September 25, 2004
LETTER FROM LITTLE SAIGON
For Many Who Were Born There, Vietnam Fatigue
By JOHN M. BRODER
ESTMINSTER, Calif., Sept. 21 - Nearly 30 years after the fall of Saigon, the specter of Vietnam hangs over an American presidential campaign.
No day passes without a reminder of what parts George W. Bush and John F. Kerry played, or did not play, in that conflict. On and on, the supposed lessons of Vietnam are rehashed on talk shows and in newspaper commentary to criticize or defend the conduct of the war in Iraq.
But here among the bustling shops and cafes of Little Saigon there is pained weariness over a war that scarred the lives of nearly all of the refugees from Vietnam who settled in this corner of Orange County after the war. And while many express anger over Mr. Kerry's antiwar activities in the early 1970's, there is little desire to reopen the wounds of those long-ago battles.
"There is a sense of Vietnam fatigue 30 years after the fact," said Van Tran, 39, a lawyer whose family fled to the United States in 1975, when he was 10. "We've been there, we've seen everything, and we've all sacrificed.''
"But here we are 30 years later, and we have two candidates for the highest office talking about what they did in Vietnam or what the other guy didn't do,'' said Mr. Tran, a member of the Garden Grove City Council and a Republican candidate for the State Assembly. "So there's a sense of unreality to all of this.''
Little Saigon straddles the cities of Westminster and Garden Grove, between them the home of 70,000 Vietnamese-Americans. An estimated 200,000 ethnic Vietnamese live in Orange County, the largest concentration outside Vietnam. Little Saigon is their social and commercial hub, a thriving center that sprang up in an area once covered by strawberry fields and derelict warehouses.
One can drive for a dozen blocks along Bolsa and Westminster Avenues and not see a single storefront sign in English. The shops are full of Vietnamese foods and toys and videos and clothing. Vietnamese music blares from open shops, and the fast-food cafes emit the sweet and spicy aromas of Vietnamese cooking, redolent of lemon grass and simmered pork and nut-dough pastries.
Conversation tends to focus on commerce and the capitalist paradise these refugees from Communism have found here. But it is not difficult to coax opinions about the presidential campaign from those who have stopped for a cup of French iced coffee or a plate of sticky rice.
Nguyen Chau, 55, who came to the United States in 1995, said he preferred President Bush to Senator Kerry, in large measure because of Mr. Kerry's antiwar activities after he returned from Vietnam. Mr. Chau, who was an officer in the South Vietnamese Army, said he served at the same time Lieutenant Kerry was in the country, but his fate afterward was different.
"I know he came back against the war, he didn't like the war," Mr. Chau said. "I heard and read the newspaper that he gave back his medals, that he was like Jane Fonda. I think he didn't know very much about the Communists."
Mr. Chau spent six years in a Vietnamese labor camp, and then 14 years trying to emigrate to the United States. As a former prisoner, he qualified for a special visa program approved under the first President Bush.
He said he approved of the war in Iraq and hoped only that the United States would stay to finish the job of wiping out the insurgents.
"They're doing the same thing to the Americans in Iraq that the Communists did in Vietnam," Mr. Chau said. "They should stay there until it's better. The United States should have stayed longer in Vietnam."
Orange County tends to be safe country for Republicans, although by smaller margins than in the past because of changing demographics. The Vietnamese-American population, like the Cuban exile community in Miami, is fiercely anti-Communist and predominantly, though not unanimously, Republican. Earlier this year, the Garden Grove and Westminster City Councils passed ordinances declaring the communities "Communist-free zones," to discourage visits by officials from the Socialist Republic of Vietnam. In 1999, a shop owner touched off weeks of protests that had to be quelled by the police when he placed a photo of Ho Chi Minh in his window.
Mr. Kerry's outspoken opposition to the Vietnam War won him few friends here. Mr. Chau is not the only one to speak of him in the same breath as Jane Fonda and Tom Hayden, whom some consider traitors to America and enemies of the Vietnamese people. Others claim Mr. Kerry was duped into believing that the Vietcong were peace-loving rice farmers.
"I think a lot of people here are affected by what Mr. Kerry did after he returned from the war," said Toan Do, editor of Nguoi Viet Daily News, the largest Vietnamese-language daily newspaper in the country. "There is a certain resentment about his antiwar activities because the Vietnamese feel they are victims of the Communist invasion, and the Americans didn't see it that way, especially the protesters."
Still, Mr. Do said, most Vietnamese in the United States would rather not relive that era, even as politicians try to keep it alive with the Swift Boat advertisements and the flap over Mr. Bush's service in the Air National Guard.
"The Vietnamese are not really interested in this discussion," Mr. Do said. "They want to look forward and not look back into the past."
There are Kerry supporters among Vietnamese-Americans, those who see him as a brave patriot and vastly preferable to Mr. Bush.
"John Kerry is a hero to me," said Thuy Reed, 52, who married an American contractor and fled Vietnam in January 1975, three months before the fall of Saigon. She is a writer and founder of New Viet Women, a support group for Vietnamese women in the United States.
"By acting and behaving the way John Kerry did, it shows a person like me that he has faith in the American way, to come back here and say what he said," Ms. Reed said. "Where I came from, they would take me away if I did anything like that. So when I heard about Jane Fonda or when John Kerry came home, it showed me what America was."
She said she intended to vote for Mr. Kerry, in part because he was among the leaders in Congress who pushed for restoration of diplomatic relations with Vietnam, which came in 1995. She also fears that the United States is embarked on a dangerous course in Iraq and believes Mr. Kerry will change it.
The war in Iraq is also on the mind of Karen Tang, 51, an ethnic Chinese who fled her native Vietnam in 1978. She now tends a food shop in the Asian Village Mall on Bolsa Avenue called New Jerky Manufacturing, selling fruits and candy and all manner of dried meat and fish - spicy octopus, sailfish, baby squid and eel.
Mrs. Tang said she believed that the grinding insurgency in Iraq would sooner or later require a reinstatement of the military draft. She said Iraq and Vietnam are similar because they are, simply, wars. "When you go to war, people die," she said.
"Bush put the soldiers there, but it's not easy to take them out, even if Kerry is elected," Mrs. Tang said. "They'll be there a long time."
Copyright 2004 The New York Times Company