In 2010, three decades after we survived a harrowing boat escape from Vietnam, I broke the news to my father: I would be moving back there with his three grandchildren.
He took a step toward me, unblinking.
“You know they are my enemy, right?” he asked. “You know we risked our lives to flee Vietnam and now you are taking my grandchildren back there?”
I had seen my father angry before, but I hadn’t seen hurt in his eyes.
Like many Vietnamese Americans, my father was critical of the communist government that seized control of our homeland in 1975. He had served in the opposing Republic of Vietnam’s Air Force as a mechanic. But growing up in southern California just miles from the “Little Saigon” community of immigrants in the 1980s, politics was never dinner conversation.
My decision to return to my birthplace pushed my father to confront memories he’d buried since we fled in 1979.
K. Oanh Ha, front left, and her sister Kieu Dung Ha, back right, pose for a photograph with family friends as their brother Tom Vu Ha, left, and father Minh Phu Ha, right, look on in the background during their last day at the Pulau Bidong refugee camp in Malaysia, in September, 1980. Source: Courtesy of Oanh Ha.
Our generational clash isn’t unusual. Plenty of younger Vietnamese-Americans seek to re-connect with the motherland and make sense of their hyphenated lives, straddling two cultures that are sometimes incongruous.
As a reporter, I wanted to bring the story of a modern Vietnam to an international audience -- and older Vietnamese like my father.
Many Westerners, particularly in the U.S., still view Vietnam through the lens of war and aren’t aware of its vibrant population that embraces all things American. It’s also home to an entrepreneurial, fast-growing and globally-integrated economy.
That’s sometimes tough to grasp for my dad’s generation, still carrying wounds from the war years.
My parents and grandparents saw such a bleak future under communist rule for our family that they risked our lives to leave. Unlike many other boats that sank, we had an experienced sailor at the helm -- my grandfather. My dad and his brothers retrofitted a river boat. We registered with local authorities and paid two taels of gold (about $2,900 at today’s prices) each for supposed permission to leave.
Three dozen of my relatives and 300 other passengers crammed onto a boat, the MH2899, designed for a third of that number. The overloading was caused by corrupt officials who placed extra passengers on board and delayed the departure as a storm brewed.
I was six at the time and what I do remember still evokes fear. Black waves crashed over the deck and soaked cowering passengers, who chanted and prayed to gods and ancestors.
After the storms, Thai pirates attacked four times. I watched in silence as a middle-aged man wept after the pirates seized a secret compartment lined with gold. Concealed diamonds and gems oozed out of toothpaste tubes.
During another attack, a woman dropped gold jewelry into my aluminum can of porridge. “Just skim the top,” she told me, as a machete-wielding pirate stormed the cabin.
Years later as a college student, I recounted the memory. My mom laughed. “That was me!” she said. It was her wedding jewelry. When we reached the refugee camp on Malaysia’s Bidong island, she traded her wedding necklace for the tarp-and-wood hut we lived in for a year.
Between 1975 and 1995, almost 800,000 Vietnamese boat refugees sought asylum in other countries, according to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. Countless others died at sea.
We ended up in Orange County, home to the largest population of offshore Vietnamese. My parents struggled to assimilate, delivering newspapers and sewing garments before operating a family business.
We rarely talked about the war or the journey to America. My mom said it was too painful. It wasn’t until I was an adult that I found out about her half-sister, Nguyen Thi Giac, a teacher who left her family to join the Viet Cong guerrillas in the jungle as her brother fought for the South Vietnamese army. Giac was captured by the South Vietnamese during the war and gave birth to a son in prison.
In the U.S., we achieved the classic immigrant dream. I became the first college graduate in our clan. My brother, Vu, served as a Marine officer in Iraq. My sister, Louise, briefly starred in a reality TV show -- it doesn’t get more American than that.
There was sadness and longing as the adults spoke about the homeland. As I grew older, I understood the irony my parents came to see.
“I do have to thank the communists,” my dad said recently. “If it weren’t for them, we wouldn’t have left Vietnam and you children wouldn’t have the opportunities and success you now enjoy. We gained everything by leaving.”
The first time I returned to Vietnam in 1994, a mixture of guilt and gratitude gripped me. In the faces of young girls hawking postcards and the street vendors who walked from dawn to dusk, I saw mine. Only luck separated us. Ever since that trip, I felt Vietnam calling.
My dad visited us in Hanoi two years ago. It had been more than 20 years since he’d gone to visit extended family. He chatted to taxi drivers and vendors about their lives and circumstances. He’s come to accept this new Vietnam, he said.
“People live more freely and comfortably than in 1992 when I saw people in the markets wearing tattered clothing,” he said. “I’m happy for the people of Vietnam. There’s no more animosity on my part.”