Thao-Nguyen Le hasn’t been able to stop thinking about Afghanistan.
For Le, whose father was imprisoned by the communist government of Vietnam after the US pulled out of Saigon in 1975, the images of Afghans trying to escape the country are triggering. People have been seen clinging to a military cargo plane, scaling walls topped with barbed wire, and crowding the airport tarmac. Watching the news at her home in Paris has made Le feel despair, grief, and anger while also bringing up painful memories of her childhood in postwar Vietnam.
Born in 1983 in Dalat, a tourist destination about 190 miles northeast of Ho Chi Minh City (formerly Saigon), Le grew up in poverty, begging relatives for money and relying on neighbors for oil to cook the family’s food. After being labeled a traitor for fighting alongside the Americans during the war, her father struggled to find work. In addition to his imprisonment after Saigon fell, he was captured a second time after Le’s birth when he tried to escape Vietnam by boat. Now, as she follows the news out of Afghanistan, Le worries about the fates of those who may be left behind like her family was 46 years ago.
“I think about my family, about what they’ve been through ... and I think that what’s going to happen in Afghanistan [is] going to be so much, even worse than what I can imagine,” Le told BuzzFeed News. “I mean, the worst thing is that they are killed, but I think being shunned from society, being abused by the people who come into power, I don’t know if that’s a lot better.”
In the days since the Taliban seized Kabul, President Joe Biden and his administration have defended their handling of the withdrawal of American troops as they move to end 20 years of war, dismissing comparisons to the fall of Saigon in 1975. But for Vietnamese refugees and their families, the chaos and potential ramifications of this moment feel disturbingly familiar.
“For me, seeing images of when Saigon fell and then that was just so eerily similar,” said Cammie P., who grew up in British Columbia after her parents fled Vietnam in the 1980s. “It’s just that desperation and seeing people just doing whatever they could to leave because their home is basically done.”
As North Vietnamese forces closed in on Saigon during the final days of the Vietnam War in late April 1975, the US evacuated thousands of American and Vietnamese civilians by helicopter, with tense scenes captured in news coverage watched all over the world. Tens of thousands of other Vietnamese people went on to flee by boat and other aircraft. Over the next two decades, hundreds of thousands more left the country to escape the economic crisis brought on by the war and the ensuing communist rule, seeking refuge in the US and elsewhere. In their desperation, some died at sea.
Hang Nguyen Mac’s father, Sam, had deserted the North Vietnamese Army in the early 1950s and knew that if he was captured by communist forces, he would likely be sent to a prison camp or killed. So when Mac’s family got word that the Viet Cong were coming to Saigon, they quickly made plans to leave. On April 30, 1975, when the city fell to the North Vietnamese, the family of six and more than a dozen of their extended family members boarded a ship out of the country.
Mac, now 60 and living in Southern California, spoke with BuzzFeed News about the images from Kabul showing Afghans “packed like canned tuna” inside a US military plane to escape.
“That’s how we were on the ship,” said Mac, who was 14 at the time.
Mac recalled that she was put in charge of making sure that her 7-year-old sister and two nieces, ages 3 and 4, made it out of the city. As crowds surrounded the ship, she grabbed onto her sister and nieces’ wrists and jumped aboard. They carried only the clothes on their backs with gold sewn into their pants to use as barter for safe passage to the US.
As she walked through the Saigon streets with her parents in the final days before they fled, the smell of gunpowder lingered in the hot air. Children were screaming, and people hurried around the city with frantic looks on their faces.
Mac said that at the time she was scared, but when she saw the chaos at the Kabul airport this week, she thought that she had been lucky.
“Yes, we were fearful, but we were not in danger. They are,” she said. “I'm scared for them.”
After taking control of Kabul, Taliban leaders have pledged to respect women’s rights and forgive those who fought them, but Afghans have already been met with violence. Many doubt that the regime will renounce its notoriously repressive ways. More than 20,000 Afghans who helped the US military, as well as tens of thousands of their family members, qualified for Special Immigrant Visas to the US but remained stuck in a processing backlog as of this year. With the Taliban taking over, many civilians fear they could face retribution or death. Evacuation flights out of Kabul are ongoing, but only for people whose documents are in order — and who can reach the airport.
“The desperation, it’s much more serious, and it’s of course especially for the women and the young girls and the children,” Mac said.
The fall of Afghanistan happened much quicker than US officials anticipated, but Vietnamese Americans who felt that the US similarly abandoned their families decades ago said that was not a good-enough excuse for not doing more to evacuate their allies sooner.
“We didn’t learn the lesson in Vietnam,” said Sonny Phan, who was studying at the University of Kansas in April 1975 and lost communication with his family after the fall of Saigon. “I don’t think anybody sat down and prepared an evacuation plan at all.”
Phan finally got word just before Christmas in 1975 that his parents, brothers, and sisters were alive. They had decided not to escape Vietnam out of fear that they could get separated at sea. Years later, Phan, now 69, learned of how they struggled to find food and sold the Levi's jeans he sent them from America in order to survive.
“It was a very rough life,” Phan said, but they persevered.
Le, whose family ultimately immigrated to the US in 1993 through a program for prison camp detainees, said despite building a better life in the States, her father still hasn’t recovered psychologically from his experiences after the Americans left Saigon.
When they first learned about the program that allowed them to move, he didn’t believe it was real. When he was offered promotions in his job as an assembly line worker in Seattle, he thought his bosses were trying to trick him into doing more work. When Le’s mother tried to convince him they should buy a house, he worried that it would get taken away.
“He never got over being abandoned,” Le said.
In a Twitter thread about her family’s experience and her worries for Afghans, Le wrote that while she identifies as a Vietnamese American, she has to carry "the dichotomy that America is both [her] savior and [her] aggressor."
"Without being able to come to America, I don’t think I’d be where I am right now," said Le, who now works for a New York–based tech company. “Maybe I would be like a prostitute somewhere in Vietnam or I would be somewhere on the streets and in poverty. I don’t think I would have been able to be where I am right now.”
But at the same time, she wonders whether her family would have been forced to leave their country had the US not gotten involved in the war.
“I don’t know what would have happened,” she said.
Now Vietnamese refugees hope that the US and other countries will take in as many Afghans as possible and give them opportunities to start over.
“They need the same things that my family did when we came over here,” said Thuy Kim, who immigrated to Alabama at age 2 in 1991. “Of course the circumstances are a little different. It’s a different war, it’s a different time, but I think the most binding commonality is just they are humans too, and they need our support as humans above all else.” ●