Everyone Has a Story

No one is here in Saigon by accident. Everyone has a story, and the most interesting question you can ask when you meet someone new is “How did you end up here?” Some of them came because they work for multinational companies and wanted to work in a more exotic part of the world. Some of us came to work for international organizations that are helping to rebuild the country’s infrastructure and help the most disadvantaged people. Others have come back to the country they or their family left for political or survival reasons. Families left because they worked for Americans during the war and faced a future in re-education camps or on collective farms after the war. Some left because conditions were so hard and poverty so epidemic that it was better to chance it at sea in a rickety boat than stay in the family home. Some came as part of a travel adventure and decided to stay. Some have come back to see where they fought or where their family once lived. Some are just passing through. Everyone has a story.

Last week I met three new people – The first was John Riordan. My friend Brett Krause is the CEO of Citibank in Vietnam. I had lunch with Brett on Thursday and he told me that the man who shut down the Citi office and evacuated the employees as Saigon was falling to the NVA in 1975 was in town. After lunch he called and asked if I would like to meet him. He was looking for a good bowl of French onion soup and we agreed to meet at a local French cafe. For the next hour John recounted this harrowing story about the fall of Saigon, the mixed messages coming out of the Embassy, the coded telexes coming from NY, the midnight taxi rides and clandestine meetings, burning documents in a window well outside the bank’s second floor office and the eventual evacuation of 105 of the bank’s employees and their families aboard a chartered Pan Am jet. I can’t do the story justice, but it is another example of an ordinary person who accomplished a heroic service under enormous pressure and gave a new life to his friends and employees. Many of the evacuees ended up in New Jersey working for Citbank in New York City.

The second person I met is Au Quang Hien. Hien was one of 10 brothers, the son’s of a prosperous family in South Vietnam. At the end of the war, Hien’s family home was confiscated and the family sent to a government farm/camp in Binh Duong. There was no food and 12 mouths to feed. He told us the story of sharing one egg with his 9 brothers. After some time they escaped the camp, and the 12 of them walked to the Delta village where his mother’s family was located. They wanted to leave the country and eventually they received permission from the government to leave for Hong Kong because of a family member’s connection there. From Hong Kong the family went to the UK where Hien and his brothers grew up and went to school. Hien revisited Vietnam sometime in the ’90s and after a few years of working for a business in the UK he returned to Vietnam. He’s now the GM of a multinational insurance company, married to a Vietnamese woman and has two beautiful children who are bilingual. He’s made a life here and I’m sure he’ll stay. The other brothers are also successful and scattered around the world – the Vietnamese diaspora.

I don’t know the name of the third person. I met him because my friend, Marie Brandby, needed my help to reach him. Marie is a freelance journalist who is doing a stint as the Communications Director of Semester at Sea. The ship stopped here for 4 days over the weekend, and Marie wanted to pursue a lead she had on a story. She had a name and phone number but needed a translator. My friend and office manager, Nga, agreed to help and the call was made. I’ll tell you the story when I get it from Marie, but the story is about a young boy and his sister. The boy is now 41 years old, his sister a year or two younger. They are survivors of the My Lai massacre. Yes there were some survivors and they remind us that these unfathomable atrocities are fresh enough to meet face to face. I actually looked them in the eye and shook their hands. The sister came to the interview with her 16 year old daughter who wants to be a flight attendant. Everyone has a story, but the stories you hear in Saigon can rip your heart out. A My Lai survivor with a flight attendant daughter. The Great Mandala – the wheel of life.


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