For some, the recent fall of Kabul, Afghanistan sparked memories of scenes documented 46 years ago when Saigon, the capital of U.S.-backed South Vietnam, fell under the communist regime of North Vietnam. .
The optics show many similarities, including the last days of chaos for those desperately trying to escape regime change. The United States has been involved in the Vietnam War for 19 years; in Afghanistan it was 20 – both were losing their efforts.
On top of that, a lot was different, including the missions involved and the time periods in which they took place. It took more than two years between the exit of the United States and the Communist victory in Vietnam and only a few weeks in Afghanistan.
In both wars, the majority of Americans grew weary of American involvement.
Someone who knows the Vietnam War all too well is Lan Nguyen. On April 29, 1975, just one day before the “fall” of Saigon, she and her husband were miraculously able to flee the country.
Now 74 years old and living primarily in Virginia, Lan has a connection to this area, specifically Seneca Falls. How she did it initially here is just remarkable.
Originally from North Vietnam, her family moved to South Vietnam in 1954 when she was a child. As the war drew to a close, Lan, then 28, was newly married and living in Saigon with her husband who, as she explains, was attending military medical school. As a result, they were not allowed to leave the country.
But fearing the harshness of a country ruled by the Communists, they decided at the last minute to flee. His neighbor had a plan. On two motorcycles, they stacked seven people and made their way to a waiting ship. All she had were the clothes on her back, less than $ 200 and several ounces of gold which were traditional wedding gifts the couple received.
They passed a barbed wire checkpoint and got on board. The boat waited for nightfall before taking off with all lights off and in silence in order to navigate as best as possible in the dangerous supervised waters of the Viet Cong.
When he arrived in international waters, everyone was transferred to a large barge. It had a capacity of about 600 people, but there were over 2,000 on board. They traveled for two days under the scorching sun without food or water.
As more ships passed, they began to rescue the women and children. Lan decided to stay on the barge so as not to separate from her husband. She remembers being one of the few women to stay.
Her husband began to suffer from the heat and the lack of food. They were eventually transferred to another boat for treatment.
Lan looks back and feels very lucky as she compares her trip to that of many of her compatriots who have tried to set off in small boats on the high seas while facing enemies, especially pirates.
The couple were eventually dropped off in the Philippines and then taken to Guam. From there, they were transferred to a refugee reception center in the United States. They were four or five; they ended up at one in Pennsylvania.
With the help of the Red Cross, they were able to start to feel a little more optimistic. Very soon after, Seneca Falls’ generosity and goodwill kick in.
At the time, George Souhan owned and operated the Seneca Knitting Mill. According to an article in the Buffalo News in 1999, he was quite the guy. He was considered the ideal owner – someone who made money but also had a strong desire to treat his workers well on many levels. If any of his workers needed anything, he was there to help. Workers said he loaned them hundreds of dollars on site for car repairs, funeral expenses or other emergencies. One person commented that he was like a father to everyone.
He passed away in 2004, but it was probably no surprise to anyone that he and his wife sponsored Lan and her husband and raised them in Seneca Falls.
He hired Lan to work at the factory while her husband was studying medicine.
While living in Seneca Falls, Lan became pregnant with their son (and only child).
Although Lan’s husband’s career prompted them to leave Seneca Falls less than a year after arriving, it was the kickstart they needed to kickstart their American Dream. Plus, they were able to make lifelong friends who still stay in touch to this day. Don and Kathy Peters of Waterloo have been close since reaching out to Lan when she first arrived in the area.
Lan then worked for The Voice of America’s Vietnamese service (top inset photo) from 1986 until her retirement in 2012. She has been a host, journalist and, for her last four years, editor.
She has fond memories of Seneca Falls and the beauty of the region. When we spoke on the phone last week, I explained to her that I had been to the old Seneca Knitting Factory for a ceremony that day. She was delighted to learn of her reassignment as the new seat of the National Women’s Hall of Fame.
For Lan, she can only wonder what would have become of her life if she hadn’t risked everything and stayed in her war-torn homeland.
• This weekend’s Times featured an opinion piece written by Ontario County Administrator Chris DeBolt regarding Governor Hochul’s state vaccination mandate for healthcare workers. DeBolt’s piece was signed by nine other county trustees. They are concerned about the unintended consequences of the mandate, namely the loss of jobs. There was no mention of lost LIVES. Rather than bemoaning the loss of jobs, it might be more beneficial to promote the value of get vaccinated. About 95% of people who contract the virus are not vaccinated. Experts agree that stopping job losses requires controlling the virus. This can only be done by getting vaccinated. Is it really wise to have unvaccinated healthcare workers to treat the most vulnerable – the sick and the elderly?