From Saigon to the States: A Brief History of the Vietnamese Refugees in Vietgone

By Simon Hodgson

As Communist tanks rumbled south toward Saigon in April 1975, American strategists raced to implement Operation Frequent Wind, the plan to evacuate at-risk Vietnamese allies and US civilians. Despite opposition to the American military presence in Vietnam, thousands of Vietnamese had worked alongside US personnel in the war—as military servicemen (such as Vietgone’s pilot protagonist Quang Nguyen), interpreters, administrators, doctors, drivers, nurses, and analysts. When the Americans evacuated, more than a million Vietnamese—fellow soldiers, co-workers, spouses, children—were in danger.

A Vietnamese family at Fort Chaffee, Arkansas. Courtesy UCI Libraries Southeast Asian Archive.
Tan Son Nhut Air Base was the main route out of Saigon; planners had scheduled dozens of flights by military transport aircraft. But when the North Vietnamese started shelling the airstrip, the Americans were forced to use helicopters, carrying far smaller numbers. Thirty thousand Vietnamese were eventually airlifted to safety, with a hundred thousand more escaping on US warships. Almost all the departing Vietnamese believed they would come back soon, when it was safer. Most would never return.

In the camps, the new migrants found a strange and regimented new world. Rows of olive green canvas tents stretched out for miles, surrounded by fences. Green portapotties at regular intervals. Lines of water faucets, with Vietnamese bent over them, washing their clothes in cold water using the blue plastic washbasins that each family was issued. White, wooden administration buildings with queues of people waiting to fill out resettlement forms. 

A Vietnamese boy eating a cookie, Fort Chaffee, Arkansas.
Courtesy UCI Libraries Southeast Asian Archive.
For most refugees, the resettlement process started with sponsorship letters from American families, small-business owners, community organizations, and churches across the nation. After exchanging information about the size of the household, each Vietnamese family would travel to the sponsor’s hometown. In Vietgone, Tong is sponsored by a family in El Dorado, Arkansas. Some Vietnamese families would find support, generosity, and love. Others would encounter greed and cruelty, as small-business owners exploited the newcomers. For many refugees, assimilation would continue to be marked by enduring discrimination, prejudice, racism, and intolerance.

The 130,000 Vietnamese who arrived in 1975 represented a sizable demographic addition, yet they were just the tip of the iceberg. By 2014, the Vietnamese American population in the US had grown to 1.3 million, most of them refugees in the 1980s and ’90s who had braved danger and piracy to flee by sea. While their backgrounds and their journeys were different to the wave of 1975, almost all shared a drive for a life free from fear and oppression. In a nation founded by migrants and at a moment when the issue of refugees and deportation is more divisive than ever, the Vietnamese who came to America in the last five decades continue to show resilience and resourcefulness in the face of ongoing challenges.

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

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