Lunar New Year: Four Vietnamese tell their stories of coming to Fort Smith
Street signs in north Fort Smith signify what the city’s Vietnamese community has known for decades.
O Street is the main thoroughfare in a north Fort Smith working-class neighborhood of southeast Asian, Hispanic, Black and white residents. But it has some of the most prominent Vietnamese-owned businesses in Fort Smith, including those on the east end of the street that host events, gatherings and reunions for the Vietnamese community.
Now donning "Saigon Street" signs, O Street honors the history and contributions of Vietnamese who came to Fort Smith after the Vietnam War. The signs were erected in partnership between the Vietnamese community and the city marking the 45th anniversary of the fall of the former South Vietnamese capital.
"You're obviously sitting in front of what we consider the community center in Fort Smith for the Vietnamese community," said Dr. Hon Chung as he sat at a table outside Truong Son Asian Center.
Vietnamese refugees first came to Fort Smith in 1975 after the fall of Saigon to North Vietnamese and guerilla troops. This event signaled the end of a two-decade civil war that claimed more than 3 million lives.
Fort Chaffee, which was used as a test site for the defoliate Agent Orange during the war, processed 50,809 Vietnamese, Laotian, Cambodian and Hmong refugees from 1975-1976. It was one of four camps in the United States to welcome the refugees and a country involved in their war for eight years trying to halt the spread of communism in East Asia.
Refugees continued to come to the states in the following years and decades. Some were escaping the new Socialist Republic of Vietnam, which was installed after the war. Others were making good on immigration documents filed by family members who came before them. And still more waited years before taking advantage of U.S. immigration policies.
The Vietnamese population in Fort Smith has waned since the 1970s — the city had only about 1,900 Vietnamese residents in 2010. But Chung said the Vietnamese community is growing as they continue to make good on immigration papers filed on their behalf.
Fort Smith Mayor George McGill, who oversaw the Arkansas Census Committee, estimates there are 6,000 Vietnamese in the area.
The Vietnamese who chose to stay in Fort Smith took factory jobs and learned new life skills. They mostly lived in affordable housing on the north side of town.
Vietnamese have become part of the fabric of the city, owning restaurants, practicing medicine, and pastoring churches and no longer live in just one part of town. They each carry stories of how they, their parents, or their grandparents reached the U.S. following the war.
“They are a major contributor to the beautiful culture we have in Fort Smith,” McGill said.
It wasn't the defeat of South Vietnam, but rather the following years, that prompted Hon Chung's family to flee the country.
Chung, now a 43-year-old eye doctor in Fort Smith, was 1 year old in 1979 when his family of 10 boarded a boat and set off into the South China Sea.
The family had been moved out of the city of Soc Trang onto a farm after their father's rice milling business was confiscated by the government. In 1979, they suffered discrimination because they were of Chinese descent and the country was fighting China.
“Mom and Dad kind of looked at the prospect of the future in Vietnam versus risking their lives at sea,” Chung said. “They decided risking their lives at sea was the better option.”
In the South China Sea, the Chungs were was attacked by pirates before landing in Malaysia where they suffered from "compassion fatigue" due to the number of refugees that went to the country following the war.
“(The Malaysians) loaded us up on these large boats that were tied behind this military vessel, and they said, ‘It’s a few hours that way.’ They then dragged us out to sea and cut the chains, and said, ‘See you,’” Chung said.
The family was eventually taken in by members of the Christian relief group World Vision after relief workers found them during a sea sweep.
The family ended up in Fort Smith because the area was accustomed to taking in refugees and was sponsored by Our Redeemer Lutheran Church when they arrived.
Chung’s father worked at Rheem Manufacturing “every overtime hour he possibly could.” The children attended Barling Elementary, Chaffin Jr. High and Northside High School.
“Dad raised all those kids, mom and dad raised all those kids, somehow, on a single income,” Chung said. “With that, I never felt like I was lacking anything.”
Chung graduated from Harvard University in 2000 and then worked in accounting for Ford Motor Company. It was when he attended as a translator on a 2005 medical mission trip to Vietnam that he decided to become an optometrist.
“I saw these surgeons, these doctors, just change people’s lives,” he said.
After quitting his job at Ford, Chung enrolled at Southern College of Optometry in Memphis, Tennessee, graduating in 2010. Today, he operates his optometry practice at 7320 Rogers Ave. in Fort Smith.
At his practice, Chung gives exams in English and Vietnamese, allowing him to better serve fellow immigrants.
“Some are doing things as diverse as running the poultry plants in the state. Some are running their little nail shops in rural communities. A lot of the ones I’ve run into were born here, have grown up here, may not even speak (Vietnamese), but they still identify with the culture,” he said.
Tammy Nguyen remembers Saigon when it fell — she lived there when it happened.
Nguyen was 12 years old living with her parents and six siblings in the South Vietnamese capital city in April 1975. She saw bodies in the streets just like she did the Tet Offensive in 1968 when she was 5.
But she doesn’t like to talk about it.
“We were terrified,” she said. “It was a bad, bad time.”
For Nguyen, now 57, April 30, 1975, didn’t just mark the end of the Vietnam War — it’s the day her father and two older brothers escaped the city on her father’s boat. It was loaded with refugees.
Nguyen's father and brothers ended up in Fort Smith, where her father worked at Riverside Furniture Factory.
The rest of the family stayed in Saigon, renamed Ho Chi Minh City after the late North Vietnamese prime minister, until 1976 when the government found out her father and brothers had fled to the states.
“They said, ‘Because your husband moved to America, you cannot have this house,’” she said. They were then moved out of the city to farm.
Nguyen and her family moved back to the city in 1979 after her father sent them money he had saved working in Fort Smith. There, Nguyen’s mother sold her home cooking at street markets.
In Fort Smith, Nguyen's father worked to get permission for the rest of her family to immigrate to the U.S. The rest of the family finally moved in 1984.
After working briefly in Texas and then as a waitress in Fort Smith, Nguyen went to school in California to learn how to do nails. In 2000, Nguyen bought Pro Nails in the Phoenix Village shopping center from a couple she met in California.
She opened Tammy's Beauty School at the corner of North O and 36th streets in 2010.
“Most of my students are Vietnamese,” Nguyen said adding that Vietnamese often become beauticians because the industry is prominent in the country.
With a checkerboard floor, pedicure chairs, nail booths and a wall full of nail polish, the beauty school resembles a metropolitan salon. In 2020, Nguyen opened her second location in Springfield, Missouri.
“I try to help people,” she said. "When they come here, they can’t speak (English) very well, but they can do nails very well.”
Ngoc Ha is a pastor and a former re-education camp prisoner.
Ha was completing his training as a military police officer in the South Vietnamese Army when Saigon fell. He was sentenced to one of the camps, where South Vietnamese who were affiliated with the old government were indoctrinated, sentenced to labor, and sometimes tortured.
Ha, now 66, spent eight months in the camp but wasn't allowed to return to the city after his release. He still recalls living under the new government after the war; each street had a “street leader” who monitored residents.
“It’s really hard for you to imagine what it was like when the communists took over Vietnam in 1975,” he said. “We’re talking about a 180-degree change.”
In 1979, Ha and friends set out for the Philippines in a 40-foot boat they purchased. They also bought guns and grenades on the black market to fend off potential pirates.
After the boat was picked up by the U.S. Navy in the South China Sea, Ha ended up in a refugee camp in Singapore before going to Houston, fulfilling the immigration paperwork submitted by his brother. His brother Phat, a pilot in the South Vietnamese military, fled the country before April 1975 because he knew defeat was coming.
In Houston, Ha worked a manufacturing job at Reed American and took English classes at a Baptist church.
It was through the church that Ha was introduced to Christianity. He had been raised Buddhist and “had no interest in any religion,” he said.
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It was after his teacher’s husband took the day off to drive Ha for a medical check-up for lung complications he developed in the camp that he became more interested in Christianity.
“Before he dropped me at my brother’s house, he said, ‘May I pray for you and pray for your country?’” Ha said.
After becoming a Christian in 1980, Ha attended university and then seminary in Texas. He worked at churches in Nashville and Maryland before coming to pastor at Gospel Baptist Church in Fort Smith in 2014.
Ha said the Vietnamese community and the slower pace of life in Fort Smith drew him to the city. He keeps a close relationship with the Buddhist temples in the area, which are staffed with priests from Southeast Asia.
“I don’t have any problem with Muslims, or Buddhists, or whatever — I see people,” he said. “If I’m able to get close to them, I’ll share the love of Christ with them.”
Ha said his war background helps him relate to Vietnamese in Fort Smith. He also said his story as a refugee is helpful in his ministry, including to immigrants.
“I know what they need in their lives when they’re living away from home,” Ha said.
To Thomas Nguyen, Fort Smith was a second chance for his father and a launching pad for his career.
Nguyen came to Fort Smith in 1992 with his parents and brother as a part of the U.S. Humanitarian Operation program aimed at former re-education camp detainees.
His father, Cong Nguyen, was an officer in the South Vietnamese Army and spent seven and a half years in a "re-education camp" following the war.
Nguyen believes the label “re-education camp” was used to rationalize prison camps where he said the government would “mentally destroy people."
“They make you work hard, but they don’t feed you like they’re supposed to,” he said.
Nguyen was in third grade when his father was released, but the hard times didn’t end as he couldn’t get a job because of his former prisoner status.
Nguyen, 47, said the family ended up in Fort Smith because Gospel Baptist contacted them as their sponsor and convinced them to move to Arkansas.
“We were so happy to be here — the whole family,” Nguyen said. “We’re going to come here, we’re going to have a new life, and then we’re going to get better.”
Nguyen’s parents worked at Tyson Foods when they arrived in Fort Smith. His father died in 2018 at the age of 78.
Nguyen took classes at the Fort Smith Adult Education Center and computer technician courses at WestArk College.
He became a computer technician and opened a tech shop on Midland Boulevard. He later moved the store to Grand Avenue and then to its current location after installing the point-of-sale system for Truong Son, which is next door.
The store, iComputer Repair Center, shares space with Smiling Cup Bubble Tea, which he opened in August 2020.
“It’s an Asian store, but we serve everybody," Nguyen said in January.
Nguyen said the Vietnamese community in Fort Smith has made an effort to come together in recent years. He pointed to the annual Lunar New Year celebration at Truong Son, which draws the community together for games, karaoke, firecrackers, and the holiday’s trademark dragon dance.
Although the celebration won’t be held in 2021 because of COVID-19, Nguyen will still enjoy the Lunar New Year with his closest friends inside Smiling Cup.
“We get along together right now,” he said.