Essay: Boat people return to An Bang

AN BANG, Vietnam — As waves lap, beer slops on rickety tables and shrimp go pink over coals, An Bang might be any old Margaritaville. But for those frail open boats on the sand.

At first glance, An Bang village is storybook Asia, shacks and shophouses with incense altars around a market where ripe mangos tumble onto mounds of fragrant herbs. Yet the plot thickens as you explore 500 newly built mausoleums with pagoda roofs and gleaming tiles. They are shrines left by Vietnamese refugees who fled the cruel aftermath of the war in rickety, open boats — just like the ones that still dot the shore.

An Bang, halfway down Vietnam’s endless eastern coast near Hue, is where to direct anyone with simplistic ideas about the American War and its complex skein of aftermaths.

In 1975, North Vietnamese armor rumbled into Saigon unopposed. And in so many places like this, the sorrow of war only deepened. Ho Chi Minh borrowed Thomas Jefferson’s words when Vietnam declared independence from France after World War II. Much was lost in translation.

Victors herded former foes into brutal re-education camps and settled old scores with ruthless vigor.
A million southerners fled Communist deliverance. Some found jungle paths across Cambodia, elders hobbling behind on crutches. Here, they stole away in  boats.

Those who survived weeks or months at sea, fleeing pirates and patrols, near death from starvation and thirst, spent years more in crime-plagued transit camps. Now those refugees are making pilgrimages back. They heap gifts on families left behind, then return to new lives in America, Australia or Europe. If they stay, it is in those tombs.

An Bang is only one slice of life in a complex new Vietnam. In Saigon, now Ho Chi Minh City, and areas where the economy thrums, families have shaped new livelihoods. Still, large numbers across Vietnam are eager to follow families and friends to new homes abroad. Outside of Hue, the old imperial capital, the mood is clear.

“Ninety-nine percent of An Bang people have gone,” one woman told me, as the villagers gathered at dusk for beer and gossip. She nodded her head vigorously for emphasis.

That was obvious hyperbole. Still, as many as half the village’s 2,000 inhabitants might have left, and many are wrestling red tape for exit permits and emigrant visas.

Long Minh Troung fled in 1982 at 12. His mother chose two of her 12 kids to join others in a boat. She was so worried about informers she did not even tell her husband. After three years in refugee hell, he reached Houston, where relatives put him through school. Now Randy Long, he owns nail salons and beauty spas in Corinth, Miss.

Like some others who return, he built a family mansion that towers over the rest of An Bang. A big flat-screen TV works for the few hours a day the village has electricity. Randy hangs out with friends, old and new, splashes off the beach like he did as a boy, wolfs down those fat shrimp with ‘33’ beer. And then he flies home.

Vietnam’s central coast has always kept its distance from the north and south, with ways of life and spiritually that evolved over millennia. U.S. troops hunkered into Hue’s Citadel, which was built only in the 1800s but looks as ancient as the Great Wall of China. They managed to win some hearts and minds

At Lang Co, as in An Bang, you can spot at a glance the houses of families whose relatives have thrived abroad. Nguyen Quoc Bac’s hole-in-the-wall is not one of them. At 35, Nguyen would be happy enough to stay put in Lang Co if he could fish as his family has done for generations. But dredging for cement, along with runoff from industries that feed Vietnam’s phenomenal growth, has wrecked the old fishing grounds. He owes money he can’t repay.

Down the coast at Lang Co, Nguyen Ngoc Tranh hauled me into his darkened den to show off memorabilia from happy if harrowing days when he was James, a laundryman at Khe Sanh. At 57, he looks 70, his mouth shattered by a grenade. He treasures a plastic sack of letters and photos from GIs who remember him and calling cards from American passersby.

Before I left, Nguyen made a solemn pronouncement: “I wish to say good luck to America and may they be wealthy so they can help our families to get a better life.”