‘Vietnam’ documentary opens old wounds, offers new lessons for Sacramento author

Viewers across the nation and the world have been tuning in to Ken Burns’ and Lynn Novick’s gripping 10-part documentary “The Vietnam War,” the sixth episode of which aired Sunday night, helping Sacramento’s KVIE score the third highest viewership that evening for all PBS stations, said KVIE General Manager David Lowe.

“It is being very watched in Sacramento,” Lowe said.

One Sacramentan who has been watching intently is Hoàng Chi Truong, 55, who not only lived through the Vietnam War but wrote about it – and its aftermath – in her recently published book “TigerFish: A Memoir of A South Vietnamese Colonel’s Daughter and Her Coming of Age In America.”

In it, Truong chronicles the horrors she witnessed during the conflict, including seeing corpses wash up on the beaches as she and her family fled south to escape the Viet Cong. Strangers would come to “our doorstep at night, their children’s hollowed eyes and caved in stomachs crying for hunger relief,” she writes. Much of Truong’s neighborhood in Da Nang later would be reduced to craters after being bombed.

Truong said she has been watching Burns’ documentary with closed captioning on to make sure she doesn’t miss a single detail. “It’s very healing and cathartic,” said Truong, who fled Vietnam with her family not long before the fall of Saigon in April 1975.

“As a child, I was very afraid of the words ‘Viet Cong’ or ‘Communist’ because I thought of them being evil,” she said. “Seeing (the opposing side) interviewed, with their fears and regrets, I saw that in the end we all had our orders, we all suffered and that helped me deal with the war.

“I’m still angry,” she said, “but not bitter.”

However, her father, who lives in Fresno, “wasn’t ready to pull the Band-Aid off” his emotional scars and watch the documentary, she said.

Truong Tan Thuc, 90, a former colonel in the South Vietnamese Army, was awarded the Bronze Star from the U.S. government for his leadership in numerous combat operations from 1968 to 1975. One of his American counterparts, U.S. Lt. Col. W. Ray Bradley, called him the most effective commander he had ever known.

“He has said the Vietnamese people were just the pawns being moved around to support the U.S. national interest,” Truong said about her dad. “He felt betrayed because the U.S. told the world, ‘We’re going to save these people,’ and it didn’t happen.”

The documentary depicts South Vietnamese Army officers and their families being executed after the fall, Truong said. As many as 2 million South Vietnamese were sent to re-education camps, where an estimated 165,000 died. Two of Truong’s older brothers, who were soldiers, were imprisoned and tortured after the Americans evacuated. The brothers weren’t reunited with their families in the U.S. until 20 years later.

Truong, who lives in Sacramento’s Pocket neighborhood, said she has been most affected by the images in the documentary “showing the casualties of war from all sides, whether they were of the Americans, VC or other Vietnamese.” She has struggled seeing “battlefield corpses, a young Viet Cong shaking like a leaf after being captured, and peasant men and women pleading and begging U.S. soldiers to stop burning their thatched roof homes.”

The documentary has taught her “a lot of things I didn’t learn in school,” she said, including the fact that Viet Cong leader Ho Chi Minh, who had worked in the U.S., appealed to then-President Truman as early as 1946 for help in securing Vietnam’s independence from the French “because the U.S. had a good reputation for supporting freedom.”

Also presenting a richly detailed journey, Truong’s book begins with her childhood in Nha Trang, Da Nang and Son Cha, and takes readers through her family’s desperate escape. Landing in California at age 13, she felt anger, fear and shame at being a refugee, she said. Her dad, a war hero, found work as a janitor.

“As a refugee, my family and I felt grateful to be here, but we felt survivor’s guilt that some of our family members were still in Vietnam,” she said.

Her story and her assimilation struggles are shared by many of the roughly 32,200 Vietnamese who live in the Sacramento region. Vietnamese is the region’s fourth-largest Asian ethnic group, behind Chinese, Filipino and Asian Indians, according to the Census Bureau.

Truong, whose family started their new life in Fresno in 1975, said it took her 20 years to finish her memoir. But the book helped her work through her “pain, resentment and grief, and begin to acknowledge them so I (could) find peace.”

In addition to sharing her story, Truong said she published the book to call attention to the plight of millions of refugees worldwide, especially the estimated 5 million Syrian refugees who escaped that country’s ongoing civil war. “I’m very sensitive to any form of oppression,” she said.

After reading about President Donald Trump’s executive order banning immigrants from several Muslim countries, she said she believed her family’s story – and that of some 250,000 Vietnamese refugees who resettled in the United States – was more timely than ever.

For decades, “Vietnamese refugees were not welcomed, looked down upon, and were perceived as an economic threat to take jobs from Americans,” Truong said.

Truong, who used to work for the Governor’s Office of Emergency Services, titled her book “TigerFish” because she sees herself as a blend of her Confucian roots (she was born in the year of the Tiger) and her western assimilation (she is a Pisces). The book this year was required summer reading for incoming freshmen at Kennedy High School.

On Wednesday evening, Truong will be reading from her book at My Sister’s House in Sacramento. On Oct. 14, she is scheduled to read at Bogle Winery in Clarksburg.

For more information on “TigerFish,” go to www.ChiBeingChi.com. To watch the Burns’ documentary, go to www.pbs.org/kenburns/the-vietnam-war/watch/.

Stephen Magagnini: 916-321-1072, @SteveMagagnini. Phillip Reese contributed to this story.