Ca Van Tran peered through his camera lens into Ben Thanh market in Ho Chi Minh City to record yet another image of Vietnam.
Years ago, before he'd fled the city then known as Saigon, the sprawling warren of shops had been a favorite haunt. Crowded with American soldiers, the market was a daily street festival where vendors hawked everything from snake meat to bootleg cassettes.
It seemed different now. Everything is so gloomy, Tran thought. No one even smiles. Tran noticed two men about his age, both with legs amputated above the knee. With only cardboard to protect their truncated limbs from the rough pavement, they were using their arms to scoot along the dirty street.
They're probably former South Vietnamese soldiers, Tran thought, knowing those who fought alongside the Americans were offered little help by the new government. When one of the men made eye contact, Tran walked across the street and began to talk to them. Sure enough, they had fought in the Army of the Republic of Vietnam (ARVN), and both had lost their legs to land mines.
These men fought for and believed in the same things I did, a shaken Tran thought. Now they are crawling around the filthy streets of Saigon, and I'm living in a mansion in America.
Tran had worked for the Americans during the war, and when he left in April 1975, he vowed that he would never return as long as the Communist Party controlled his country. But in 1990 his father's health was failing. Tran, by that time a wealthy 38-year- old businessman living in Great Falls, Virginia made the journey. When he reached his native village of Thang An. Tran was overjoyed to see his father, now on the mend, and his 17 -year-old son, who had never been allowed to leave Vietnam. But Thang An was still without electricity, its people impoverished.
Tran's blue jeans, shirt and sneakers, and confident manner immediately identified him as a Viet Kieu, an overseas Vietnamese, and officials seemed unsettled by his presence. Those who spoke with Tran were questioned by the police. For the sake of his family and friends, he bid them farewell and headed south to see the rest of the country. But the harsh reality of poverty and repression had ruined his homecoming. Just 11 days after his arrival, emotionally drained, Tran headed for home. On the long flight, Tran's anger turned to sadness. By the time he landed back in the United States, he was convinced he had to help.
WAR ENGULFED VIETNAM before Tran's birth in 1952, and it remained a relentless backdrop for most of his life. His oldest brother was killed fighting with Ho Chi Minh's troops against the French in 1953. But as the youngest of nine children, Tran was too little to know or care. By 1968, however, Tran's studies were disrupted by the communist Tet offensive. The young man, who spoke English, went to work as a translator for the U.S. Marines. He married Kim Hoa and moved to Saigon in 1972. Although awed by the might of the American military, he didn't understand the politics. Even when the Americans started pulling out, turning the bulk of the fighting over to ARVN troops, Tran still believe the South invincible.
On the morning of April 30, 1975, Tran was working for the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) as a courier when the Americans evacuated their embassy. By early afternoon, the streets were mobbed. Amid the panic, Tran drove to the maternity hospital where his wife was working. Along with the remnants of the other families who begged to pushed their way into his car, Tran and Kim drove to the port. A 24-hour citywide curfew had been in effect, and the couple hadn't seen each other in three days. Their baby was staying with Tran's sister.
Waving his U.S. government identity card, Tran boarded a barge that shuttled him and Kim to a Navy ship carrying 3000 refugees. Tran and Kim expected to return to their son in a few days when the fighting ended, but Saigon fell to the Communists. Stricken, they realized they wouldn't be going back any time soon.
NINE DAYS after the fall of Saigon, Tran and Kim were in suburban Washing- ton, wandering through Springfield Mall. Tran got a job sweeping the place for $2 an hour. When the mall closed, Tran and Kim sneaked into a narrow freight corridor and slept on the concrete floor. They lived in the mall for several nights until they found lodging in a townhouse with co-workers. Tran walked three miles to work while Kim learned English and brought in money as a baby sitter. The menial work helped Tran for- get the child he had left behind.