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Marin's Vietnamese-Americans remember, mourn fall of Saigon

The American narrative of the Vietnam War largely focuses on heavy military casualties and the communists' victory in a war that many U.S. citizens didn't understand.

For many Vietnamese-Americans living in Marin County, Calif., and around the world, the war signifies an end to their way of life.

Marin's Vietnamese-American community recognized the day Saigon fell -- as well as those who fought and died trying to preserve South Vietnam's democracy -- during a ceremony Sunday at San Rafael's Lagoon Park.

"Living overseas, we can't change things there (in Vietnam)," said Novato resident Vinh Luu, a Vietnam native and one of the event's coordinators. "But in doing this, we show our support for the people of Vietnam. We are videoing this so we can show them what we are doing, that we support them, and to give them hope."

Luu, who is program director for the Marin Asian Advocacy Project, served as an interpreter for the U.S. Army during the Vietnam War.

He said the annual ceremony acted as much as a way to remember the past as to call for improving human rights in Vietnam.

Sunday's ceremony also served to thank U.S. military members who helped South Vietnam fight against its Northern adversaries.

"They're allies," Luu said. "They came to help fight for our democracy."

Several U.S. veterans attended the ceremony, including retired U.S. Army Capt. Frank Cambria.

"I volunteered to fight in Vietnam because I believed in the cause," Cambria said during a speech to a crowd of 120. "I saw Vietnam sort of like the U.S. in the late 1700s, when we fought for our independence."

April 30 is a date of mourning for people of South Vietnam roots. It was on that date in 1975 that Saigon, then the capital of South Vietnam, fell to the communist regime of North Vietnam after nearly two decades of fighting. Saigon was renamed Ho Chi Minh City soon thereafter.

"Every year on April 30, all the Vietnamese all around the world make a ceremony for the day we lost the war and communism took over," South Vietnam army veteran Nguyen Phu said.

Sunday's ceremony was the third annual Marin event memorializing the anniversary, which is officially Wednesday. A rally calling for democracy and improved human rights in Vietnam is planned Wednesday in front the Vietnamese consulate in San Francisco.

After several speeches and acknowledgements to begin the ceremony, the group paraded west along Civic Center Drive. Marchers carried U.S and South Vietnam flags. Phu, who lives in San Francisco, led chants of "freedom for Vietnam" and "democracry for Vietnam."

The parade made a stop at the Marin County War memorial on Avenue of the Flags, then continued around Lagoon Park.
Several people in the crowd, including Phu and Col. Gian Boi, were veterans of the South Vietnam army and spent years as prisoners of war before gaining political asylum in the U.S. Phu said he spent 13 years in prison after the war. Boi said he was jailed for 10 years.

"We fought for three things," Boi said. "Democracy, human rights and prosperity."

After the ceremony, Cambria reflected on the war and his experience in it. He said he was ashamed that, after U.S. troops withdrew, the U.S. Congress didn't fulfill a promise to continue providing material support to the South Vietnamese against the communists. And he said it broke is heart when he learned that South Vietnam lost the war.

"I believe in our purpose more now than I did even then," Cambria said. "Truth is, I would do it again."

Contact Laith Agha via email at lagha@marinij.com

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