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30 Years After Vietnam : A Reunion

Di An - 1968

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The Vietnam War, 30 years after.

 

Story by Linda Leavitt, Editor
The
Scarsdale Enquirer


We drove slowly down a street of tidy Spanish-style houses in
San Jose, looking for the one that belonged to Nguyen Minh Chau. It was April, 1998, 23 years almost to the day after the fall of Saigon. My husband wondered if he'd recognize the Vietnamese district chief he last saw 30 years ago in a war-torn country on the other side of the world.

As an army intelligence officer and advisor to the South Vietnamese Army, Liam worked directly with Chau and other Vietnamese officials in the
village of Di An in Bien Hoa Province. He found it somewhat absurd that a 26-year-old college graduate with one year of military training should advise anybody on anything, but intelligence had sounded more interesting and less dangerous than the infantry, and like most young single American men, Liam had little choice. It was 1966 and caps and gowns were quickly replaced by army boots and rifles. In the year he spent in Vietnam, Liam learned to appreciate the strange beauty of the jungle, tolerate extreme heat, live with fear and become accustomed to death. He also found a good friend in Chau, a brave and honest man who loved his country and was determined to save it from communism, a man profoundly grateful for our support, however ambivalent Americans were at home. Liam had often told me about his affection and regard for Chau and wondered what became of him. One day in 1998, browsing in a book store in Stamford, he came across a war memoir written by the army advisor who replaced him in Di An. With mounting excitement, he turned the pages to see photos of his living quarters and the village he remembered so well, and, best of all, of his old comrade-in-arms. Nguyen Minh Chau, he learned, had received a silver star after being wounded a fourth time and had escaped to California a few years after the fall of Saigon
in April, 1975.

Liam called the author of the book, Lt. Col. John Cook, in
Maryland, who shared his high opinion of the district chief and gave him Chau's telephone number in California. Chau was
surprised and delighted to hear from Liam. His family had prospered and multiplied, the lieutenant must come and see for himself.

Mrs. Chau, a pretty woman with a brilliant smile who radiated self-confidence, welcomed us into her home. Chau, a colonel by the time he left
Vietnam
, limped to the door on a cane, dragging his paralyzed right side, the result of wounds he'd suffered before Liam met him, later compounded by a bullet in his lung and two grueling years in a North Vietnamese prison camp.

Despite their love for their patriarch, we never saw anyone in the
family
help Chau get around, as if that would compromise his dignified self-reliance. The only time we saw his disability acknowledged was when his grandchild, a roly-poly tot with spiky hair, imitated - to everyone's amusement - the way his grandpa walked.

Liam and Chau called each other by the names they'd used 30 years ago: "Dai Uy" ("Captain") and "Trung Uy" ("Lieutenant"). Ba Dai Uy ("Mrs. Captain") called Liam simply "Murphy."

In the corner of the living room was a Buddhist shrine, and on the walls ample testimony to the achievement of the American Dream - six wedding photos and six graduation photos. Five of the six Chau children had married Vietnamese and all had graduated
from college. Each had lived at home while in college, Mrs. Chau explained, to save money so that the next could go. Now they were all Silicon Valley engineers.

After a difficult time at first, Chau had gone to work for a refugee resettlement organization and had his own immigration consultant business. Mrs. Chau is a medical translator at
Santa Clara Valley Medical Center
.

We talked as Mrs. Chau prepared spring rolls, and served us salty dried shrimp with nuoc nam (fish sauce) and a kind of Vietnamese bouillabaisse. Chau poured cognac after cognac reminiscing about the old days and Liam struggled manfully to keep up.

After dinner, the Chaus' sons and daughters came over with their spouses and children, as they do every Saturday night. One son recalled riding on Liam's motorcycle when he was about 4 years old and Mrs. Chau chastised Liam all over again for giving her such a scare.


 

The Escape from Vietnam

The sons-in-law had fascinating tales of escape from
Vietnam; one, whose father was a diplomat, had been on the last flight out before Saigon fell; another had stolen a police boat and escaped to Thailand and eventually the Philippines. But most spellbinding of all was Mrs. Chau's account of how she spirited her husband out of a hospital where she feared his enemies would find and kill him, moved him from one hiding place to another for nearly a year while they tried to arrange his escape to Thailand. Chau had been an extremely effective router of communists; now that they had won the war, there was little chance they would forgive and forget. Finally, in 1978 Chau escaped by boat to Thailand
.

With her husband safe, Mrs. Chau could focus her considerable wits on getting the rest of the
family
out of the country.

First, after months of watching and making discrete inquiries to figure out whom she could trust, she bought a fishing boat, but did not take possession of it. She carefully studied the routines of the fishermen and the police and gradually rounded up smaller vessels to accommodate the increasing number of family members and close friends who wanted to leave Vietnam. The refugees would make their way from their inland homes down the river to the harbor in groups of six or seven so as not to arouse suspicion. Ultimately the group numbered 27 adults and 35 children, including six Chaus.

Being married to an army officer had taught Mrs. Chau a few things about strategy: Each person was only told the number of his or her group, and where their boat was hidden and when they were to start their journey down the river. That way if one group was caught, they couldn't give any information on the plans of the others.

Finally in December, 1979, she was ready. The refugees brought nothing with them except food. Of the expedition's dozen boats, only one was stopped and its occupants questioned before being allowed to continue on down the river, ostensibly to go to market. Before daybreak, the small boats made their way to the fishing boat in the harbor and everyone quickly climbed aboard. The previous owner's instructions were succinct: Follow the long end of a constellation shaped like a cross and it will take you to
Thailand
.

The first night at sea, high winds rose and the boat began to toss and pitch. Everyone was violently sick. The children clung to Mrs. Chau saying they wanted to be near their mother when they died. She was the only one who wasn't sick, so she didn't dare rest.

In the middle of the night the engine sputtered and died.

They were adrift. All they could do was hope that the wind was taking them farther and farther away from
Vietnam
. But when dawn came, Mrs. Chau's heart sank. Emerging from the morning mist was the familiar silhouette of an island right outside the harbor they had left 24 hours earlier.

Some of the others wanted to give up then, but Mrs. Chau was firm. "We have no choice," she said. "We cannot go back. We must keep going." Finally her nephew, the only person on the board with any mechanical training, got the engine going again.

For three days and nights they followed the cross in the sky, accompanied by two whales, which Mrs. Chau interpreted as a good omen. Finally they saw land. When they got within shouting distance of a beach, they called out in English and found out they had made it to
Thailand. But they could not land - Thailand
was not accepting any more boat people. " I have 35 children aboard," Mrs. Chau protested. "They are sick and hungry we have been traveling for three days!" Sorry, the answer came back. No more boat people.

The refugees followed the coast, wondering how far it was to
Malaysia. The engine quit again. A coast guard patrol boat approached the foundering vessel and told them where they were, in fact, off the coast of Malaysia
, and the country was allowing boat people to land on its shores. But rescues at sea were forbidden. If they could get into the beach on their own power they were saved. Otherwise . . .

It was tantalizing to see their goal so near. The nephew tried frantically to repair the engine while the wind blew the boat farther and farther out to sea and Mrs. Chau prayed to Buddha.

Buddha answered. The wind changed and blew the boat toward shore. Sick, exhausted and relieved, the refugees carried their children through the surf and collapsed on the beach until they gained the strength to walk several miles to the nearest refugee camp. A Red Cross official loaned Mrs. Chau money to call her husband in
Monterey
.

Their new life as Americans was about to begin.

Hearing about their arduous path to the good life, Liam and I were impressed anew with the opportunities intelligent and industrious immigrants find here, no matter how little they had when they arrived on our shores. But it was also abundantly clear that Chaus' survival and success were based on a devotion to
family
that we native-born Americans, with our emphasis on individual fulfillment, tend to undervalue.

Eventually, we believe, democracy will replace communism in
Vietnam
as it has almost everywhere in the world. The real tragedy is that when the time comes to make the transition, the country will not have the courage and the vision of the Chaus to make it work.
                                                 
Vietnam's loss was America
's gain.

                                  

1974

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