The Heat Discusses the Vietnam War

Author and Professor Viet Thanh Nguyen is interviewed by Anand Naidoo on CCTV America. This show originally aired on April 29, 2015. Watch the full interview below.


It’s been 40 years since the fall of Saigon and the official end of the Vietnam War. But for many Vietnamese, the wounds have yet to heal. The Heat looks back at the U.S. evacuation as well as Vietnam’s recovery and reconciliation.

Here is the transcript of the interview:

Anand Naidoo: The date was April 30th, 1975, when North Vietnamese troops and tanks rolled across the streets of Saigon with president Duong Van Minh surrendering. The fall of Saigon, now named Ho Chi Minh City brought an end to a war that had consumed Vietnam. Nearly 4 million Vietnamese and more than 58,000 Americans were killed in the war. The new government estimated the bombing destroyed 2/3 of the villages in the south, leaving 10 million refugees and more than a million war widows and some 880,000 orphans. Joining us now in Washington D.C. is Jim Laurie. He’s the only American television correspondent to witness the fall of Saigon and currently a senior consultant with CCTV America. With us from Los Angeles is Viet Thanh Nguyen. He was just four years old when his family fled South Vietnam in 1975, and he’s the author of the book The Sympathizer. Thanks to both of you for joining us. Let’s start with Viet in Los Angeles. Viet, great of turmoil when that war ended. Of course the Americans were defeated and they were trying to evacuate people out of Vietnam. They were trying to withdraw from that war. You were four years old, as I just mentioned. You and your family managed to get out of the country. How did that happen, take us through that?

Viet Nguyen: Well, my family was living in a small town in central Vietnam called Buon Ma Thuot, which had the distinction of being the first town overrun in March, when the final invasion began. My mother was there with my brother and myself, and my adopted sister, while my dad was in Saigon on business. When the town was captured she had to make a life and death decision about what to do. She decided to leave with my brother and myself and leave my adopted sister behind to take care of the family property, because she thought the war would just go back and forth as it had in the past. She walked down hill, a 120 miles to the port town of [Nah Trang 00:01:47]. We caught a refugee boat to Saigon, caught up with my father and then a month later had to catch another refugee boat in April when the communist invasion finally reached Saigon.

Anand Naidoo: Jim, you were a correspondent at that time for NBS news, the American network. What was the scene like outside of the US embassy, on the morning of April 30th, 1975?

Jim Laurie: Well the morning of April 30th for me began actually some days before. I had been evacuated from Cambodia with the Khmer Rouge barring down on the Cambodian capital. I went up buy helicopter then. Turning around, coming back into Vietnam vowing not to leave by helicopter the second time. By the 29th of April, that’s when things began to get a little scary in Saigon. First, there was an effort to bring as many Americans with Vietnamese colleagues out of the country by fixed wing aircraft from Tan Son Nhut airport. But, the north Vietnamese and Viet Cong launched an attack on the airport with rocket and artillery, and that plan was scuttled. All of a sudden, everything went to the US embassy in downtown Saigon. Beginning, late in the morning on the 29th, this nearly round the clock operation continued with people leaving by helicopter. By the following morning, I watched at eight o’clock in the morning as the last helicopter left the roof of the American embassy carrying US marines. At that point everything went crazy around the US embassy.

Anand Naidoo: That’s right, we remember the pictures of that mad scramble of people trying to get out of the country. Viet, you got out. What about other members of your family, were they able to get out as well or did you have to leave them behind?

Viet Nguyen: Well most of the people were left behind. As I mentioned, my adopted sister was left behind, I didn’t see her again for another 30 years. My father didn’t see his own family again for 40 years, because the country had been divided in 1954 and my parents have been living in North Vietnam in this small village and they fled along with 800,000 other Catholics who feared Communist prosecution to South Vietnam. Then my mother leaving in 1975 wouldn’t see her own relatives for another 20 years. This is a very common story of Vietnamese families being divided, broken up, people leaving behind all kinds of relatives for decades at a time.

Anand Naidoo: Jim, once there was the realization that the Americans had left, things started to get a little bit ugly in Saigon, outside the US embassy there. Let’s play a clip of your reporting at that time, let’s watch this.

Jim Laurie: The US embassy behind me has been completely looted. The south Vietnamese obviously are angry at the American withdrawal. Many of them have said that they were left out in the evacuation. They were unable to make the helicopters, many of them were American employees. They have had to stay and they will now have to stay and cope with Communism in South Vietnam.

Anand Naidoo: At that point was their resignation that Communism had arrived?

Jim Laurie: Well the first thing was the Vietnamese were very frustrated, angry, they felt the Americans had deserted them, and orgy of looting, as I said, began in the embassy, everything was taken apart. People were desperate to get out and some people came to me, I was obviously very visible as you could see in that clip and perhaps the only non Vietnamese in the crow that morning. People were coming to me asking for help in getting out, showing me their American IDs. It’s also worth noting, there were a lot of rumors going around. I think the American purposely were telling people falsehoods. They were telling them that if they were to fall into North Vietnamese hands their women would be married off to disabled North Vietnamese soldiers, if you wore fingernail polish, your nails pulled out. All kinds of rumors were all over the city, which would precipitate this sort of panic.

Anand Naidoo: You talk about people who came up to you, I guess literally begging you to help them get out of the country. I wanna play another clip of an exchange you’ve had with some South Vietnamese outside the embassy. Let’s take a look at this.

Speaker 4: We don’t wanna stay here.

Jim Laurie: I understand the Americans are gone?

Speaker 5: Yes, I know that, but I must go, just in case.

Jim Laurie: But there’s no way, because all the helicopters are gone.

Speaker 4: Can you help us? I like you.

Jim Laurie: There is no way I can help because we are staying here. We are staying in Saigon.

Anand Naidoo: So you were the bearer of very bad news there for the people trying to get out?

Jim Laurie: It really was heart wrenching. I’d left Cambodia, and also leaving lots of friends behind, as it turned out a much worse situation in Cambodia than Vietnam. But this exodus, which began on the 29th and 30th, was the beginning of 20 years of people leaving Vietnam. In fact, it’s been … More than two million people during that time, left the country for other places around the world.

Anand Naidoo: Viet, you have subsequently returned to Vietnam. What was that experience like for you?

Viet Nguyen: I’ve been back to Vietnam five or six times in the last decade and I think it’s been transformative experience, because like many Vietnamese people who’ve left the country I was afraid of going back, I didn’t know what I was going to find. There were many Vietnamese people who have never returned after leaving Vietnam. What I found was a country that was, beginning in the early 2000s when I returned for the first time, trying to get back on its feet and turning itself into a capitalist society and a country that was marked by all of the excitement and tension that you could imagine from being a poor country trying to turn itself into a rich one. What I also found personally was a difficult emotional situation were many of my relatives were poor and there were tensions between them and myself, which is an indicative of how it is that for many of the Vietnamese people there continues to be tensions between the Vietnamese who stayed behind and the Vietnamese who left.

Anand Naidoo: So is there a feeling, Viet, that the wounds of that war, that lengthy war, have not yet healed?

Viet Nguyen: In some ways, yes. I think many Americans who returned are amazed to discover that the Vietnamese, many of them have forgiven them and want to move on. But that’s not the case in the same way for the Vietnamese who stayed and the Vietnamese who left. Many of the Vietnamese refugees who left were called puppets and traitors by the Communist government and they are associated still with this idea that they weren’t there to participate in the difficult times of rebuilding the country in the decades afterwards. Also, there are many overseas Vietnamese people who continue to be opposed to the Vietnamese Communist party and are trying to maintain political pressure from the outside about questions of religious freedom and human rights, and this of course causes further tension with the government in Vietnam.

Anand Naidoo: Jim, in all those years that you covered Vietnam, what stands out in your mind?

Jim Laurie: Well, in the particular period where I stayed behind, what was so extraordinary at first was the normalcy that quickly returned to Saigon, we were quite surprised by that. And yet, there was this gradual tightening by the Communist authorities, which again, encouraged more and more refugees to leave. Then you had the phenomenon of the reeducation camps where many of the backers of the old South Vietnam government, the Americans, were put into incarceration for anywhere between five and 17 years, and some never made it out. But for me, I’ve been back to Vietnam many times, I started to go back in 1979, my most recent visit was in December of this year, so I watched it progress from a very fearful society to a much more open society today. They began to change in the Communist party at least, the reforms began roughly in 1988, so we’ve seen that progress.

Jim Laurie: To one of the points that Viet was drawing on, there is a contradiction. My wife is from Vietnam and she has been going back since 1985. On the one hand Viet is absolutely correct, there is this suspicion between the people that believed in [Haiphong 00:10:03], or liberation, and those that considered April 30th a day of shame, those people who were on the losing side. And yet, the Viet Kieu, the overseas Vietnamese have been heavily invested in the economy and have built, in many respects, the Vietnamese economy, which we see today.

Anand Naidoo: This is a bit of a personal question I want to ask you. Your wife is Vietnamese, how did you met?

Jim Laurie: Well the irony is, while I was in Saigon, in those final days, she was getting on a boat, just down the street on the Saigon river, on the 30th of April, and going out to the South China sea on a South Vietnamese naval boat and picked up by the US Navy off the coast. She was among the first wave as Viet was, of the refugees leaving the country. We met many years later in Los Angeles because she became a NGO worker helping other Vietnamese refugees.

Anand Naidoo: So you didn’t know each other in Vietnam?

Jim Laurie: Didn’t know in Vietnam, met in Los Angeles many years later.

Anand Naidoo: Viet, we mentioned your book, The Sympathizer. It’s received a lot of praise, it’s received great reviews for telling the story in the voice of the Vietnamese people. How critical is that to you, that the Vietnamese people story had to be told?

Viet Nguyen: Well I think it was really critical, because when I was growing up as an American in the 1980s, I was absorbing enormous numbers of American stories about the Vietnam war through political reportage, president speeches, novels, historical accounts and films. Most of those were overwhelmingly about the American experience, even though for me, as a Vietnamese refugee, it was clear that this was a war that was as much about Vietnamese, if not more so, than about the Americans. And yet the stories that I was hearing from my family and from other members of the Vietnamese community weren’t being heard by Americans. It’s just so important for Vietnamese Americans, overseas Vietnamese people to be able to tell these kinds of stories. I’m far from the first, I’m far from the one who’s telling the only Vietnamese story, because as our conversation has been making clear, there’s more than one single Vietnamese experience.

Anand Naidoo: Yeah, I wanted to just quote to you one review which was in the New York Times, it was a review done by Philip Caputo, and he wrote, “This tragicomic novel reaches beyond its historical context to illuminate more universal themes, the internal misconception and misunderstanding between East and West and the moral dilemma faced by people forced to choose not between right and wrong, but right and right.” What was your goal in writing the novel?

Viet Nguyen: Well, when I looked at the war what I saw was that the tragedy involved how people of all sides really believed in what they were doing. Each side had a legitimate political belief that they were on the right side. This is what leads to tragedy, when both sides believe that they are doing the right thing. In the novel, my protagonist is someone who’s able to see the situation from both sides, that’s why he is sympathetic, that’s why he’s a sympathizer. It’s his great insight into the human condition that lets him see why people do what they do, but it’s also going to be his great downfall, because in the end wars are driven by people who believe in only one thing and it’s easier for people to believe in only one thing.

Anand Naidoo: Jim, and going back to your reporting in Vietnam, when the war ended, did you ever at any stage, you decided you were gonna stay behind? Everybody was trying to get out, but you decided, with your crew I would image, to stay?

Jim Laurie: My cameraman was a man named Neil Davis.

Anand Naidoo: Right.

Jim Laurie: Who was 15 years older than I, was a real mentor to me, he knew his way around the war, he had been in Vietnam since 1963, so I had a certain level of confidence in him. The next 24 days that we were together, it were at times scary. We went down to the central market where the North Vietnamese troops were burning books, so called [bourgeois 00:13:57] books. They didn’t like us filming the book burning, so they lowered their AK-47s and marched us back to our hotel. A few tense moments, but overall it was a learning experience, but not a dangerous experience.

Anand Naidoo: How long did you stay after Vietnam had fallen to them?

Jim Laurie: I stayed 24 days, left on the 25th day. Neil Davis, my cameraman, stayed for three months.

Anand Naidoo: Viet, how do you see Vietnam unfolding now? Its development, its economic development? You mentioned that it’s tuned into a capitalist society, we know that it’s doing very well, it’s seen good growth rate. What do you see coming up?

Viet Nguyen: Well, it is growing really fast and that is boon in some ways to the economy and to the people who benefit from it, but it’s also starting to see a lot of problems, including the vast gap of inequality between the people who have money and the people who don’t. Ironically, even though it’s run by a Communist party, it’s often times the Communist party cadres and government officials who are the one benefiting from this economic inequality. I think Vietnam has a lot of issues to work out in terms of how to address economic inequality, how to address the problem of political freedoms and how to address the question of religious freedom, which is one of the most divisive issues in Vietnam today.

Anand Naidoo: Right.

Viet Nguyen: Then finally, of course, it’s China. What to do about China’s expansion into the South China sea. The Vietnamese people are very tense about that, because hey have a deep nationalist sentiment that puts them against China.

Anand Naidoo: Right-

Viet Nguyen: But the Vietnamese Communist party is aligned with that.

Anand Naidoo: Okay, we’re gonna have to end with that. Viet Thanh Nguyen joining us from Los Angeles. Jim Laurie with me here in the studio. Thanks to both of you for being with us.

Category: Interviews


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