The History Behind Vietgone: The Fall of Saigon

By Allie Moss and Simon Hodgson

On April 29, 1975, Vietnamese residents of Saigon heard Irving Berlin’s “White Christmas” on US Armed Forces radio. What they didn’t know was that it was a coded message for the Americans remaining that meant “Evacuate immediately.” As the North Vietnamese Army (NVA) moved southward towards Saigon, the US Army began Operation Frequent Wind, a plan to evacuate from the country American and international civilians as well as Vietnamese deemed at risk from Communist forces. But American planners failed to predict the speed of the NVA thrust southward. As they drew up lists of the people who would be airlifted to safety, they thought they had weeks. By the time Communist shells started landing on Tan Son Nhut Air Base to the north of Saigon, they barely had hours.
Evacuees from Vietnam on the USS Midway in 1975. Photo courtesy US Navy.
The evacuation of the city was frantic. Huge crowds formed at the US embassy as American helicopters came to rescue US citizens; although they saved some Vietnamese civilians as well, most were left behind. “My father went to the US embassy to escape,” said a Vietnamese American. “Anyone who managed to climb through the fence made it to the helicopters. But he couldn’t get through.” In the sea around Saigon there were so many aircraft trying to land on the US Navy vessels that many pilots ditched their aircraft in the sea or landed on the ships only for their aircraft to be pushed overboard to let others land (exactly what happens to helicopter pilot Quang in Vietgone).

Even after the fighting ended and the Socialist Republic of Vietnam was created in 1976, hundreds of thousands of Vietnamese people fled the country by boat. “My mother escaped on a fishing boat with 60 other people,” said Jenelle Chu, who plays Tong in Vietgone. “Each person had paid 20 ounces of gold for the journey. All my mother carried with her was a hundred-dollar bill, a fifty-dollar bill, a handful of photographs, and two sets of clothes. She was on the boat for 14 days until she reached a refugee camp in Malaysia. She stayed there for eight months until she was sponsored by the Lutheran Church in St. Louis and flew to Missouri.”

Refugees coming off a plane. Courtesy UCI Libraries Southeast Asian Archive.
Those who survived the dangerous journey often endured many months in spartan refugee camps in Malaysia, Thailand, and Indonesia before they were able to resettle permanently. Thousands of refugees resettled in Australia, Canada, France, Germany, and the United States, where they faced the challenge of starting their lives over: learning a new language, navigating a foreign culture, retraining in a country that didn’t accept their qualifications, and in some cases, creating new families after leaving loved ones behind. These challenges, as well as the complex history of the war, remain present in the cultural heritage of many Vietnamese Americans, including Vietgone playwright Qui Nguyen.

runs through April 22 at A.C.T.’s Strand Theater. Click here to purchase tickets. Want to learn more about the history behind Vietgone? Order a copy of Words on Plays, A.C.T.'s in-depth performance guide series.

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