Memories of family’s flight from Vietnam in 1975 remain vivid for Edmonds Community College instructor

Marie Tran was 9 years old in 1975.

She remembers the beautiful coastline near her home in Nha Trang. She lived with her parents, five brothers and four sisters about 180 miles north of Saigon, now Ho Chi Minh City.

That spring of ‘75, fighting had intensified between the communist Viet Cong of North Vietnam and the South Vietnamese army. She’d grown up in a country at war, but Marie had been sheltered from conflict — until March 30, 1975.

That day, her father, Hao D. Tran, who had a role in the government of the south, sent his family to an island off the coast from Nha Trang.

“We left just two hours before our city was taken over,” the 44-year-old Tran said Friday in her office at Edmonds Community College. “It was the only time I remember hearing gunfire. From the island, we could see flames. It was very quick.”

Tran’s father later disguised himself to escape, and was helped by one of his teenage sons to swim from another island to where his family was.

Within days, they would all be swept up by history.

After two rainy nights on the island, they headed out to sea on a 24-foot boat, and later joined other refugees on a larger boat. Tran recalls lying down in the vessel, which was packed with people “like canned sardines.” The weather was awful, and she was seasick on the trip south to the port of Vung Tau, a gathering place for refugees fleeing their war-torn homeland.

The Tran family made it to Saigon by bus. And with the help of her father’s connections, they were flown out of Vietnam with other refugees on a C-130 U.S. military cargo plane. They left about 2 a.m. on April 24, 1975. On April 30, the North Vietnamese captured Saigon.

“We consider it the day we lost our country,” said Tran, now a business management instructor at EdCC.

The end of the Vietnam War brought communist rule to a reunified Vietnam. For the Tran family, who made stops at Clark Air Base in the Philippines and Wake Island, war’s end meant 73 days at Fort Chaffee, Ark., a relocation center for Vietnamese refugees. They were there from May to July 1975, before the Catholic Diocese of Tulsa, Okla., sponsored them and found them a home.

Tran’s parents still live in the three-bedroom house in Tulsa where they finished raising 10 children. Her father worked as a janitor and her mother as a seamstress. All 10 children earned college degrees.

On Saturday, Tran will discuss her Vietnam experiences at 11 a.m. at the Mukilteo Library. Her talk is as part of The Big Read, a program sponsored by the Sno-Isle Regional Library System and the Everett Public Library. It centers on “The Things They Carried,” a book of Vietnam War stories by Army veteran Tim O’Brien.

Tran’s past is only part of the talk she calls “Vietnam: A Personal Journey.” In 2008, for the first time since she left, Tran returned to her birthplace with the PeaceTrees Vietnam organization. The nonprofit group was founded in 1995 by the family of Daniel Cheney, a helicopter pilot killed in Vietnam in 1969.

It was meeting Jerilyn Brusseau, Cheney’s sister and a co-founder of PeaceTrees Vietnam, that spurred Tran to get involved. Brusseau, who now lives on Bainbridge Island, is a former Edmonds restaurateur. Since its start, the group has removed land mines, planted trees, built schools and libraries, and provided homes to people affected by the war.

Tran has been back several times. She’ll go again in June on a Vietnam Peace and Justice Tour, an effort of PeaceTrees and the United Nations Association of Greater Seattle.

On some trips, she’s been joined by American veterans who fought in the Vietnam War.

“When you go to Vietnam now, 70 percent of the population was born after the war,” she said. “Things have changed, but the veterans do remember. Some get there and remember the exact spot where they were.”

Some of those veterans have apologized to Tran for the way it all ended.

“I have the highest respect for veterans of any war,” she said. “They were just doing their job.”

Julie Muhlstein: 425-339-3460, muhlstein@heraldnet.com.

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