On April 30th 1975, the last American soldiers and diplomats boarded the final U.S. helicopter to depart from Vietnam and the country’s 21 year civil war came to an end. But for millions of Vietnamese, the bad times were only just getting started.
The Fall of Saigon brought with it an exodus of close to two million Vietnamese refugees, of whom only an estimated 130,000 arrived safely in the United States. Those who survived the journey were temporarily housed in four military installations around the country, hosted by four different branches of the military: the Marine Corps’ Camp Pendleton (California), the Army’s Fort Chaffee (Arkansas), Elgin Air Force Base (Florida) and the National Guard’s Fort Indiantown Gap (Pennsylvania). From there, American families, churches, and other groups sponsored the refugees, eventually dispersing them through all fifty states.
In Vietnam, the end of the war did not bring peace. The victorious North Vietnamese government engaged in a vengeful policy that confiscated private property and chased people out of their homes. They imprisoned several hundred thousand former South Vietnamese soldiers and officials in "re-education" camps. Between 1975 and 1982, the Hanoi government estimates that it has processed 1 million Vietnamese people through its reeducation camps. In the immediate aftermath of the war, it is estimated that 300,000 South Vietnamese were imprisoned. In June, 1975 alone 400 writers and journalists as well as 2000 religious leaders, including Buddhists, Catholics and Protestant priests and chaplains were recorded as being sent for re-education. Estimates for the number who died in the camps are impossible to come by but one frequently reported number is 50,000 Vietnamese dead in the camps, almost as many people as America lost in the entire Vietnam War.
The first "boat people" fled not long after the war ended, but the wave of refugees reached new highs between 1978 and 1980 when Vietnam’s new regime invaded neighboring Cambodia. Fighting a brief border war with China, the new government forced young men into the military and those that were ethnic Chinese were forced out of the country. Within three years, 400,000 boat people fled to other Southeast Asian nations.
The "boat people" fled from their homeland in small, rickety boats that typically packed 200 people into a few square meters. Pirates in the Gulf of Siam found the refugees easy targets, and the boats were frequently attacked, sometimes repeatedly. Boat people were robbed, raped, abducted, and sometimes mutilated and killed. The U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees reported that in 1981, in Thai waters alone, there had been 1149 attacks on 352 boats, 571 people were killed, 243 abducted, and 599 raped by pirates.
Omitted from the U.N.’s statistics are those boats that disappeared without ever reaching shore. The late Friar Joe Devlin, a Jesuit priest who worked in the refugee camps, would later recount: "Each morning we would go down to the beaches and there would be bodies--men, women and children--washed ashore during the night. Sometimes there were hundreds of them, like pieces of wood. Some of them were girls who had been raped and then thrown into the sea by pirates to drown. It was tragic beyond words. We would pull them off the beaches and bury them and say prayers for them. This happened every morning. Sometimes I hated to get up in the morning, as the bodies were always there."
The boat people settled in Europe, Australia, Canada and the U.S. In 1979, more than 100,000 of them arrived in America, where they tried to rebuild their shattered lives. Settling in America has not been easy. The first refugees were generously welcomed by many, but fiercely resisted by others. The opposition to the Vietnamese refugees came from racist groups such as the KKK but also from Americans who, ironically, mistook the refugees for communist Viet Cong.
It has been said, however, that no difficulties in the U.S. can compare to the hardships the refugees endured to get here. And so the new Vietnamese-Americans hunkered down, they went to school, they worked multiple jobs, and eventually built a community that would flourish into numerous "Little Saigons."
The most famous "Little Saigon" is centered in the formerly sleepy residential city of Westminster in Orange County, California. Research into the city’s records reveal that in 1977, there were three Vietnamese-owned business in Westminster. In 1982, the number rose to 100. By 2004, Vietnamese-owned businesses numbered 11,000 in Orange County. The first Vietnamese-American elected official was Westminster City Councilman Tony Lam who took office in 1992. By 2005, there has been a Vietnamese-American Assistant U.S. Attorney General, two state legislators, four city council members, and several school board members.