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Essay: Boat people return to An Bang

Some overseas Vietnamese visit home to spread wealth, others return for final resting place.

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.”