ABC13 shares stories of Vietnamese refugees who made all-or-nothing escape and rebuilt their lives

Rosie Nguyen Image
Wednesday, June 1, 2022
Stories of resilience in Houston's Vietnamese community
The arrival of Vietnamese refugees in the U.S. could be broken into three major waves. Here, ABC13's Rosie Nguyen breaks it all down and why this should matter to all of us.

HOUSTON, Texas (KTRK) -- The Greater Houston area is home to the second-largest Vietnamese population in the country, with approximately 143,000 people, according to 2019 numbers from the Pew Research Center. But their history is one of resilience, filled with stories about refugees who made an all-or-nothing escape from their fallen homeland and rebuilt their lives in a new country with nothing but the clothes on their backs.

April 30, 1975 was the date that changed the fate for millions of people, caught in the crossfire of the Vietnam War. What would later be known as the Fall of Saigon marked the defeat of South Vietnam's government to the Viet Cong and the beginning of a communist regime.

Hoang Nguyen, who was an officer for the South Vietnamese Army at the time, recalls the moment he made the life-or-death decision to flee the country, leaving everything he knew and loved behind. He was born in Hue, the central part of Vietnam and grew up in a family of eight.

"It was chaotic and scary. A lot of killings. We could never imagine that we would see what felt like the end of the world. It's a day that I can never forget," said Nguyen. "Everybody feared dying, because the communists would kill anybody they captured. We didn't know where we were going or what our future was. We just wanted to get out of the country."

The arrival of Vietnamese refugees in the U.S. could be broken into three major waves. The first wave consisted of mostly middle-class people who left the country shortly before the Fall of Saigon, a number of which had the financial means or connections to the South Vietnamese Army to leave early.

The second wave consisted more of working-class individuals, known as "boat people" who came to the United States under the Refugee Act of 1980. Not everyone who attempted the harrowing escape lived to tell their story. Experts estimate thousands of people died at sea, victims of pirates or overcrowding on makeshift boats.

Others who decided to stay or couldn't leave spent years in re-education camps, many who were dehumanized and tortured by the Viet Cong. Those who survived were lucky enough to make it to refugee camps in surrounding countries and eventually resettled throughout the world.

The third wave arrived beginning in 1990, consisting mostly of Vietnamese detainees, political prisoners, and Amerasians (people who have one American and one Asian parent).

Dr. Roy Vu, a Houston native who teaches history at Dallas College, says the assimilation process came with its own set of challenges, something he witnessed as a child of refugee parents.

"Being part of the exodus is traumatic itself. They experienced fear, starvation, hunger, and desperation. You have the trauma of war, refuge, resettlement, and racialization. Many refugees suffered from PTSD from witnessing the murder and rape of their people " he said. "Now they had to fit into a new country, learn to speak a language they've never heard of, and start all over."

The heavy influx of Vietnamese refugees seeking political freedom in the U.S. created concern for President Gerald Ford's administration, leading them to set up camps at military bases in Pennsylvania, Arkansas, California, and Florida. The arrivals were eventually dispersed throughout the country, but many of them would make a secondary migration on their own.

"The U.S. government was trying to actively disperse them throughout 48 states in the continuous U.S. That was done by design to make sure that one city would not be overburdened or overwhelmed by a large number of Vietnamese refugees," said Dr. Vu. "That plan did not work. It divided families and as a result, they found a way to get back together and live in one concentrated area."

In this piece, ABC13's Rosie Nguyen looks at the rich history and resilience of Houston's Vietnamese community as regufees made an all-or-nothing escape for a better life.

Dr. Vu explains what partly made Southern Texas appealing to the Vietnamese was the booming economy, affordable cost of living, the similar climate to their native country, and proximity to the ocean. By 1985, there were approximately 2,000 Vietnamese living between Corpus Christi and Galveston Bay.

"A lot of them were fishermen and fisherwomen back in Vietnam and so they wanted to live along the coastline, whether it be the Gulf Coast of Mexico or the Pacific Ocean, so they could resume their fishing traditions or occupations," said Dr. Vu.

Their newfound success in the fishing and shrimping industry garnered fear as an economic threat from native white fisherman, only further complicated by the language barrier. Several Vietnamese-owned boats were damaged by arson and a feud between the two communities resulted in a fatal shooting. The unwelcome competition came to a boiling point with clashes involving the Ku Klux Klan during the 1980s.

"The KKK followed the news and caught wind of the conflicts along the Texas Gulf Coast. They exploited the cultural gap and miscommunication. They started making wild accusations about refugees illegally fishing and shrimping, intimidating the Vietnamese people in these small towns, brandishing weapons, making death threats and of course, burning crosses," said Dr. Vu.

For other refugees, many picked up jobs in professions unfamiliar to them, desperate to do whatever it took to keep their family afloat. It's a struggle Nguyen knows all too well, remembering how he had to rebuild his life in Houston at age 23 with his wife and children. He is one of the first groups out of 800,000 people who migrated to the United States between 1975 and 2013, according to the Migration Policy Institute.

"The hardest part was learning the language and finding a way to make a living. My wife and I had to work 10 hours a day, 365 days a year to make ends meet. We still had to go to school and learn English," said Nguyen.

He remembers the early years of resettlement, when you couldn't find Vietnamese food or supplies anywhere. But that changed rather quickly. Vietnamese businesses began popping up near the George R. Brown Convention Center and was nicknamed, "Vinatown."

By the end of the 1980s, it moved to Milam Street in Midtown and was known as "Vietnamtown." Eventually, the rising property taxes and gentrification of the area prompted these businesses to head Southwest to the Alief area. Now, if you take a drive down Bellaire Boulevard west of Beltway 8, you'll find "Little Saigon" -- a thriving and bustling enclave of Vietnamese businesses.

Clusters of Vietnamese residential areas that formed shortly after the war can still be seen throughout the Southwest, Northwest, and Southeast part of town -- such as St. Joseph Village, Saigon Village, Thai Xuan Village, Hue Village, Thanh Tam Village, Da Lat Village, and St. Mary Village.

"These spaces provide comfort, solace, peace, and a reconnection with their home itself," said Dr. Vu.

In media and politics -- Vietnamese Americans can be found represented in nearly every corner of Texas. Houston's Christine Ha won the third season of MasterChef with Gordon Ramsey. Rep. Hubert Vo represents the 149th district in the Texas House of Representatives. Chau Nguyen spent 15 years in TV news and retired as a morning news anchor in 2007, before pursuing her new passion with the Houston Area Women's Center,

Vietnamese is now the third most-spoken language in the State of Texas, behind English and Spanish. Dr. Vu says the Vietnamese American presence in Houston will only continue to grow and he predicts that one day, elements of Vietnamese identity -- such as pho and Banh Mi will become mainstream staples of American culture.

Nguyen and his wife successfully raised their two children, who are now a pharmacist and physician. They've retired to the Sugar Land and are proud grandparents to three grandchildren. He says he plans to stay in this area for the rest of his life, the city that became his new home away from home.

"I travel a lot around the world and around the United States, but I still think Houston is the best place to live. I'm proud to be a Houstonian. I love this city," he said.

For stories on Houston's diverse communities, follow Rosie Nguyen on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.