Accidental immigrants get scant news of their homeland

By JOHN SPRAGENS Jr.

HOLLY HILL -- Vien and Le Bui both have relatives living in Vietnam, but they still must depend on American newspapers and TV for much of what they know about the land where they were born.

The Holly Hill couple gets letters from home but, Vien says, "They don't dare write about political things." The letters mostly report on family members' health.

All the same, they have been able to sense some of the changes in government policy by putting things they have heard from their families together with news they glean from more recent refugees.

Vien says his family, which lives just north of Vung Tau, used to grow coffee and fruit trees. But not long after the Communist victory in 1975, that changed.

"They were told those were luxuries," he says. "They told them to plant rice and manioc." They had to cut down the fruit and coffee trees and burn them.

Now, Vien hears, things are much easier. Cash crops are back in favor and his family is growing sugar cane.

Vien and his wife left Vietnam almost by accident.

On April 28, 1975, just two days before the Saigon government collapsed, Vien was on duty on a South Vietnamese navy patrol boat. He had not heard that South Vietnamese forces had abandoned the central highlands and were retreating from central Vietnam, fleeing so fast the advancing North Vietnamese and Viet Cong could not keep up with them.

Then a friend on a passing boat told him Vung Tau was going to be attacked and he should take his family to safety.

So Vien got Le and their 3-month-old daughter and, with other members of his boat's crew and their families, sailed a short way out to sea to wait until the attack -- which they thought would be brief -- was over and they could return home.

Instead, they were picked up by a larger South Vietnamese ship, received provisions from an American ship and made their way to the Philippines.

"My mother didn't even know I had left the country," Le remembers. Her family lived 140 miles west of Vung Tau near the Gulf of Thailand.

Their next stop was a refugee camp in Pennsylvania, where they stayed until St. Paul's Catholic Church in Daytona Beach agreed to sponsor their entry into American society.

Their memories of Vietnam still are strong, and they have heard of Vietnamese from Orlando who plan to visit their families in Vietnam.

"I would like to go back to visit my mother one last time," Le says. Her relatives were simple farmers who did not fight on either side in the war, so she is not apprehensive about how the present government will receive her. But she does want to wait until the United States and Vietnam have embassies in each other's capitals.

Vien is uncertain whether he would want to visit Vietnam again. Several members of his family -- who, like Vien, were in the South Vietnamese armed forces -- were held for years in "reeducation" camps under the new government. One uncle was detained for 10 years.

Vien, now a tool and die maker, and Le, who has held a variety of jobs, seem happy with the life they have found in Florida -- a sentiment they say is shared by most Vietnamese in this area.

"People say they might go back to visit, but not to live," Le says. "They're used to the way of life here and to the freedom they have here. Especially the kids who were born here -- they're Americans. They don't think of themselves as Vietnamese"

But she says some of the older Vietnamese in Orlando have not adjusted well. They don't know how to drive. They haven't learned English. When the younger members of their families are away working and going to school, they just sit home alone, isolated from this strange new world.

"Many of the old women here are very sad," Le says. "Some of them want to go back, but they can't."


Text copyright © 1989 The News-Journal, Daytona Beach, Florida

Published Jan. 14, 1989


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