Stories of survival: 40 years after the fall of Saigon

Forty years ago, on April 30, 1975, South Vietnam lost control of its capital, Saigon, to communist forces of the North. American involvement in the Vietnam War had ended nearly two years prior, and Saigon’s fall led to a time of chaos, fear and suffering for many in the South. Waves of Vietnamese immigrants fled the communist government and settled in the United States, where they have made an impact on the Church in America.

In an era when fewer American Catholics were pursuing vocations to the priesthood and religious life, Vietnamese Catholics brought a renewed fervor to many dioceses and began to fill emptying seminaries and convents. Today, the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate (CARA) reports there are nearly 500,000 Vietnamese Catholics living in the United States.

According to the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, about 500 priests are Vietnamese in the U.S., and about 12 percent of seminarians. In some dioceses, entire ordination classes are Vietnamese. 

‘We started running’

Sulpician Father Hy Nguyen, who is on sabbatical from Assumption Seminary in San Antonio, believes a variety of factors have produced vocations among the Vietnamese, including suffering brought on by more than 20 years of war in their native country, large families and a Vietnamese Catholic culture that encourages vocations. “It is an honor for a Vietnamese Catholic family who has a child who becomes a priest or nun,” he said.

Father H. Nguyen
Father H. Nguyen

Father Nguyen was born in Da Nang in 1960, one of nine children. During his childhood, he saw many war refugees stream into the city to escape the fighting to the north, and he found himself caught in the crossfire. In 1970, his family visited the Marian shrine of Our Lady of Tra Kieu, where they accidently walked into the middle of a firefight. As he hid behind a tree, a bullet struck a branch overhead and sent it crashing down on his head.

“We started running away over dead bodies as people were shooting,” he said. “We had to run 5 kilometers before we were safe.”

After the Americans left Da Nang, the Viet Cong took control of the city on March 29, 1975. South Vietnamese soldiers stripped off their uniforms and fled with the refugees. Father Nguyen’s family waited in the harbor to be evacuated by a ship that never came. “It was chaos,” he said. “There was a lot of shooting, and I heard many explosions of hand grenades; families were using them to commit suicide.”

The 11 years that followed “were the most horrible I’ve ever experienced in my life,” Father Nguyen said. Starvation was a constant threat. Religious freedom was severely limited, and he lived in constant fear. Seven times he faced prison by attempting to escape the country. It wasn’t until 1986, when he bribed Coast Guard officials, that he was able to escape on a small boat with 41 others. “We begged for water and food from the Chinese and Taiwanese fishermen we met,” he said. “It was a miracle none of us died.” A life of hardship combined with a desire to do something meaningful with his life led him to be ordained to the priesthood in the United States in 1997.

‘At night we’d hide’

Sister Rosaline Nguyen, director of the Vietnamese Pastoral Center in Oakland, California, was born in Nha Trang, the ninth of 13 children. She is a Quinhon Missionary Sister of the Holy Cross, and entered the convent at age 13, encouraged by her parents and influenced by a sister who was already in the community. She took first vows in 1964 and served as a principal at a school in Quang Ngai. 

Sister Rosaline
Sister Rosaline

Although much of the fighting at the time was in the countryside, it still affected the school. “The city was shelled during the day, and at night we’d hide from Viet Cong soldiers,” she said.

In 1972, her community sent her to study in San Rafael, California, north of San Francisco. It put her in the right place at the right time to help her people when Saigon fell. “The [Vietnamese refugees] were panicking and didn’t know what to do,” she said. “They were bringing orphans to the Presidio [a former military base] in San Francisco. I was the first one [San Francisco] Archbishop Joseph McGucken called to help.”

According to both Sister Rosaline and Father Nguyen, the first hurdle immigrants must overcome upon their arrival is learning English. “We had to get used to the food, the culture and socializing with Americans,” Father Nguyen said. “But the most difficult thing is learning the language.”

And, once immigrants have lived in the United States for a time, Sister Rosaline said, “their children become Americanized, and older Vietnamese have a hard time connecting with them.”

Americanization of younger Vietnamese can also cool their fervor for the Church, Sister Rosaline said, as they absorb the secularization of their American counterparts. In the past five years, for example, Sister Rosaline has noticed fewer religious vocations among the Vietnamese.

‘I lost my freedom’

Father Joseph Thai Nguyen, director of the Vietnamese Catholic Center in the Diocese of Orange, California, has also noticed that Vietnamese born in the United States are less likely to pursue religious vocations. One-third of the diocese’s clergy are Vietnamese, he said, but most were born in Vietnam.

Father J. Nguyen
Father J. Nguyen

Father Joseph has a similar story of suffering as Father Hy. Born in North Vietnam in 1954, his family fled to the South, and he entered a minor seminary in 1966. The war gave him the “worst memories” of his life. During the 1968 Tet Offensive, the Viet Cong infiltrated his village and fired a rocket at a passing U.S. helicopter. They missed, and the helicopter circled around and returned fire. Father Joseph nearly was killed; five of his neighbors did die.

In 1975, he was in Saigon and witnessed its chaotic fall. He saw firsthand the iconic image of South Vietnamese trying to scale American embassy walls and escape on U.S. helicopters touching down on the embassy roof. He also saw North Vietnamese soldiers enter the city. “They were so young ... 14, 15, 16,” he said.

The next 13 years were a “terrible time” during which he did odd jobs to survive. He was not allowed to continue in the seminary. “I lost my freedom, and I had no money,” he said.

He made a harrowing escape in 1987. He spent a week on an island off Thailand, suffering abuse at the hands of Thai soldiers and eating leaves to fill his empty stomach. After he arrived in the United States, he was ordained by the Archdiocese of Chicago in 1995 and went to Orange in 2005.

40 years later

All three have since returned to Vietnam. Both priests celebrated funeral Masses for their parents, but ordinarily while visiting their home country, they must celebrate Mass in private or concelebrate. Father Hy worships in a pew like a layman. “You need government permission to celebrate Mass, which means I’d have to bribe someone,” he said. “I won’t do that.”

Despite the challenges of adjusting to American life, many Vietnamese Catholics are integrating well and consider the United States their home. “This is my land,” Father Hy said. “I’ve been here 29 years — longer than I was in Vietnam.”

He appreciates the freedoms and opportunities America has given him. “I earned a doctorate,” he said. “I teach in a seminary. If I’d stayed in Vietnam, I’d probably still be riding a tricycle.”

Father Joseph Thai added, “When I got out of Vietnam, I raised my hands in the air and said, ‘Thank you, God, I am free again.’”

Jim Graves writes from California.

Vietnamese in the U.S.
1.5 million immigrants from Vietnam live in the United States, according to the most recent census data — the fifth largest foreign-born community in the U.S.