Two views of Saigon’s fall

EVERETT – Halfway around the world and 30 years ago, Van Dinh-Kuno and Jeff Kibler were strangers watching a common history unfold before them.

Kibler was a 24-year-old U.S. Embassy worker in Saigon, South Vietnam, standing atop an embassy wall before a sea of desperate Vietnamese looking to escape the city before the impending arrival of communist troops.

Dinh-Kuno was one of the faces in that crowd – a 19-year-old college student who, with her large family, was running for her life.

If would be 10 years before the two would officially meet in Washington state, where both have made careers of helping refugees and immigrants settle into the American way of life.

Three decades after the Vietnam War came to an abrupt end on April 29 and in the early hours of April 30, 1975, feelings about the war remain vivid.

“The fabric of this story has many voices,” Kibler said.

Those voices include American and South Vietnamese soldiers and prisoners of war, families of those who died and more than 2 million Vietnamese refugees who have settled in the United States since 1975 – 250,000 in this state.

“I think you just have to respect (people’s differences). I don’t think there’s a right or wrong,” Kibler said. “This is a significant time to reflect.

“This month is emotional for a lot of Vietnamese people,” Dinh-Kuno said.

Her father was a captain in the South Vietnamese army overseeing an artillery battalion, and worked side-by-side with the U.S. Army for 20 years, she said.

Dinh-Kuno was a second-year college student at a Saigon university, living at home with nine siblings and riding her motorbike to classes. Things got tense in the weeks leading up to the fall of the city to the North Vietnamese army. Her college classes were canceled, and her family hunkered down in their home.

After his unit was overthrown, her father returned to his family. Because he had helped the United States, he would likely have been killed when the North Vietnamese captured the city. They had to go.

The family went to the airport and the U.S. Embass, to no avail. Thousands were already there fighting to catch a plane or get onto the embassy roof, where helicopters picked up refugees and delivered them to U.S. Navy ships out at sea.

The family, including Dinh-Kuno’s grandmother, 75, walked to the nearby harbor. With hundreds of others, they boarded an abandoned Norwegian cargo ship. Though there were no professional sailors on board, the 80-foot boat packed with refugees left the harbor at about 4:30 p.m. on April 29.

They headed for a U.S. aircraft carrier in international waters, where soldiers were dropping nets over the carrier’s side to rescue refugees from smaller, less seaworthy boats.

“They said we were safe enough to make it,” she said.

The boat headed for Taiwan and arrived three days later with its hot, hungry, thirsty and homesick passengers. The Taiwanese government didn’t help them, and instead fired on the ship.

Back at sea, the boat was stalled outside the Gulf of Taiwan when a storm battered them for three straight days.

“At least nobody was thirsty for those three days – we collected the rainwater,” she said.

After the storm, with no land in sight, some people on the boat started to give up hope. Then they heard a helicopter. It circled three times, and threw down a ladder. Three Americans climbed down and assessed the boat. They sent a relief boat a couple of hours later with food, water and directions.

They now had canned food and water, chocolate, crackers, tea and coffee. They would head for Subic Bay in the Philippines.

The first thing she ate was crackers with grape jam – not her favorite.

“But I take it!” she said.

After 11 days at sea, the family landed in the Philippines and was flown to Guam, and then an Army base in Arkansas. Finally, they were resettled in the small town of Brainerd, Minn.

There, Dinh-Kuno and her siblings got jobs and took turns attending school. Her father refused to apply for public assistance, so each child worked to contribute to the family.

She made doughnuts and decorated cakes before getting her shot at college. She attended the University of Michigan and earned a bachelor’s degree in biochemistry and a master’s degree in microbiology.

By 1995, each of her siblings had graduated with at least a four-year degree.

“We lost everything, and we know if we didn’t support each other, we would never survive,” she said.

Later, in Seattle, she met and married an American Chinook helicopter pilot who had been stationed in the same area as her father during the war. Last month, the two returned to Ho Chi Minh City, formerly Saigon, for the first time since the war.

Though her husband wanted to go back and “close the book,” she was reluctant. “I ran away from that city 30 years ago,” she said. “I think I’m very, very lucky.”

She now works as the executive director of the Refugee and Immigrant Forum of Snohomish County.

Since having caught one of the last helicopters out of Saigon from the embassy roof in the early morning hours of April 30, 1975, Kibler works every day to help refugees and immigrants. He’s now the program administrator for the state Department of Social and Health Services Office of Refugee and Immigrant Assistance, an agency also marking its 30th anniversary.

He estimates he’s heard a story a day in the nearly 11,000 days since he left Saigon. “I cheated a couple of days and listened to two,” he said.

He penned some of his thoughts from his days spent atop the wall as the world was watching.

“For several days, it seemed like the world was going 100 miles an hour – and somehow I was going to make a difference. I knew that the events unfolding around me would be etched in history,” he wrote.

“Decades later, Vietnam is not just a country 10,000 miles away … now it is part of the fabric of a nation that over three centuries has been built from many other countries.”

Reporter Jennifer Warnick: 425-339-3429 or jwarnick@heraldnet.com.

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