The war between North and South Vietnam a decade later was a boon for the ethnic Chinese merchants because there was a massive infusion of money from the United States. There were occasionally sounds of a sniper firing in Ðà Lat or explosions somewhere near the city, but the war was for the most part a distant happening. The Vietcong (communist guerrillas fighting in the South) were derisively referred to as "rats" due to their evasive tactics. The most notable success of the Vietcong in Ðà Lat was the capture of the local radio station which was retaken two days later. In 1968, during the Vietnamese lunar new year celebration known as Tet, the Vietcong conducted a massive surprise offensive. A gasoline station was hit by some rocket fire, but Tho's greatest concern at the time was over his gravely ill mother. He was concerned that he would not be able to giver her a proper burial if she died during such heavy fighting. She survived for a few more months, but did not live to see the next lunar new year.
In 1975, with the imminent surrender and pullout of the U.S., the civilian leaders of Ðà Lat secretly left the city. When this became known by the local populace a mass exodus to Saigon ensued. The roads were so bloated with people that the Trans felt they could only reach Saigon safely if they went by plane. Tho bribed some officials so that he could take his family to Saigon by plane. Minh-phuong's sister, who served as the Tran family nanny, accompanied Tho and his three boys to Saigon where they stayed with the boy's maternal grandmother while Minh-phuong, who was pregnant - this time about six months along - stayed behind with the family maid to secure the family's belongings from looters.
The movement of the Vietcong closer to Saigon could be measured by the sound of shells pounding the outskirts of the city which turned into a light show at night in a way that seductively obscured their destruction. The sound of American helicopters going to and fro, constantly filled the air as they ferried Americans to transport that would return them home. People began hoarding rice and panicked as rumors spread of what the Communists would do when they arrived. Many left the city for the countryside thinking they would be safer there than in the city. The streets of Saigon became strewn with hastily discarded South Vietnamese military uniforms, equipment, and weapons. Others began picking these items up to sell them a short while later. In early April, Minh-phuong's sister took her nephew to see one of the romantic Taiwanese movies which were popular at the time. The movie was interrupted with sounds of shells exploding outside and occasionally the lights inside the theater would flicker or the movie itself would be stopped only to be restarted again. After the show, the twenty-year old young lady boasted to her siblings about the danger and excitement of her experience. On April 30th, Tho and Minh-phuong's eldest son, Cuong, was eating his lunch when a neighbor told him to take down the South Vietnamese flag and any other symbols of the defeated South Vietnamese government from his household. A few moments later a North Vietnamese soldier came walking down the street. Suddenly the fear of a marauding enemy from the North vanished as Cuong looked upon the soldier who walked down the street in rubber sandals, his pale, malnourished face looking tiredly out from beneath the small-branch covered helmet that crowned his head. The takeover of Saigon was a quiet one with little or no bloodshed, but the new government staged public, summary executions of petty criminals to serve notice that they were instituting law and order. South Vietnamese soldiers were told to surrender themselves to the new communist authorities. Regular soldiers were sent to be re-educated for a few months, but the officers' "re-education" took several years and when they were released they were mentally distressed, malnourished, and treated as pariahs by society.
Ming-phuong came down from Ðà Lat and told her husband that there had been looting that she alone could not have hoped to have stopped, but reassured him that their residence and much of what they owned had been salvaged. A few days later the Tran family returned home.
The Presidential Palace of South Vietnam
The home that the Trans returned to was sometimes only nominally their home. The Trans never truly felt at home in this foreign land. The reasons for this are complex and debated in abstract terms by academics, but can be rather simply understood by the fact that the Cantonese speaking Chinese who had immigrated from China and the Vietnamese people were separated by cultures, historical legacies and the homogeneity of their respective societies before they blended together. The economic prowess of immigrant Chinese in Southeast Asia has set them aside from the host populations both as a result of the envy and disdain that is engendered by such a fact. These differences are perpetuated by the parents as they teach their children in ways that they are sometimes unaware of themselves. And so young Vietnamese children might smear excrement on the door handle of a Chinese business or residence. Sometimes these children would yell after Chinese, "nguoi tau" (boat people) or refer to them as "ba tau (three boat) and tell the Chinese to go back home.
After reaching the age of puberty, Tho's son, Cuong, was attracted to Vietnamese women more than Chinese women. The Chinese women wore Western clothes, but in an extremely conservative fashion that tended to de-sex themselves. Vietnamese women wear "ao dai", which while looking somewhat similar to the traditional, ubiquitous "qi pao" dresses that the Chinese women wore, are distinctly different because they are cut just above the knees and worn with pants, and made of a thinner material more suitable for the tropical climate of Southeast Asia which gives them a more sensual look. If a man looked into a Chinese woman's eyes as she walked past she would invariably look away, but the Vietnamese woman, Cuong noticed, were far less shy and would return his gaze. This combined to give Cuong the impression that Vietnamese women were more flirtatious and less reserved.
A social gap existed between the ethnic Chinese and the Vietnamese. Cuong was only aware of the Chinese viewpoint and repeatedly reminds that whatever divisions that did exist between the two groups, they were subtle divisions that were typically not expressed openly though there were exceptions. Certainly as a means to reinforce their own culture and customs, the ethnic Chinese who were economically better off than the Vietnamese as a group, criticized the native population. The differences in dress and demeanor that distinguished the Vietnamese woman from her Chinese counterpart were used to suggest that the Vietnamese woman was sexually loose, to some degree, uncivilized and somehow inferior to the Chinese woman. While it was not uncommon to see mixed, Vietnamese-Chinese children, they were often stigmatized by ethnic Chinese community. Mixed ethnicity children of Vietnamese and Chinese parents were called la gan, a mild colloquial Cantonese-Vietnamese word meaning "mixed blood", or jap jon, a strong curse word meaning "dirty" and "impure seed of semen" in Cantonese (the spellings here are phonetic). An ethnic Chinese woman who married a Vietnamese man was treated as an outcast. Conversely, it was considered undesirable for an ethnic Chinese man to marry a Vietnamese woman , but acceptable because the difficulties such a man encountered obtaining a Chinese wife were perceived to necessarily leave him with no other choice.
In economic terms, the ethnic Chinese though of the Vietnamese as conspicuous spenders. Cuong recalled hearing Vietnamese villagers being mocked by Chinese merchants behind their back as gullible. Ironically, many ethnic Chinese viewed Vietnamese city dwellers as unscrupulous. Chinese businessmen were easy targets of attacks by the Vietnamese. Two incidents from the time of the war stand out in Cuong's memory. A veteran soldier entered Tran Van Tho's store and handing Tho about a third of a US$100.00 bill, he asked for change. The veteran needn't say anything more and his request was attended to without comment because the soldier was quite openly carrying a hand grenade in the other hand. This soldier later returned to extort more money. On another occasion a handful of veterans walked down the street with a casket which served as a symbol of their losses in the war. They would lay down the casket in front of stores owned by ethnic Chinese, and ask for money. Cuong believes that the veterans were not necessarily singling out Chinese because of antipathy for them, but because they were merchants who had cash on hand and as an immigrant population, had less protection from the local authorities.
Nha Trang, Vietnam