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45 Years On

To most Americans, the Vietnam War was a fight between the free world against communism — part of the containment strategy that began soon after the end of WW2. That view, while not inaccurate, has led to a somewhat skewed perspective on the part of many historians, artists and filmmakers about the role South Vietnamese played.

A recent display of that type of thinking was, of course, Ken Burns’ highly praised documentary “The Vietnam War”.  There’s a lot that can be said about Burns’ effort, both good and bad, but from the vantage point of someone born and raised in Saigon, I think it missed the mark. An opportunity lost.

Bến Tre, ca 1971. With sister Hương (left), Tiên (right), little brother Lễ (front).

I don’t wish to dwell too much on Burns’ film, but I will sum up my feelings this way: the title is misleading. After watching the whole thing carefully, I believe it should be renamed “America’s War in Vietnam”. Because, you see, for us South Vietnamese, the war was definitely not just about America vs North Vietnam, which is how Burns mostly portrayed it even though he did try to include a few South Vietnamese characters here and there.  Certainly the U.S. played a part in the war, a big part even. But to us the conflict had started long before that and, unlike popular belief — even among some Vietnamese, it is still an unsettled matter. In other words, the “Vietnam War” has not ended; only America’s involvement in it.

Lunar New Year, February 1975. My father gets ready to go play tennis. This was our last photo together before we left Vietnam.

Vietnam today may be unified territorially, but in reality there still are deep divisions and suspicions between the peoples of North and South. Anyone who follows Viet-language social media, even just casually, can tell you that there exist profound differences in the thinking between, and even terminologies used by, the two sides. This of course is the result of years of propaganda by the victor against its former foe, utilizing its total power and control of the media. Naturally, resentment built up as a result, not just inside Vietnam but in the diaspora community as well. Think of it this way, imagine if Atlanta had been renamed Sherman City.

The new rulers often give lip service to what they call “reconciliation”, but their actions consistently convey anything but. Every year since the Fall of Saigon on April 30th, 1975, Hanoi has insisted on making this point absolutely clear with celebrations purposely designed to “rub it in”. Again, picture annual Sherman victory parades with marching bands through the streets of Atlanta. 

Father McVeigh, head of CRS (right) and my mother and sister (standing in the back) inside the Embassy compound on April 29, 1975. Photo: John Cullen.

All this in spite of the fact that Saigon is economically the largest contributor to the national coffers, whose central bank is situated in … (where else?) Hanoi. To the winner go the spoils. I get that. But then why not call it what it is: daylight robbery at gunpoint. If those old kumrads don’t have the guts to say it (which they don’t), then at least we in the free world should. There’s no need to put cheap imported nationalistic lipstick on a pig.

Me (far right) with my aunts and cousins aboard the Pioneer Commander, somewhere in the Pacific Ocean. Photo: John Cullen

Exactly forty-five years ago today, my family and I were flown out of Saigon aboard Marine helicopters from the U.S. Embassy compound. I’m sure many Americans have seen pictures and footage. We were the lucky ones. Many others were not. Millions of those who didn’t make it ended up in “new economic zones” or “re-education camps” — euphemisms for theft and murder. Millions more were robbed, raped or died at sea trying to escape. Cynically, the government even set up a not-so-secret, semi-official program to let people buy their way out on boats; payment must be made in gold. In fact, many people were duped by the police and ended up losing both their gold and freedom — some even their lives. You could call it the cost of war after the war.

Guam, May 7, 1975: The day we literally “got off the boat” and landed on U.S. soil.

Last Spring I was invited by the wonderful folks at Dallas Summer Musicals to speak with the cast of “Miss Saigon” when the tour came to North Texas. Two cast members are of Vietnamese descent, an actor from Australia and an actress from California. Everyone was eager to hear my story growing up in Saigon during the war, especially my experience at the Embassy since that’s a main scene in their show. 

It was a warm gathering, and I made a lot of new friends. From Jackie Nguyen (“Yvette”) I learned how extremely difficult it is for young Vietnamese immigrants — American or otherwise, to break into show biz and Broadway, especially if you’re female. Up to that point, no Vietnamese actress had ever been cast as Kim in any Cameron Mackintosh production. Perhaps that’s why even though “Miss Saigon” has been a huge hit internationally, I still felt something was missing every time I saw it.

Author with ‘Miss Saigon’ cast at Music Hall at Fair Park in Dallas, May 22, 2019. Bottom right: With Jackie Nguyen and Matthew Nguyen Overberg.

Not unlike Burns’ film, “Miss Saigon” also falls into the familiar narrative of the war as seen from a Western perspective. But, to be fair, it is musical theater and not a documentary. Besides, the story was lifted from Puccini’s “Madame Butterfly”. So there’s that.

Despite its commercial success, “Miss Saigon” also has its share of critics. Perfectly understandable, given how complex and impossible to fully understand the war really is. The most common complaint is the show’s depiction of Vietnamese women merely as bar girls or victims. Even the heroine Kim, some say, is only portrayed as the typical submissive Asian woman who has to beg her American lover Chris to rescue her child. Some critics even say that the show should cease altogether, that “Miss Saigon must die”.

I certainly don’t hold that opinion. I’ve always thought the idea of Kim using an American-made weapon to shoot her betrothed husband (a peasant who later turned out to be a communist officer), and later taking her own life with it is a powerful metaphor that neatly encapsulates not only the madness of the war but also the betrayal of the South by its ally. And of course our own experience of being uprooted and brought to America, leaving our motherland behind, is pretty much the story of the boy Tam — a new life in exchange for the losses.

As a practical matter, even with its flaws “Miss Saigon” still provides a rare opportunity for actors of Asian descent, and Vietnamese in particular, to work in Broadway productions. Therefore I don’t think Miss Saigon should, metaphorically speaking, die. In fact, I’ve always hoped that a real Vietnamese could take on the role of Kim someday. And that day actually did arrive.

Francesca Nông thị Hiền-Anh. Photo: FB

Last December the tour swung back through Fort Worth. And as fate would have it, for the first time ever in a Mackintosh production, a Vietnamese was going to play the lead role. Through Jackie, I was able to score some seats at the Bass Music Hall for this rather historic event. I was both excited and fearful, not knowing what to expect. But the young understudy named Francesca Nong did not disappoint.

For the first time in my life, I found myself crying during a musical. Not because Francesca sang and acted so well (she truly did), but because she somehow was able to make the character seem so relatable, so genuine, so … Vietnamese! Even small details like her praying or wearing the áo dài projected that authenticity. It was a goosebump-inducing performance that only reinforced my belief that “Miss Saigon must live,” so that more Vietnamese actors and actresses can participate, and perhaps take it to an even higher level of realism.

Unfortunately, however, the tour was abruptly stopped by COVID-19 which, at the time of this writing, has killed even more Americans than the war itself. Talk about irony. Then to make matters even worse, I learned that “Miss Saigon” has also been killed. For good. We don’t know if this musical will ever be revived again, but I pray that it does. And if that happens, I hope we’ll get to see a Vietnamese Kim just as the original story intended, and that future generations still get to experience that show-stopping, heart-wrenching, ass-kicking helicopter scene which I was lucky enough to be a part of — in real life.

-ianbui

2020.04.29

Jackie Nguyen (left), and Francesca Nong (center) after Francesca’s debut performance at Bass Performance Hall in Fort Worth, TX on December 7, 2019.

7 replies on “45 Years On”

Ian shares his story so eloquently. I have the pleasure of being friends with him in life as well as on Facebook. He’s exactly who he appears to be. The real deal. Thanks for sharing.

Excellent story, my Utopian brother. Quite an experience, only relatable to ones who were actually there, I’m sure. Too bad Burns missed the mark on part of the South in his documentary.

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