Memories of flight from Vietnam fresh after 40 years of freedom

Van Dinh-Kuno remembers the panic. She remembers the rush to flee Saigon on April 29, 1975, the day before the city was captured by the communists of North Vietnam.

With South Vietnam’s surrender — 40 years ago Thursday — the long, long war would end.

Dinh-Kuno’s father was a military officer on the losing side. Her family had to get out. The Mukilteo woman remembers their horrible voyage, and months as refugees at Fort Chaffee, Arkansas. Except for their lives, all was lost. Here, though, they built new lives.

“Losing our country was a curse and a blessing,” said Dinh-Kuno, 59, longtime executive director of Refugee and Immigrant Services Northwest, an agency based at Everett Community College.

“I was 19 years old. In 20 minutes, every single thing was lost — the place you wanted to grow up, my father’s means of making a living, and my education, up in smoke. We set out for the unknown,” she said Monday.

Marie Tran, an Edmonds Community College business management instructor, was 9 when her family fled South Vietnam days before Saigon fell. Her father had a role in South Vietnam’s government, which put him in danger. It was April 24, 1975, when Tran’s large family was flown out of Saigon on a C-130 U.S. military cargo plane.

Tran’s family also was sheltered at Fort Chaffee before finding a home in Oklahoma. Today, she is co-founder of a nonprofit that helps children in six Vinh Son Orphanages in Vietnam’s central highlands. She started the organization, Children of VSO Inc., with her sister, who lives in Idaho.

“Knowing you’re kind of the lucky one, and were able to make it out and have a better future, we try to do everything we can to give back,” said Tran, 49. She makes annual trips to the orphanages to teach English.

Dinh-Kuno, whose 85-year-old father, Dinh Quang Hoi, lives in Mountlake Terrace, gives back in a different way. She has devoted her career to the refugee agency, formerly the Snohomish County Refugee and Immigrant Forum, which helps newcomers navigate their new lives.

“I am close to retirement after 30 years,” said Dinh-Kuno, who figures she has helped as many as 10,000 people adjust to the United States. They have come from Ukraine, Poland, Romania, Iran, Iraq, Sudan, Somalia, Afghanistan, Syria and other places, each with a unique story.

Even after 40 years, Dinh-Kuno’s memories of her harrowing journey are fresh.

Her father’s initial plan was to escape through Cambodia, but a key bridge had been destroyed. She remembers him telling his family that he wouldn’t surrender, but would take his life. “He had a .45 caliber handgun,” she said. “We knew the communists were closing in.”

On the afternoon they left, her mother could see from the upper floor of their home that crowds were heading to Saigon’s harbor. They took just 20 minutes to pack, wearing layers of clothes but taking no luggage except backpacks filled with food and water.

The U.S. military guarded a harbor gate. her father’s ID allowed entry. Her grandmother was nearly left behind in the crush of people. Dinh-Kuno, her parents, grandmother and 10 siblings made the trip. An older married sibling lived elsewhere in Vietnam.

With about 1,000 other refugees, they packed onto a Norwegian cargo ship with a Vietnamese man at the helm. Her father hoped they would be picked up in international waters. But a U.S. aircraft carrier, which had lowered nets so refugees could climb aboard, only took people from much smaller boats.

“I had to thank God our boat was so much bigger compared to others,” she said. “Some of the elderly couldn’t climb the nets. We’re watching this whole event unfold in front of us.”

Their next hope was Taiwan. As they approached the island nation, Dinh-Kuno recalled, a ship was sent out to tell them that if they tried to land they would be shot. And the Taiwanese meant it, she said.

They weathered a terrifying storm, using the rainwater for drinking. By day eight, with fuel and water almost gone, they were approached by a helicopter. The U.S. military dropped canned food, sent a ship to provide fuel, and helped chart their course to the Philippines. After 11 days at sea, they arrived at the U.S. Navy base at Subic Bay. There, Dinh-Kuno got a baloney sandwich, a Dr. Pepper and a shower.

Families with U.S. connections were flown by cargo plane to Guam, where in 1975 more than 100,000 Vietnamese refugees were housed in tents. She remembers being immunized and getting immigration documents there.

Her family spent May to September 1975 at Fort Chaffee. “We celebrated our first Fourth of July in the camp,” she said. Volunteers brought clothing and taught English.

At last, her family was sponsored by a Lutheran church in Brainerd, Minnesota, where they had to adjust to sub-freezing weather. Dinh-Kuno, a University of Minnesota graduate, is proud that her siblings and three children have all earned degrees. She moved with some of her family to the Everett area after an older brother became a Boeing engineer.

Here, she met her future husband. David Kuno, a U.S. Army veteran who served as a helicopter pilot in Vietnam in 1968. They have been back to Vietnam twice, in 2003 and 2005.

Dinh-Kuno said her father has always urged his children to work hard and appreciate their new country.

“My dad will tell you, America was the only country in the world that had arms open,” Dinh-Kuno said.

Julie Muhsltein: 425-339-3460; jmuhlstein@heraldnet.com.

Talk to us

More in Local News

Superior Court Judge Eric Lucas is retiring at end of year, after -- years on the bench. The former Mariner High School student was its first ASB president, went to Harvard Law School, and as an undergrad majored in creative writing. Photographed at Snohomish County Courthouse on Tuesday, Dec. 8, 2020 in Everett, Washington.  (Andy Bronson / The Herald)
Judge Eric Lucas, who broke barriers on bench, dies at 67

Lucas was the first Black judge elected to Snohomish County Superior Court.

Work related to improvements at the intersection of Highways 9 and 204 will close a road and reduce lanes in Lake Stevens through Oct. 1. (Washington State Department of Transportation)
Road disruptions starting around Highway 9 in Lake Stevens

Lane reductions and closures are part of the work to improve the intersection at Highways 9 and 204.

Police: Mill Creek man, 63, accidentally shot by son

Detectives believe the dad was mistaken as an intruder. The injuries are not life threatening.

In 2023, the Department of Transportation will widen a two-mile stretch of Highway 531 from 43rd Avenue NE to 67th Avenue NE. (WSDOT)
Smokey Point road improvements won’t be done before industrial center

Amazon, NorthPoint are coming but the state will not begin widening Highway 531 until 2023.

Mary Johnson (Davis) (FBI)
FBI offers $10,000 reward for info on missing Tulalip woman

Mary Johnson, then 39, was supposed to get a ride from Fire Trail Road to a house near Oso on Nov. 25.

Bufeng Gao, owner of Qin Xi'an Noodles, receives a check from the Edmonds Chamber Foundation's Wish Fund outside of her restaurant that was burned in a fire on Thursday, Sept. 16, 2021 in Edmonds, Wa. (Olivia Vanni / The Herald)
After arson burns Edmonds plaza, 14 businesses need help

Plum Tree Plaza — a cultural hub for Asian Americans — burned in a three-alarm fire early Sept. 11.

Rebecca Haskins (Everett Police Department) 20210913
Missing Everett teenager located

Rebecca Haskins had last been seen the morning of Sept. 4. Police reported her found Wednesday.

Sultan police looking for tips after rash of car prowls

On Sunday, the department responded to 20 reports at Sportsman Park and trailheads near Gold Bar.

Construction continues at the site of the former Kmart for 400 apartments. and is slated for completion in 2023. Photo on September 14, 2021. (Kevin Clark / The Herald)
Coming soon to Everett, 430 apartments at former Kmart site

DevCo, Inc. is building six-story apartments “for the workforce” on Evergreen Way, near Boeing Freeway.

Most Read