
“Everything was so different,” said Mai Nguyen. “But our sponsor was so nice and we felt so welcome that we knew we were blessed.”
Mai, who was among the first single female Vietnamese refugees to arrive in Olympia, now found herself the center of attention from male refugees who’d arrived before her. It made Phuong take notice and, within a year, they were married.
“We think it was God’s plan,” said Mai, who like Phuong is a devout Catholic. “The way he just showed up the day before we left and the way Australia turned him down. We were meant for each other.”
Phuong studied computer operations and computer programming while working part-time jobs as a translator.
The couple had three children: Thy, now 35, of Olympia; Vy, 33, of Burbank, Calif.; and Andrew, 28, also of Olympia.
Phuong eventually landed an IT job with the state Health Care Authority, where he still works.
Mai also works for the state, in the Department of Enterprise Services.
The couple live in a well-kept five-bedroom home near the state Capitol.
Mai’s sister, Hai Vo, and her family also fared well. Her husband worked for years at a plywood company, which employed many of the first refugees. Hai Vo became a chef in the governor’s mansion when Booth Gardner was still in office.
She retired after Gov. Chris Gregoire’s term ended and remains close with former Gov. Gary Locke and his family.
Despite their comparatively smooth journey and their warm welcome in the U.S., both Phuong and Mai were homesick at times. They thought initially that they would never be able to go back to their homeland.
But over time, Vietnam changed and both have returned to visit.
When they do, they return to Washington relieved to be back home.
“We love Vietnam, but this is the best country in the world,” said Mai. “We have been very blessed.”