40 years after Vietnam's fall, one Sacramento family remembers

Nhuong Tran, 93, prays at his wife Khai Phan’s altar Sunday. They were married for 70 years.
Nhuong Tran, 93, prays at his wife Khai Phan’s altar Sunday. They were married for 70 years. rbyer@sacbee.com

Nearly every Sunday, UC Davis student Julia Mai Nguyen visits her great-grandfather, Nhuong Tran, at his tidy mobile home on Mack Road in south Sacramento. She practices her Vietnamese and absorbs 93 years of life lessons from Tran, a Vietnamese refugee who led three generations of the family out of South Vietnam after Saigon fell to the communists 40 years ago.

“He’s my best friend,” says Julia, 22. “He and my great-grandma Khai Fan, who died in 2013, helped raise everyone in the family. They taught us to work hard, not complain, be fair and take responsibility.”

Tran and his family are among the 32,000 Vietnamese Americans living in the Sacramento region. Last week, they marked the 40th anniversary of the fall of Saigon with bittersweet memories, said Nancy Tran, a talk show host and commentator with Sacramento’s Vietnamese Radio TNT. They have built new lives in the United States, but the memories from Vietnam remain powerful – and sometimes traumatizing.

“It’s huge,” said Nancy Tran (no relation to Nhuong Tran). “Most of us are Vietnamese refugees who lost our country and our homes, and many of our families were divided.”

Many members of the community still struggle with post-traumatic stress disorder, Tran said. “One man who spent nine years in a North Vietnamese re-education camp and came here in 2003 is still haunted by the fear instilled in him by the guards. He’s still telling his wife, ‘Watch out, they’re coming, don’t let them see me.’ ”

Nhuong Tran doesn’t suffer from PTSD, but he sips Hennessy cognac to ease the pain of loss and loneliness. He blames the communists for the hardships that tore apart his family on both continents – and the United States for letting the South lose the war. “When the U.S. was there, we were winning the war,” he told Julia on a recent visit. “We lost South Vietnam because America withdrew from our country. President (Richard) Nixon didn’t care any more and we ran out of weapons, gas and equipment.”

Tran’s life spans the sweep of Vietnamese history. He grew up the oldest of 10 children in a family of rice farmers in Bien Hoa, 20 miles northeast of Saigon, renamed Ho Chi Minh City after the communist victory. The old farmer maintains a lovely garden scented with orange roses and star jasmine. Every morning he goes out to his garden to pray to a white statue of Kuan Yin, Buddhist goddess of compassion and mercy, and gives thanks for being in the United States.

Then he prays to his late wife Khai Phan’s altar, which is stocked with lemons, oranges, flowers and incense. “We were married for 70 years,” he said, a trace of tears forming in his gray eyes.

Tran, who speaks French, said he used to make and sell his own rice beer in Vietnam. “Even though it cost twice as much as the beer the French were selling, people preferred it,” Julia said. Tran said the French came to his house, told him he didn’t have a license to sell it and made him dump it all into the river.

He moved to Saigon and became a policeman, and one of his son-in-laws, Julia’s grandfather Nguyen Van Ba, became a police captain. “The Americans came to Saigon 40 years ago to take the high-ranking Vietnamese officials out of the country by helicopter, but grandpa Nguyen didn’t want to leave my grandma and his kids, so he jumped off,” Julia said.

One of Tran’s daughters had married an American pilot, who took her to Sacramento before Saigon fell. Tran said she warned him the Viet Cong would cut his throat if he stayed, but he didn’t believe they’d be so severe.

“I thought my wife and I were too old to leave the country on fishing boats and start over in America,” he said.

Their son was arrested three times trying to escape, Tran said, and the communists warned him that if he tried to leave again they would kill him. Tran hated Ho Chi Minh for allowing thousands to die of starvation after the war, but admired him for rising from cook’s assistant to a national leader who spoke five languages.

After Saigon fell, Tran said, he was forced to move back to the farm. Food was so scarce that meals were often watered down rice porridge with rat meat, Julia said. “But he didn’t complain because he’s a Buddhist, and Buddhists say suffering is a choice.”

Julia said her grandfather Nguyen, the Saigon police captain who jumped off the helicopter, was taken away to a communist re-education camp and assigned to feed the cows. When he returned years later, he was so thin his wife didn’t recognize him.

Tran and his family, sponsored by his daughter in Sacramento, finally arrived here in 1990. “Me and my wife and kids would wake up at 5 a.m. every day and deliver The Sacramento Bee,” he said. “I carried the newspaper on my back while I went from house to house by bicycle. It was very heavy.”

They considered themselves lucky to be here in one piece, Julia said. Her maternal grandfather, an American soldier, was killed in combat.

Tran still enjoys a Sunday brunch of French beef stew at My Tho, a Vietnamese restaurant on Stockton Boulevard, with his family, which includes seven grandchildren and 10 great-grandchildren.

Julia, an international agricultural development major studying aquaculture, represents the fusion of two cultures. Her favorite book is “The Great Gatsby”; her favorite movie, The Dark Knight.”

Her cousins, aunts and uncles include accountants, computer programers and engineers who reflect the evolution of Sacramento’s Little Saigon. The number of Vietnamese here has grown by more than 15,000 since 2000, and the median household income was roughly $54,000 in 2013, up about 25 percent from 2000, after adjusting for inflation, according to U.S. Census Bureau data.

Roughly 24 percent of local Vietnamese adults age 25 and older have a bachelor’s degree, up from 19 percent in 2000, according to the census. That compares with 28 percent for the entire population.

Julia, an exceptional student with a full-time job, said she gets her work ethic from her great-grandparents. “They really embody responsibility,” she said. “They raised me and my brother when they didn’t have to. Even though they were very traditional and would give me advice, they made me understand it was my life.”

Call The Bee’s Stephen Magagnini, (916) 321-1072. The Bee’s Phillip Reese contributed to this report.

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