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War still resonates with local Vietnamese-American family on 40th anniversary
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Hoang Nguyen works at the cash register while Tina Tran and Cam Cao purchase items Wednesday at Vietnamese Market and Oriental Food Store on Atlanta Highway. Born to Vietnamese parents in the United States after the Vietnam War, Nguyen has never been told much about what happened to his family during that violent time. - photo by Erin O. Smith

It didn’t even register to Hoang Nguyen that today marks the 40th anniversary of the Fall of Saigon and the end of the Vietnam War.

Born to Vietnamese parents in the United States after the war, Hoang, 36, has never been told much about what happened to his family during that violent and tumultuous time.

“The kids born over here, they don’t know nothing,” said his father, Cung. “I just remember. I don’t want to talk about it.”

The Nguyen family has owned and operated the Vietnamese Market and Oriental Food Store on Atlanta Highway in Gainesville for the past 10 years.

Its customers are primarily from Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos, Cung said, and memories of the war still resonate for many of them.

About 60,000 U.S. soldiers died in the conflict, and tens of thousands were maimed and injured. Thousands more remain missing in action.

The death toll for the Vietnamese was much higher. Though estimates vary, at least 1 million civilians and military personnel were killed between 1965 and 1975.

Cung, 64, and his wife, Hieu, 59, were among the lucky few to escape the Southeast Asian nation as Viet Cong communist forces stormed Saigon, the capital of South Vietnam and base for the American military, in late April 1975.

Cung served in the South Vietnamese Air Force for six years during the war, fighting alongside American soldiers.

He said he left the country at age 24, just a day before Saigon fell into the hands of the Viet Cong.

Four decades later, Cung said he is still unsure exactly what was happening on that fateful day. He had no idea at the time that the war was even ending.

“I saw the people that ran, and I ran, too,” he said.

Operation Frequent Wind was the last stage of the American evacuation from Saigon, which included both military personnel and Vietnamese who had helped the United States during the war. Thousands were airlifted by helicopter to safety.

Meanwhile, thousands of other Vietnamese refugees made their own way out of the country.

Cung said he put himself on a plane, while Hieu said she left Saigon on a boat shortly after the war was over.

The two met in Guam on their way to Florida, and later settled in Lawrenceville, where they reside today. 

Cung said he has returned to Vietnam three or four times over the years to visit his mother, father and other relatives still living there.

“My country, they don’t change,” he said about the people. Only the government is different, he said.

Cung’s parents also visited the United States once, he said, but found Georgia “too cold.”

Hoang is the middle child of Cung and Hieu’s three, all born in the United States.

Though it’s difficult for his parents to talk about, their memories of the war are clearly visceral.

Hieu, with a broad smile that belies the pain she recalls, sheepishly deflects questions about what she experienced during the war. And Cung’s eyes widen at the mention of it.

“It’s a long time,” he said.