I left Old Saigon in October 1971 after spending a total of five years in South Vietnam, first as a soldier, then a teacher and later, a correspondent for the Far Eastern Economic Review.
Two years later, in 1973, I came to San Jose where I went to work as a reporter for the San Jose Mercury. There were only a handful of Vietnamese students and expatriates in the Valley at the time. I thought I had left Vietnam behind forever. But Vietnam was about to follow me to San Jose.
Two years after I arrived in San Jose, old Saigon died. It passed into history soon after the North Vietnamese conquest of the south on April 30, 1975 when the communists renamed Saigon Ho Chi Minh City.
Little did I know that in the years to follow a New Saigon would grow all around me. It started even in the days before the fall of Saigon. In the weeks before the communist conquest, Ed Daly and World Airways of Oakland was ferrying food from Saigon to Cambodia.
When it became clear that South Vietnam was falling and people were fleeing the communist advance, Daly ordered his two 727 jets back into Vietnam and up to Danang to begin his dramatic rescue of people there. In San Jose I watched much of this on television. The images of the panic on the Danang airfield and the pictures of bodies hanging from the 727 are seared into my memory.
I began to write stories about the reaction of the small group of Vietnamese here. Most were horrified.
One, Dr. Nguyen Ton Hoan, a former vice premier and owner of one of three Vietnamese restaurants in the Bay Area, urged American leaders to prepare for an onslaught of new Americans – the leaders of South Vietnam and their families and others who had sided with the U.S. and who faced peril in the aftermath of a communist victory.
Within days, shocked and weary Vietnamese started to arrive here aboard Daly’s 727s when they flew into Oakland. First, it was babies from Vietnam. I was sent to cover their arrival and I noticed that there were many Vietnamese adults among the babies. Most of the new arrivals were taken to America’s first Vietnamese refugee camp – – the Los Gatos Christian Church. There I discovered and reported that among the 154 newcomers were some of the leaders of South Vietnam, among them former economics minister Nguyen Kim Ngoc and former assemblyman Ngo Trong Hieu.
In the confusing, heart-wrenching days and months to follow, hundreds of thousands of Vietnamese fled by ship, by helicopter and by aircraft, anyway they could. Forty-one American warships and other ships from around the world helped rescue the fleeing Vietnamese. In all, I think, more than a million Vietnamese made their escapes safely.
It has been said that only about half of the Vietnamese who fled into the South China Sea survived. The surviving Vietnamese scattered all over Asia, Europe and the United States. President Ford’s plan was to take many of the Vietnamese and spread them evenly all over America so that they would not overtax social services. I remember our then-congressman Norm Mineta telling me that he expected at least half of these new Americas to eventually end up in California. It was a place they would like, he said, because of its pleasant weather and a custom of welcoming newcomers.
One of the first Vietnamese pioneers to find her way to San Jose was Nguyen thi Hoa, onetime owner of a Saigon shopping center. She was part of the vanguard of business people, government and military leaders, doctors, lawyers, writers and others who had made old Vietnam function. They became the pioneers of New Saigon. I first met Hoa at her restaurant at 13th and Empire. It was called Rico Taco. There she cooked hamburgers, tacos and fries. One day she heard some of her customers speaking Vietnamese. “Come back this evening,’’ she told them. “I will cook you a Vietnamese meal.” Rico Taco became San Jose’s first Vietnamese restaurant.
Hoa had arrived in San Jose in 1976.Under Ford’s plan she and her family first were sent to Grand Forks, N.D. Now I’ve got nothing against North Dakota. But it’s not a place you send people from the tropics. One winter there was all she could stand. She quit her job as a maid, packed her children into an old green Pontiac and, she told me, “I went looking for the Promised Land.’’ A month later, after wandering through Kansas, Mississippi, Florida, Texas, Arizona and points in between, she found the promised land.
It was called San Jose. The weather was perfect and its old downtown district was depressed and had an abandoned look with many unused storefronts. Rent was cheap and it became a magnet for Vietnamese all over America.
By the time I met Hoa, she owned 14 businesses, a dozen of them on East Santa Clara Street. “The city was dead when I came here, ’’ she told me in 1987. “Now it is coming back to life.’’ Multiply the story of Nguyen thi Hoa by thousands and you have the story of San Jose’s New Saigon. Just recently the New York Times reported the success of the famed Lee Family of San Jose, whose sandwich shops are now found on both coasts of the U.S. The family’s patriarch, Le Van Ba, started the business in San Jose in a catering truck. He, too, was one of San Jose’s Vietnamese pioneers. Word spread quickly in the late 1970s of the opportunities in San Jose, and Vietnamese flowed into the area. Today, one in 10 residents of San Jose is of Vietnamese origin.
While Southern California is home to more Vietnamese, San Jose has the largest population of Vietnamese of any city outside of Vietnam. The Vietnamese impact in San Jose can be seen everywhere – they have helped turn mediocre schools into excellent ones, they have rejuvenated the old downtown San Jose and have moved eastward buying up land and building new shopping centers.
The 2003 Vietnamese telephone book for this area is two inches thick. In here are the listings for 417 Vietnamese physicians, 457 attorneys and 556 Vietnamese restaurants. In this book are listings for 58 Vietnamese tailors, 19 magazines and 10 newspapers, including five dailies. In all, there are more than 5,000 Vietnamese-owned businesses in Santa Clara County. The three most common names of homeowners in Santa Clara County are Nguyen, Tran and Le – all Vietnamese.
Old Saigon may be gone. But a new one has risen. Many Vietnamese tragically lost everything, even their homeland.
But in the tradition of America, people from other lands brought not only their families, customs and cuisine but familiar names of the old country – New Hampshire, New England, New Jersey, New York, New Orleans and New Mexico.
The Vietnamese lost their old homes but they have gained a new one here. They breathed new life into downtown San Jose and are rapidly building a new, vibrant economy on the city’s East Side.
The Vietnamese have helped make San Jose what it is today – a New Saigon