Watch Flight From Saigon: 40 Years Later - Thursday, April 30 at 7:00 p.m. on KPIX 5
SAN JOSE (KPIX 5) -- 40 years after the Fall of Saigon and the end of the Vietnam War, the Bay Area's Vietnamese community of today looks nothing like the first wave of refugees who first arrived here.
From the 70s to the 90s, thousands of so-called boat people undertook a mass migration to the Golden State, drawn by its mild weather and high-skilled tech jobs that required little English.
San Jose is now home to 160,000 Vietnamese, the largest population of any single city outside of Vietnam.
They have worked their way up the corporate ladder, across a wide range of professional careers, in law, business, and politics.
San Jose boasts multiple Vietnamese-language radio and TV stations along with numerous publications.
In 2005, Madison Nguyen became the first Vietnamese councilmember in San Jose, and In Northern California. This year, voters did it again and elected Tam Nguyen.
Vietnamese businesses in Little Saigon have exploded in numbers and in revenue.
Operating niche businesses like banh mi restaurants, fishing supply stores, and even one that specializes in shipping baby formula to Vietnam (018_2200).
"Customers don't trust the baby formula over there, because they fear it might be counterfeit," said business owner Dung Tran. "So we buy it from Walmart or Costco here, and ship it overseas."
At Café Paloma, a popular hangout at Grand Century mall, elders proudly wear old camouflage uniforms and reminisce about the old days.
"Today you fight one cause, tomorrow you fight for another cause," said resident Hung Nguyen. "If we cannot sit down and work together, then we cannot go back home to Vietnam."
At a Vietnamese flag raising ceremony at City Hall, former military officers hold out hope the current government will be overthrown.
Why are they still angry after 40 years? "Because in Vietnam, no freedom. No freedom. That's why we angry," was the response.
San Jose State professor Hien Duc Do points out that after 40 years, many Vietnamese have now spent the majority of their lives in the U.S. … and that now may be time to shed the label of "refugee."
"In all of the things that we do, make us more Americans in many ways than Vietnamese refugees," said Do. "And as such … it's really important for us to no longer think of ourselves simply as refugees … as being provided these opportunities, but now really claiming our space, claiming our voice, claiming our rights, claiming all those things that historically immigrants have done."
They've carved out different paths, some with more success than others.
Xung Nam came to the U.S.10 years ago and spends his days collecting bottles and cans on the streets of San Jose.
But Dr. Vu Nguyen, who came in his mid-20s, studied and worked hard and now owns a pharmaceutical research company.
"I met some people, they try to learn the new language, but it's still so difficult for them," said Dr. Nguyen. "They try to get into it. You know, some people can get through it, some people not … I am lucky one."
Lucky or not, they all share the common thread of leaving behind their home and identity. Thu Hien Tran is one of the tens of thousands of Vietnamese to settle in the Bay Area and was recently sworn in as a U.S. citizen.
She says she's thrilled to be here. Would she go back? "No. No. I don't want. I never … I don't like my country."
Vietnamese have a special name for April 30th: "Ngay Mat Nuoc" - The day we lost our country.
40 years later, welcome home.
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