Spotlight on Lan Chi Nguyen
Chapter President 2002-2003
Saigon. 30 April 1975:
The war in Vietnam ended today as the government in Saigon announced its unconditional surrender to the Vietcong.
The President, Duong Van Minh, who has been in office for just three days, made the announcement in a radio broadcast to the nation early this morning. He asked his forces to lay down their arms and called on the Vietcong to halt all hostilities.
In a direct appeal to the Communist forces, he said: "We are here to hand over to you the power in order to avoid bloodshed."
Lan Chi Nguyen Thi was born in Saigon on 18 March 1965, and she has two younger brothers, Nguyen-Khac-Hoang (born March 1971), and Nguyen-Khac-Hoi (born - May 1974). Her parents were both teachers at that time, her father Nguyen-Khac-Trung teaching math, while her mother Quyet-Tuyet-Lan taught French. Their life was fairly opulent however, because Lan Chi's great uncle just happened to be the embattled South Vietnamese President Nguyen Van Thieu. Their house was a comfortable three-storey affair with servants and all the trimmings.
Of course the Vietnam War had been waging for a few years by the time Lan Chi was born, but she has no recollection of early battles such as the 1968 Tet Offensive. By the time 1975 arrived, she was ten and far more aware of the troubles with the North, although she does not remember being traumatized by the war because it was mainly affecting other areas of the country.
However things fast became frantic in the final days leading up to the fall of Saigon. The US military were pulling out in droves and most of us remember those fateful scenes at the US Embassy as throngs of panicking citizens tried desperately to get access to the Embassy roof and a helicopter to safety. It became apparent to Lan Chi's family, about a week before the fall of Saigon, that they were going to have to leave the country or face an uncertain (and probably unpleasant) future at the hands of the Viet Cong. The North Vietnamese forces were advancing southward at an alarming rate, forcing her great uncle President Thieu to resign on 21 April 1975.
President Thieu resigns
21 April 1975
Desperate citizens try to flee Saigon
30 April 1975
Initially the evacuation of the family was well planned and a Boeing 747 was chartered to fly them out of Tan Son Nhut Airport. Unfortunately, before they could make the flight the airport was heavily shelled by advancing forces, which effectively put an end to that escape plan. Luckily one family member (another uncle) was a Commander in the South Vietnamese Navy, and he arranged for the family to be transported in covered military vehicles to the local Navy Base at the harbour. Martial Law had been invoked which would have made it impossible to travel without the aid of the military. At some time during this melee the family members were forced to abandon most of their luggage because it simply would not fit on the trucks. Lan Chi and her family proceeded to the waterfront with nothing but the clothes on their backs, a small amount of gold, and whatever they could reasonably carry. Of course Lan Chi's youngest brother was only about 11 months old at this point so her mother had her hands full. Owing to Martial Law, her father Trung had only been able to get his hands on US$100 before the banks closed down.
On arrival at the Navy Base, the extended family (about 30 people) was directed to board a small Navy patrol boat which was sent out into the harbour waters to wait for further instructions. The family went below deck to remain out of site from the shore. Her uncle's warship was anchored nearby and he wanted them to wait at a safe distance off-shore until he could ascertain what his orders would be (of course he was probably contemplating the worst). His intention was not to leave the base until the official surrender occurred, and they were to wait until he sent news on where to join him. Eventually he contacted the patrol boat by radio, requesting that they join him, but it was not clear exactly where he was, and they were unable to find him.
Piloting the patrol boat were a couple of Navy servicemen who soon proved themselves to be human - they were probably well aware that their future was uncertain, so they promptly started demanding money from the helpless family members down below. It turns out that most Vietnamese men of the time carried some sort of weapon, and Lan Chi's father was no exception, so it was discussed privately that they would try to gather enough money between them to satisfy the sailors, but if necessary, they would have to resort to some gunplay. In the end, cooler heads prevailed, and the Navy guys seemed happy when money was produced.
Not knowing what else to do, the sailors decided to head out of the harbour in search of a safer environment. They motored along the coast with very little food or water and after a few days they came across another boat, in similar circumstances, heading in the opposite direction. The crew of the other craft made it clear that they were heading into danger and that they had to turn around, which they did. By this time, more and more boats started appearing in the general vicinity, full of half-starved people in various states of panic. It was decided that they should try to flag down any larger ship that might possibly take them on, and eventually they were helped onto a larger vessel that resembled a barge. It turned out that a successful Saigon Industrialist had purchased the barge for his family's escape, and he was taking on passengers from many nearby craft.
While the barge was large and somewhat more comfortable than the patrol boat, it was not a sea-faring vessel, and when it was decided to head out to open sea, it of course rocked around like a bucking bronco. Before long there were a great deal of very sick passengers on the barge, and at around this time Lan Chi's baby brother Hoi became quite unwell, suffering from dehydration and diarrhea. Gradually the barge reached international waters and they spotted a large merchant ship only to be told not to approach because there was no room left on the ship. In effect, Lan Chi's family and hundreds of others were the first boat people; not to be confused with the throngs of Vietnamese citizens who became known as Boat People when they escaped Viet Nam in December 1977.
The US Seventh Fleet was known to be in the area but at first they were not reacting to the crisis. However then President Gerald Ford finally gave the order to aid and assist all such refugees and Lan Chi's family were eventually picked up by the USS Duluth via tenders from the ship. At this point, Lan Chi's father Trung was careful not to mention anything about their family connections, for fear that they might not actually make it onto the Duluth, and be left on the barge with perhaps unsympathetic fellow citizens. Lan Chi remembers her family being forced to give up any weapons, and being billeted on deck in tents with many others. She recalls how hot it was during the day, and how uncomfortably cold it was at night. The ship was an amphibious assault vessel with a displacement of approx. 16,900 tons, and its crew did its best to help the refugees. They did not have sufficient blankets and other equipment to provide comfort to all of the people. Lan Chi has fond memories of one sailor who gave two of his spare undershirts to her mother to wrap around Hoi, who was still very unwell.
The ship took the refugees to the Philippines, where they disembarked on landing craft, and were billeted in barracks for about 3 days. We can only imagine there was great relief felt by the refugees at this point, particularly with hot meals being served. From the base in the Philippines they were flown to Anderson Air Force Base on Guam, where they were housed in a "tent city" for about three weeks. Lan Chi's mother was basically in a state of shock through most of this ordeal and Lan Chi stepped into the breach - she remembers being on "food duty", where she had to line up for ages to get food for her family from the enormous mess hall on the base.
Time Magazine 12 May 1975:
The Marines had the dangerous job: evacuating the last Americans and South Vietnamese from Saigon by helicopter. Now a necessary but dreary job confronts the armed forces and swarms of bureaucrats: housing, processing and relocating an estimated 120,000 South Vietnamese refugees. Tens of thousands of evacuees had already reached the three principal U.S. "staging areas" in the Pacific: Guam, Wake Island and Clark Air Force Base in the Philippines. Others were scattered on Saipan, 250 miles from Guam, where 56 refugees landed after commandeering a South Vietnamese C130; at the U.S. naval...
Andersen forces also played a key role in Operation New Life, the evacuation of thousands after the fall of Saigon in 1975. During New Life, Andersen received more than 40,000 refugees and processed another 109,000 for onward transportation to the United States mainland. Andersen also played a key role in Operation Baby Lift, an element of New Life in which the U.S. evacuated 1,500 orphans from Vietnam and Thailand in April 1975.
All of the refugees were expecting to end up in the United States because they had been promised safe harbour by Gerald Ford. While they were on the base in Guam, Trung tried in vain to contact overseas family members who might have sponsored them. During this time there were US and Canadian immigration representatives on the base sifting through the mountains of paperwork requiring processing for the refugees. One day Lan Chi heard her father's name being called over the P.A. system and she had to frantically run around trying to find him. At that time, Canada was accepting refugees only if they had a sponsor. When Trung finally did make it to the proper building, it transpired that the Canadians had been hailing another Nguyen-Khac-Trung, who turned out to be a single guy with relatives in Canada willing to sponsor him. This of course was a major disappointment, but Trung used the opportunity to plead his family's case, saying that he and his wife both spoke French, and they wanted to live in Quebec (major brownie points here!). He was told by the immigration officer that there was a quota system in place and that if another applicant failed, then his family would be considered. Soon thereafter it transpired that the other Trung, the single guy, had previously been trained as a pilot by the US Military, so the US authorities promptly said they wanted him to go to the States. This meant of course that the slot was vacated, and seeing as the Canadian paperwork was already in place for a Nguyen-Khac-Trung, Lan Chi and her family were cleared to go to Canada!
They flew to mainland United States via military transport soon thereafter and then proceeded on to Montreal on a Canadian commercial flight. The US flight was free, but Trung was told that he would have to eventually pay for the Canadian flight (no surprises there). They arrived in Montreal with nothing but US $75 (Trung had given $25 to his wife in Guam so she could go to the PX and purchase new clothes for all of them to travel in). The early days in Montreal proved to be tough but they received a great deal of help from Church sponsored groups, and the Government gave them their first month's rent. Trung worked hard at menial jobs - his first was cutting grass.
The rest is history. It is hard to believe that our soft-spoken recent past-president has such an interesting story to tell!
This article was first published in the February 2005 issue of the Capital Communiqué.