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[whitespace] American story: During a 1999 trip back to his native Vietnam, Vinh Luu was treated like a foreigner.

Photograph by Michael Amsler

Vinh Luu

Letting Go

By Janet Wells

WHEN VINH LUU was a Green Beret fighting for the South Vietnamese army, the U.S soldiers were his allies, his brothers in the trenches waging battle in the name of democracy. But he never imagined that when the allies went home, he would be forced to follow, fleeing his country as a refugee, cut off from his family and culture.

Luu escaped just a few days before the fall of Saigon, and the defeat of the U.S.-backed South Vietnamese government. He is one of a million Vietnamese refugees who fled South Vietnam after the war and one of many who came to the United States through the ROVER program, a humanitarian resettlement program.

Luu arrived in America in 1975, when he was 25 years old, newly married, wondering what the future would hold. He and his wife, Kim, spent their honeymoon in refugee camps in the Philippines and Guam. Luu left the rest of his family behind, knowing that the enemy was marching into Saigon. His brother, Hue, tried to escape just after the Communist takeover but never arrived at any of the refugee camps in Southeast Asia. Luu imagines that his brother was lost in one of the many boats that sank off the coast of Vietnam.

Like most refugees, Luu has tales of tragedy and hardship. But he considers himself one of the lucky ones. After 25 years, he is settled in Novato, working for Catholic Charities in San Rafael. He and Kim have three children, and eight other members of their family have immigrated from Vietnam to join them.

For Luu, the war has ended, the horror behind him. For other Vietnamese--many of them now in the United States and living in the community that Luu assists--the war is a continuing nightmare.

Every year on April 30--the day in 1975 that Saigon fell to the Communist north--people gather at the Vietnamese consulate in San Francisco. This year, because the day marks the 25th anniversary, Luu expects the crowd to be larger than ever.

"There are [exiled Vietnamese] people who think the war is never over because of the suffering," he says. "Others don't believe we lost the war. They think that we could still win. They want to pressure the international community to look into it."

Luu himself still has hopes of Vietnam becoming a democratic country, but not through war. "The best way to conquer is with economics," he says, sounding like a true American capitalist. "With force, it's only there for so long. But how many of us have credit cards and pay our debt happily every month?"

Trained in economics and sociology at the University of Saigon, Luu says he had a relatively smooth experience acclimating to American society. His first job was in an Arkansas sawmill, where he was paid the minimum wage of $2.25 an hour and provided with food and a trailer for housing. He saved enough to buy his first car--a Ford Maverick--and took pictures of it from every angle.

"The Chinese have a saying, 'When the horse dies, you walk,' " he says. "You adjust yourself to a new environment. But most of the people who let go easily are my age," Luu adds.

"For folks who are in their late 40s and 50s, it's really difficult to readjust."

After several months in Arkansas, Luu was persuaded by a friend from one of the refugee camps to head west to the Bay Area. He and his wife looked at a map, pointed the car, and drove. He has vivid memories of the ethnography lesson he got at a Phoenix gas station: "There were several Native Americans there, and they looked like me. We had a stereotype of Native Americans with hooked noses and red skin," he says. "They looked pretty much like Asians. I thought there must be a Chinatown in every state."

With government aid helping to pay for housing, food, and education, Luu attended the College of Marin to improve his rudimentary English. In 1978, he started sponsoring family members to immigrate to the United States and worked for a local refugee resettlement center until 1992, when he took a position with Catholic Charities as an advocate for Vietnamese immigrants.

In November, Luu returned to Vietnam with his family, the first time he had set foot on his home soil since 1975. "It was a very valuable experience for us and our children," says Luu, who still practices the Confucianism of his parents and still feels culturally Vietnamese.

"They saw the country, the old house, old friends, tasted the food."

But Luu knows that 25 years in America have made indelible changes. "[The Vietnamese] treated us like foreigners," he says. "We dress and walk differently."

Luu noted that the war doesn't seem to be a big topic of conversation in Vietnam, especially among young people. "The war is over to them. They have left it behind."

Then again, he was there before the start of a two-month celebration of the 25th anniversary of the fall of Saigon. The festivities are set to end there April 30 with a parade of 18,000 people.

The anniversary represents something far bleaker to veterans in America, where the war and its soldiers were vilified by many--something that Luu wishes he could change. "I still salute those guys who went there and fought for our beliefs. They should feel good about it," he says. "So much of the media has portrayed them as mercenaries, going up there and killing people. It's just not fair."

Movies like the critically acclaimed 1999 documentary Regret to Inform also perpetuate the problem, Luu claims. "Nothing good about the Republic [of South Vietnam] was said in there," he observes of the Oscar-winning movie that chronicled an American woman's journey to the place in North Vietnam where her soldier husband was killed. "It was one-sided propaganda. War is ugly on both sides."

Luu doesn't advocate burying the past and tells his children about his own life and his country's painful history. But after 25 years, he says, "it's time to let go. The United States dips into the wound again and again, and it reopens."

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From the April 20-26, 2000 issue of the Sonoma County Independent.

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