Vietnam is in the midst of a four-day holiday. Their jubilant festivities mark the reunification of North and South Vietnam. However, the scene is very different in Boston’s Vietnamese community. Here, the "Fall of Saigon" is a day of collective mourning.
Dorchester Avenue is jammed with traffic and lined with bodegas. On the sidewalk, Khang Nguyen leads a team of Vietnamese Americans as they prop up ladders to hang flags of South Vietnam: solid yellow with three red stripes.
They mark the day — April 30th — their country ceased to exist.
“That day changed millions and millions of people’s lives — that includes me,” says Nguyen.
For Nguyen, the day is seared in his memory. He was 7 and living in rural Vietnam.
“I heard it on the radio,” he recalls. “My mother was scared.”
What Nguyen learned on the radio 42 years ago — in 1975 — was that tanks of Vietnam’s Communist North had rolled into the capital of South Vietnam ending a decades-long war.
In iconic footage, Americans and their allies escaped in helicopters from the roof of the US Embassy. Many South Vietnamese took to the sea and began a long journey away from their homeland. Nguyen’s father was among them.
Some of Nguyen’s relatives in Vietnam were sent to prisons called Re-education Camps, where torture was common. And Nguyen was forced to do manual labor at school.
He says he has “a lot of bad memories” of being harassed and bullied.
At age 13, he fled alone on a boat and — after several years in a prison in Thailand — arrived in Massachusetts. Here, he reunited with his father and became part of the growing Vietnamese community.
Now, Nguyen spearheads the effort to remember the day he lost his country and — along with many of his countrymen — started looking for a new one.
“I see a gap between the old generation, my generation and my son’s generation," Nguyen says. "The old generation — they suffered too much.” He wants to make sure the younger generation understands this history, so he insists on having college students born in the United States help hang the flags.
Nguyen also helped organized a memorial service where over a hundred of people — young and old — remember together. They sing the national anthem of their fallen country, while hoisting their flag at Boston’s City Hall and laying flowers at the Dorchester Vietnam Veterans Memorial.
Nguyen and his community call this event Black April. But not everyone in the Boston area remembers it by that name.
“We called it: The Day to Celebrate The Victory Against America,” says Minh Trinh.
Trinh is a graduate student at MIT. He grew up in Vietnam, and three of his grandparents were part of the North’s victorious military. As a kid, he marked the holiday by watching military parades and nationalist movies on TV. Red flags with gold stars flew everywhere.
“It’s a huge holiday,” Trinh says. “In some ways it almost feels like Thanksgiving or Christmas.”
Yet in the U.S., Vietnamese students studying abroad often celebrate quietly so as not upset the local community, says Trinh.
But Trinh no longer celebrates the day. He says he’s come to understand the atrocities committed during the war and that his life’s privileges have come at the expense of others.
“A lot of what I have had today is born on the blood and suffering of the people of the south,” he says.
Trinh would like to see the day gain a new meaning: “I think it’s about time that the people back at home realize the need to reconciliate [sic].”
As those in Vietnam celebrate and the Vietnamese in Boston mourn the past, Minh Trinh says that reconciliation is the work of his generation and future generations of Vietnamese.