Cycling Back To His Heritage

The Vietnam War haunts not only those Americans who fought in it - or resisted - but even the Vietnamese who came to the United States because of it and became American citizens.

Andrew X. Pham was 9 years old when Saigon fell. He and his family became boat people, fled the country and finally ended up in the United States.

Now Pham has written a book, Catfish and Mandala: A Two-Wheeled Voyage Through the Landscape and Memory of Vietnam, about his first voyage back to his homeland after 20 years in the United States - a bicycle trip through the landscape and memory of Vietnam. CBS News Sunday Morning Correspondent Martha Teichner spoke to him about his odyssey, both geographical and intellectual.

"We feel as though we're...living another life, and a lot of us want to reconnect with that other life simply just so that we can go on," he says.

In 1967, the year Pham was born, the United States had nearly half a million troops in Vietnam. That year 9,000 Americans died there. By the time U.S. forces pulled out, the body count would top 58,000. More than 58,000 U.S. soldiers were dead before the end came on April 30, 1975, and Saigon was left in chaos.

As the Americans pulled out and the communists moved in, Pham's family joined the stampede fleeing Saigon. And so began for them one of those death-defying escape-to-America sagas we shudder even to think about.

They became boat people, like thousands of other Vietnamese who risked their lives on rafts and rickety boats, going anywhere, away.

Pham's father had been an official in the old government, so he was a marked man. They had to leave but were luckier than many. They were picked up by an Indonesian freighter and taken to a refugee camp.

"We spent the next 18 months in Jakarta, Indonesia," Pham recalls.

In Shreveport, Pham's father worked as a janitor. But a year later, he moved his family to San Jose, Calif., where they were among the first Vietnamese living on Locke Drive, just down the street from the city dump.

"I remember it was a problem for me walking up and down this street...with my brothers or friends, and we'd get into fights with Mexican-Americans and blacks and some whites," he recalls.

But theirs was the typical American immigrant story: Move up, move out, go to school, succeed.

Except for Pham's older sister, Chi: She ran away, became a transsexual and in 1994, killed herself. It was her death that led to his trip back to Vietnam.

Andrew Pham spent four months exploring the country of his birth by bicycle.

His first guides were his relatives - people like Dith, the chemical engineer, and Huan, the photographer and "a famous playboy,"
by one account, and Khuong, the academic, ad even a grandaunt.

"People generally can spot a foreign Vietnamese, what they call viet kieu," he says. "It's the mannerisms, the way that we walk, the way that we talk, the way that we eat our food."

In the new Vietnam, he learned, viet kieu are regarded with jealousy, pity, scorn, even hatred. They were nationalists who got out - traitors.

At first, Pham was shocked and repulsed by the poverty, even the people. He kept a diary as he traveled, intending to write a straightforward travel book, recounting for example, his adventures on a crazy two-day bus trip that he thinks must have been like crossing the Wild West by stagecoach.

As the Vietnamese countryside goes by outside, on the bus extortionist cops shake down passengers. And then there are the gangster patent-medicine salesmen, who will slash tires or your face if you don't buy their miracle cure.

The more of Vietnam he saw the more Pham realized why he was there.

"It was as though I finally accepted who I am," he says. "Throughout the trip, I had plenty of time to think about it - eight,10 hours a day sometimes, weeks, months by myself. And part of this reconciliation is a healing that I felt I needed...to make public, to make that available for others."

He also encountered his Uncle Tu, a one-legged cyclist, who lost his wife, his child and his leg in the fighting of the Vietnam War.

"He talked about his experience as a Vietnamese soldier for the north army, and how he did not hate American soldiers," says Pham. "I asked him, 'Why is it that you feel so much peace? And these people, these Americans who were in the same war, feel so much turmoil?' And he said, 'Well, you know, this is my homeland. I was fighting for my home.'"

Traveling the United States on his book tour has allowed Pham to gauge how powerful is the need still for Americans to find that same peace.

Time has helped Pham make peace with his past. Recently he was invited back to his old high school in San Jose, Calif. It was the first time he had visited since graduation. He returned a celebrity, a role model for the Vietnamese who go there now - the Vietnamese-American kids.

On his way back from Vietnam, Pham finally came to understand that America was truly his home. On the plane, he gave his window seat to an old Vietnamese man, immigrating to the United States.

Looking out, the man asked, "Is this America?"

Pham's answer: "Yes, brother. Welcome home."

He explains, "I just wanted him to understand that this isn't heaven he's coming to, although it might seem like heaven. And I wanted to be the first one that welcomed him."

And was that the first time that he acknowledged that the United States is his home?

"In some ways, yes, I was looking for home," he reflects. "I didn't know it then. But I guess I was looking for home, home as a place and home as an identity as ell."

And did he find it?

"I believe...I believe so."

  • CBSNews.com staff CBSNews.com staff

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