Growing up, my parents never revealed details about their experiences living through the Vietnam War. I knew they had survived the conflict, but I never associated them with old news footage of helicopters flying over rice paddies or combat scenes in Oliver Stone films such as “Platoon.” After having the opportunity to recently screen American Experience’s “Last Days In Vietnam,” I wish I had been more curious about my parents’ story, and those of so many other Vietnamese immigrants who fled after South Vietnam fell to communism on April 30, 1975.
I highly encourage Vietnamese immigrants and American veterans in the Seattle area to head to the Varsity Theatre in the University District to see the film, which runs for one week from Oct. 3 to Oct. 9. Directed by Rory Kennedy, the daughter of the late U.S. Sen. Robert F. Kennedy, this theatrical run is a chance to see the film before its national broadcast on PBS in April 2015.
Here’s the trailer:
I was in elementary school when my nerdy computer programmer father revealed he’d once been a lieutenant in the Army of the Republic of Vietnam, otherwise known as the South Vietnamese military. He promised proof once my mother returned from her first visit to Vietnam in 1994. She came back with disappointing news: My dad’s family had burned his military photos after he and my mother escaped in October 1978. Under the new regime, having such images around placed the family at risk. My father had already served six months in a re-education camp, and they did not want to relive that nightmare.
Years later, a family friend gave my parents a couple of undated photos that were snapped in Vietnam (most likely after the Tet Offensive in 1968). I scanned one of them below. My dad, Duc Tan, is the third man from the right. He is wearing his uniform.
Watching “Last Days In Vietnam” inspired me to view this photo, my parents and an entire generation of immigrants in a new light. The film marks the first time I have seen a mainstream American documentary feature the voices of former South Vietnamese citizens — including a naval officer who helped the Americans keep U.S.-funded ships from enemy hands in 1975, a former student who later fled by boat and a former lieutenant who was imprisoned for 13 years after the fall. Another one of the many compelling story lines in the documentary is told by Miki Nguyen, a Seattle-area resident who was 6 when his father piloted a Chinook helicopter filled with refugees to a U.S. aircraft carrier. (Nguyen is scheduled to appear at screenings on Saturday and Sunday. Check this link for more details.)
Recent private screenings with dozens of Vietnamese immigrants and veterans in Olympia and Seattle reduced members of both audiences to tears. Many had never seen photos and images of those final, chaotic days. In post-film discussions, members of the community had more questions than answers. Whom do we blame? Why are we here? Those are questions these immigrants have not asked for some time, as they have struggled to make ends meet in America. Listening to their once-dormant perspectives was a stark reminder of the consequences of being on the losing side of a conflict. It’s true, only the victors get to write the history books.
My hope is that “Last Days In Vietnam” ignites a conversation about the Vietnam War and its lasting effects on those who fought, those who stayed and those who eventually left. Forty years have softened the blow of that painful period, and now is the time to collect and preserve these powerful human stories from immigrants and American veterans. There are still lessons to be learned from Vietnam that apply to American foreign policy today, especially as the U.S. prepares to engage and arm Syrian rebels as it did the South Vietnamese military. This country’s leaders must do all they can to avoid similar, tragic consequences.
Please go see the film.
Also, today is the final day of the First Days Story Project, a crowdfunding campaign on IndieGoGo. The fundraiser is an extension of the film, and an opportunity for Vietnamese immigrants and American veterans to share their stories of what happened after April 30, 1975. I made a donation to the cause because this is personal and I believe the act of storytelling might help to heal old wounds. Please join me if you feel the same.