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Vietnamese Vets Still Fighters Forty Years After Fall of Saigon

Editor's note: This story by reporter Renata Sago won second place in the cultural/historical feature category of the Florida Associated Press Broadcasters 2016 radio and TV contest held April 9, 2016 in Orlando.

Tuan Tran and his friend Cang Nguyen last saw Vietnam from the window of an airplane 20 years ago.

Images from the war linger in their memories, and their feelings for home are stronger—so much so that just before having a meal at a Vietnamese restaurant in West Orlando, they’re taking a break to sing their national anthem.

Some clients pause between sipping tea and slurping pho to smile.

Tuan Tran has the loudest singing voice. The 75-year-old retired a few years ago. These days, he teaches Vietnamese at a community center and drives a car with a customized license plate that reads “SAIGON.”

Tran was in college studying to be an engineer when he was drafted to fight against the Viet Cong.

“One day, I got the letter saying I had to go, and they put me in a training center and then sent me out to the unit. In the war country, when we grow up, we have to do what everybody has to do.”

At 28 years old, he joined thousands of other young men in a clash of ideals that would split families, destroy businesses, and claim lives.

It was 1968.

And for him, it was worth the fight.

"The reason I really, really wanted to fight for my country, because the communists from the north, they come to the south to control my country, to steal my country so we had to defend,” he says.

Tran became a captain in the military intelligence unit where he worked with American troops breaking codes over radios.

“Not easy,” he laughs. "A lot of things we can break. A lot of things we can break. We are from the field. We have to send to Saigon. If Saigon cannot help me, I believe they send to Washington, D.C.”

For the first time in his life, Tran was working with Americans and for him, their help was a saving grace.

“One of our presidents said we fight with our hands cuffed. We fight, but our hands under cuffs. No weapons. No support.”

The U.S. government trained Vietnamese to gather intelligence to sustain themselves even when American troops started to withdraw.

Sounds like these from raw footage captured from the war have replayed in Cang Nguyen’s head ever since he left Vietnam.

He’s 75, like Tran, and they share enough stories to make you think they’re brothers. But they actually met in Orlando. Tran translates for Nguyen, who speaks little English.

Nguyen was a major in the battalion air force. He’s short and confident, and wears a maroon military beret with the South Vietnamese army symbol stitched into it.

Nguyen joined the army in 1960, when he was 20 years old. He went to the prestigious Vuhh Bi Koot Yuh, the West Point of Vietnam—for three years. Then he joined the special force infantry unit, then the airborne unit where he parachuted into North Vietnam to spy on the Viet Cong.

But he was captured and served more than 10 years in what they called “re-education camps.”

“Lie. No reeducation because we worked hard in camps,” he adds.

Nguyen worked hard in the camps. They were actually prisons for political opponents of the Viet Cong. Nguyen and thousands of soldiers and high-ranking military officials with allegiances to the South Vietnamese army were sent there.

“In country, they use the buffalo to work in the rice field, but in jail, they used the people like him," Tran says.

Nguyen and other prisoners were forced to dig holes in concrete to plant trees and try to make them grow; to repeat communist slogans; and to spend years without seeing family.

“Whatever they taught you, they wanted you to repeat that again, again, and again even when you are weak in your system,” Tran translates.

Nguyen spent months handcuffed. And he remembers burying prisoners every night for five years straight. He had to bury them in piles so that their families could never find them.

“Each day, they gave you only a half-liter, they need the water, when some of the friends had a chance to go out for some reason, they tried to tell each other, please…try to drink as many if you can, so when you can come back so you can pee and we can drink. They had to survive for one day they can rebuild the country. That’s how they survived.”

Nguyen survived by leaning on his faith.

Toward the end of the war, the Viet Cong began releasing prisoners five and 10 at a time. Nguyen waited and waited, but was one of the last prisoners the Viet Cong released. After 10 years visiting there, a journalist finally asked commanders about Nguyen, who was wounded.

“Why you don’t release him? Because his leg is broke," he remembers the journalist asking.  “And they guy says, his leg broke, but his mind not broke.”

After a decade in the prison camps, it took six more years before the U.S. government rescued him.

Nguyen fled Vietnam in 1992, joining others like Tran-patriots who had to protect themselves.

“We have the proverb—even the telephone pole has legs. They walk, too. Nobody can stay in the communist country.”

Before the war had ended, over 100,000 Vietnamese had escaped to other countries, including the U.S.

“We have to leave the country because we cannot live in the country. They don’t give us a job, so how can you survive?”

Nguyen and Tran haven’t been back to Vietnam. They’re raising their families here and sharing their stories whenever they can. Tran works every Sunday at the Buddhist temple teaching Vietnamese to young people.

“We have one hour to make them understand why they are here and what your parents did before for you to have a life like this right here in this country,” Tran says.

Nguyen and Tran don’t know when they’ll go back home.

“When I come back to Vietnam with there are no more Communists,” Nguyen says. “We love our country, we love bad, but we cannot go,” Tran weeps.

When they see images from back home on the Internet, they’re reminded of the fight they lost. They’re concerned about human rights there—freedom of speech and religion.

Remembering their journey is bittersweet.

But miles away from Vietnam, they have each other.

“The Vietnam army system, we are still very strong, even right now we are still brother and sister,” Tran smiles.